As your story begins to take shape in your mind, as you finally ready yourself to take the leap into action, the next major question is how much development you need to do before you start writing.
Some people swear by writing spontaneously and instinctively, so they either do very little development before the first draft or they write as they develop. Most of the time, I believe, they end up writing several subsequent drafts to smooth things out and work on what they discovered as they wrote.
Some people plan extensively, creating detailed character profiles and backstories, setting maps, and point-by-point outlines so they know everything that will happen. They may consider the outline to be the first draft, and thus their actual first draft can sometimes be their final draft (other than stylistic/semantic revision).
And some people end up somewhere in between, with just enough development to have a solid plan but enough spontaneity to keep things interesting.
Everyone is different, and the discovery of the right process can take multiple efforts. For my part, I’ve always erred on the side of planning, because I dread the abyss of the unknown future. And yet, often after I outline I end up besieged by doubt and questioning everything into oblivion. So this time around, I’m going to try planning… less. But some.
I think the key aspect of writing without complete development is trust. You have to trust either in your own creativity, or in revision fixing what doesn’t work.
How do you just start without a plan? Well, I do intend to work out a basic outline with the major plot points, which I’ll discuss more in the next post on outlines. But what about everything else? What about all the characters? What about the scenes and pacing?
For my part, I think the pacing and the plot will develop as I write, and will be easier to revise. As long as I have the skeletal structure of the plot to guide me from one major event to the other, I can feel my way along. I have a certain amount of trust in my ability to think of what should happen next, to balance “scene and sequel” or “action and reaction,” as different writing strategies describe the varying pace of scenes.
You start with the scene in front of you: what does the character want? What do they need? Who or what is going to conflict with that desire? What are they doing to achieve it? You can also look at the story as a whole: is this a good time for a “breather” scene of character bonding? Has it been a while since you had a more action-based scene? What about different characters—should they reappear?
And then you’re just going with what feels right and worrying about perfecting it later. Probably the biggest problem with this strategy is balancing the pace and length of the story, especially if you’re either rushing through things or taking too long to get to the point. While I’d rather err on the side of a long manuscript I can shave down, either case can be revised to the right final product.
As far as setting and worldbuilding go, I usually have that already done (often from a previous project), but sometimes I either sketch in enough of the basics now in order to figure out plotting and character, or I decide to wing it completely. Depending on how much you enjoy worldbuilding, how complex your story is (and thus how much the minute details of your world might affect the plot), and again, how much you trust yourself to roll with the developing world, you can either go into worldbuilding now or wait until a later draft. I think worldbuilding is probably the easiest thing to do as you go, other than perhaps the basic underpinnings and laws of the world that will define your story as a whole (if in doubt, at least figure out the species “rules” for any main characters, and the broad shape of society if it’s different from our own).
The final frontier for me is characters. I always try to find the protagonist early, because they are so intrinsic to the story and the plot. This is also pretty much when you have to decide whether you’re going with a single protagonist or multiple protagonists—but keep in mind that your decisions only have to last as long as the first draft. They can change later, and if you’re not a basket case like me, they can maybe even change as you write and you’ll be fine. But I have to work on committing to a single version of the story (so I don’t keep starting over), and that means committing to each decision along the way.
This is also when I would decide on POV—single or multiple? First person or third person? You can have a single protagonist but use multiple POV to include villains or victims or whatever else you want. But it’s rare to have first person work with multiple POV, except maybe in the case of a dual-POV, but there needs to be enough differentiation in the voice of each first person narrator to keep the reader always aware of who they’re with—and that’s tricky. I often write most fluidly in first person, and that pretty much leaves me with single POV, single protagonist, which is fine with me. I’m trying to break out of that box a little bit, but overall I’m okay with knowing what works for me.
And you can always revise later! 🙂
But my issue at the moment is the secondary characters. Do I figure them all out ahead of time? Or do I let the spontaneity of the story invent them as I go?
Most of the time, I’ve listed them all out—but I end up agonizing over the cast’s “chemistry” and “variety,” constantly changing my mind and ending up with too many characters to work for a prose story (remember that TV and film are different mediums that can handle multitudes of characters much better). And then I usually end up with versions of other people’s characters, and then I’m worried about that, and then I flail around and die.
So this time I’m going to trust my creativity to provide characters as the story develops. Who occurs to me as I outline? If I just write “friend” in this or that scene, who should that be? If I need a “group” or “team” dynamic for a story, try out different characters that occur to me in the moment. It might make my first draft a total mess, but if it’s a finished mess, it’s worth it.
[Actually, don’t. Ever.]