The idea is spinning through your brain, itching to spill out of your fingers. You are all ready to begin plugging away at your first draft, getting that story on paper and making it come alive. You just want to write! (Like that one guy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who just wanted to SINGGGGG!)
But, as I mentioned in an earlier post, sometimes we get a little lost when writing a first draft and waste time fixing minor plot holes and adding in lovely descriptions, when the truth is these aren’t really important at this stage in the writing process.
So what is important in your first draft? If imagery, details, and pretty prose don’t matter, what does?
I’m so glad you asked. These are the four most important elements to nail in your first draft if you possibly can.
Your characters must live and breathe on the page. However you decide to give your character’s depth (as you write or through extensive planning) you must know what your characters want, what makes them tick, and what tainted views of the world they carry (see my post about character here).
Another important aspect of character development is how they change over the course of the story and how that big pivotal moment at the end of the story reveals that change. There are a ton of great resources available to help you plan your character and dig into their past--just make sure you avoid the ones that ask you lots of random questions and focus on the ones that ask you to delve into your characters flaws, misbeliefs, past wounds, and present world view (Lisa Cron has great resources for doing this).
Cause and Effect Chain Within Your Plot
While it’s great to use the first draft to figure out what happens, this can leave the draft very flat. Instead of writing tons of words leading up to a finale you didn’t know was coming (and so couldn’t properly build toward), sketch out the trajectory of your plot before hand and make sure that one event leads to another. This will prevent the many (many) detours that inevitably try to happen as you write the first draft. It will also actually help give you inspiration as you start to see how events dovetail off each other to create other events and so drive your story on with a great force and purpose.
It sounds simple, but especially in the early pages of your draft, you want to make sure you are grounding your scenes (and therefore your reader) in space and time. Where and when is your story taking place? Earth? 1215? 3201? Texas? Maine? You don’t need to do this overtly (Once upon a time, on planet earth, in the year 3202…) but you can do it through setting and other “context clues” (remember that word from sixth grade?!). Even if it's a little awkward and clunky (it IS a first draft here), it's important to get it in the draft from the beginning.
A Story Point
Last but not least, you want to make sure that your first draft includes a strong story point --one point that all of your story builds toward. With a strong story point, your plot, character, and theme all work toward developing this one point, giving the reader a strong and satisfying climax and resolution.
What is a story point? It is like theme but bigger. It ties together elements from character, plot, and theme, like lines stretching toward the same point on the horizon. It is the inevitable plot point that your story has been building toward from the beginning (Harry facing Voldemort for the last time, Frodo at Mount Doom, or Darcy proposing to Elizabeth for the second time), the moment where the changes your character has experienced are fully tested (Has Harry learned enough to defeat Voldemort? Will Frodo be able to let the ring go? Has Elizabeth learned the faults in her own heart?), and the concluding nail in the coffin of your theme, all leaving the reader with the feeling of a conclusive, decisive point that story has been working toward.
While it’s unlikely that your first draft will have all of these elements perfectly layered in right away, it’s important to at least have this goal on the horizon so when you sit down to revise, you are fine tuning your story point instead of trying to add it in.
In summary, there are plenty of minor details that you can completely ignore while writing your first draft, but these four are where you want to spend your energy for that first draft. If you get these down on paper even moderately well, your revisions will be infinitely easier and your draft inevitably stronger, no matter how many typos, awkward transitions, or rough conversations you have in your draft.
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