There's something exciting and rewarding about a first draft. The story that's been in our heads is finally down on paper and we can see how it developed. Sometimes it unfolded exactly how we pictured, but more often we encountered snags here and there and discovered fun twists and plots as we wrote. The draft might even be, shall we say, a little messy.
And that's okay, because first drafts are often messy and filled with holes. It's what you do with it from here that really matters. As the adage goes...writing is rewriting.
(Here's more on the imperfect first draft)
During that first look, I like to start with the macro structural issues, because if they aren't working, no amount of polishing the text is going to help. It's much easier to do the heavier rewrites in draft form before the story becomes mentally "set in stone." Drafts are supposed to be messed with. So I recommend analyzing your goal and plot structure to make sure your story has something driving the plot, reasons for those somethings to be happening, and that you keep building your stakes to the end.
Why is this important?
Because readers won't stay with you long if the story isn't going somewhere. (Think about all those books you set down after a chapter or two, or movies you turned off after twenty minutes) This doesn't apply just to boring scenes or slow scenes, you can actually have action-packed scenes that still bore readers, because the plot isn't advancing and nothing new is being revealed. Readers want to see the story progressing. They want to see things getting worse and the stakes getting higher.
Step One: For every scene, ask yourself four questions:
- What is the point of view character (protagonist) trying to do?
- What goes wrong?
- What does the point of view character (protagonist) do about it?
- Why does this matter?
(Here's more on scene structure)
In The Shifter, my opening scene looks like this:
What is the point of view character (protagonist) trying to do? Steal eggs for breakfast.
What goes wrong? She gets caught.
What does the point of view character (protagonist) do about it? She uses her shifting ability to get away.
Why does this matter? Someone sees her do it, and now her secret is out.
The "Why does this matter" is a key component of building a strong story. Plenty of things can always go wrong, but not all of them will move your story along toward the climax. (Even if that climax is still 70,000 words away). Knowing why it matters not only clarifies the character's motivation, it clarifies plot and stakes.
(Here's more on character stakes and motivations)
You can either mentally check this, or write it down. I like writing it down because it forces me to pinpoint the major plot points of the book. I can easily see which scenes are moving the story and which aren't. Some folks like using flash cards for this, so they can shuffle them around or take them out to see how the book flows when they cut or move scenes. You can also create a book map for an easy reference guide to how your novel unfolds.
(Here's more on creating a book map for your first draft)
There are bound to be some scenes where you find you can't answer one or more of these questions very well. Usually the "what are they trying to do" and "why does it matter" ones. This is a good indicator that this scene might not be needed, or it's missing the goals and narrative drive to advance the story. These are scenes you might want to edit first. Either cut them, or find a way to make them work. Sometimes all it takes is having the protagonist say what it is they're trying to do to make it all clear and refocus the scene. Not every edit needs to be a substantial one.
Step Two: Once you have all your scenes down, read through your list and see how the story flows.
You should be able to see plot progression from opening scene to resolution. Everything marching toward that end climax. You should see your stakes escalating, where things keep getting worse and worse, and more personal to your protagonist. They want this goal badly, or else. If they can just walk away without any repercussions, chances are your stakes aren't personal (or high) enough. Now is a great time to edit your outline or book map since you can see the entire novel in summarized form.
(Here's more on revising your outline)
Step Three: Take note of anything that feels repetitious.
I don't know about you guys, but I always find a few scenes that feel similar in every first draft. Maybe the details are different, but, for example, it's still two scenes where someone sneaks into a house to steal evidence, or two fight scenes over the girl, or two chase scenes through the city. Or the protagonist might use the same trick to get out of a jam, or resolve similar issues in the same way. They might all be good scenes, but if they feel like the same scene all over again, it's likely going to bore my reader.
Look at your list and ask yourself: Are your characters being put in the same situation too many times? Do they do the same thing to resolve the issue too often? Are there slow areas where nothing really happens? Scenes where it's all explanation? Are there chains of scenes that don't raise the stakes?
This list is also good for checking chapter breaks. Does every chapter end on something that leaves the reader hanging and wanting to know what happens next? Do the chapters clearly build toward your climax?
(Here's more on how to end scenes and chapters)
Step Four: Look at your overall character motivations.
Sometimes we get so caught up in how the plot unfolds, we forget to make sure the characters are doing all this great things for a plausible reason. Ask yourself if those reasons work to answer the story question--what the book is about, that one-line sentence that sums up the book. Is the character acting in a way that makes sense given their personality and that situation, or are they acting just because plot tells them to? Do the motivation get more desperate as the story progresses? (a good indicator of rising stakes) Does the resolution fulfill the motivations and the reasons for acting?
(Here's more on strengthening character motivations)
Getting a look at the big picture goes a long way toward making the overall revision process easier. By the time you get to the polishing stage, you'll know your story is solid and all you have to worry about is making the text sing.
What do you look for in a first draft?
Looking for more tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.
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