At some point, all ideas must become a draft—or die useless in the mind. In order for a story to become something you can share, you have to produce it into a physical object. This could be a drawing, a recording, a video, a poem, or a draft of a novel.
When is your story ready to start drafting? How do you get from idea to draft?
Every writer (and every idea) is different. Some writers just start writing, perhaps before they even have an idea. They’ll think of a scene and write it, then perhaps think of the next, and so on. For a writer who does have an idea, they’ll think of scenes that correspond and start building the draft piece-by-piece without a plan in mind.
The advantage of this strategy is that it gets you writing right away. It forces you to analyze and respond to your story as you create it, which allows you to get a more honest and personal opinion on the story based on what it actually is rather than on its hypothetical shape. If you are prone to doubt in the development stage, it also gives you a word count to fall back on when the doubts start to rise.
The disadvantage is that you may not know where you’re going with the story, and so the first draft is bound to be a huge mess. You might get a more organic or natural progression of events following cause and effect, but you might also end up with cliché and obvious choices for what happens next. And there’s a huge amount of intimidation associated with the blank abyss of a story unplanned—some people thrive on that spontaneity; others are crushed by it.
In order to determine which path is best for you, ask yourself which doubts are stronger: the doubts of the known, or the doubts of the unknown? When you plan your story and see it in its entirety before starting, you may doubt specific elements and choices you’ve already made. When you don’t have a plan, you can only doubt that you ever will have a plan, and so you doubt the future elements of the story, your ability to create them, and their eventual viability and quality.
For me, doubts of the “known” are easier to fight, because you can address the actual problems and concerns you have about your choices. If something sounds cliché, you can tell yourself that it either doesn’t matter or that you can fix it in revision. I think it frontloads the doubt into the earlier parts of the process, and if you can mentally address them, then you can start drafting and continue through with fewer problems. The biggest new doubts you will face are questions of execution, which you can rely on revision to smooth out.
Doubts of the unknown require a constant battle to develop new story elements and fight off the new doubts that arise from them. Again, some writers enjoy this unpredictable and exciting challenge, and understand that revision can fix all sins. But for a commitment-phobe like me, it would require a daily renewal of my commitment to this new detail or that new plot point, and I don’t think I would handle it very well.
So, for me, I need an outline. But what sort of outline?
One option is to just outline the beginning of the story in detail. That way, I can get started with a plan, get some words under my belt, and then look ahead either to spontaneity (based on the cause and effect of what I’ve already written) or can plan the next section accordingly. This might be a good compromise for those who want the spontaneity of the “seat-of-the-pants” draft, but need a bit of a push to get started.
Another option is to just outline the major plot points, the big twists and primary elements that keep the story moving. You’ll still be wandering in the spaces between what you know will happen, but you at least have a destination in mind. I’ve tried this option, and it’s somewhat helpful, but it’s still a little too unknown for me.
The final option to preserve some spontaneity in the outline-to-draft process is to give yourself permission to deviate from the outline when you want. If a new scene or even a whole new plotline occurs to you in the middle of the draft, allow yourself to pursue it. You might end up coming back to the outline you had, but even if you don’t use any of the new material, you might find a cool turn-of-phrase or an interesting setting or character that you can bring back with you. And there’s room for spontaneity within individual scenes in the creation of dialogue and specific actions.
I’ve done the scene-by-scene outline; I’ve done the major-points-only outline. Neither worked, but I don’t think either was the outline’s fault. Ultimately, I tend to lean towards more detail. I might try a summary outline this time, after the major plot points are developed, which is like telling the story in summary but more spontaneously.
But first I have to develop the major plot points. I use the structure from Larry Brooks Story Engineering (which I’ve talked about before), because I think it’s applicable to just about any story of any genre without being too formulaic.
First, I come up with a goal—that’s established at the first plot point (about 25% in) as the main goal of the story (one key factor is that this should be a decision on the part of your protagonist). After that, the character will be attempting to achieve the goal but also sort of floundering, until the midpoint (50%) when some new information, motivation, or element will help them develop a more organized effort towards the goal. But they still won’t succeed, until they get a final bit of information that will set up the final conflict at the second plot point (75%). After that, it’s the climax and the resolution.
You can play around with what each of these plot points mean specifically within your story, and their placement does not have to be exact (although Brooks might argue it does).
Once I have these major plot points in place, I figure out how much these events need in setting them up. A huge battle, for example, might require scenes of preparation, training, travel to the location, etc. And how much aftermath they have—after the battle, you might need scenes of healing, recovery, regrouping, and then planning again. This shows you how much of the story these plot points will require both before and after each one, which will give you an idea of how much else you need to plot.
And this is where subplots and parallel plotlines and character development come in to fill in the gaps. Do you need scenes to develop the partnership that will define the climax? Do you need scenes showing your character learning how to bake the pie that they will use to win over the villain at the fair? Subplots don’t all have to tie into the end, though they should be relevant either to the plot or to the characters. Think of how the subplot with Norbert in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone seems random and isolated, but leads to the detention that reveals the unicorn blood and to the revelation that Hagrid gave away the secret of subduing Fluffy.
In some cases, developing these subplots in isolation can ensure that each one has a beginning, middle, and end (and, if large enough, even plot points of their own). Some subplots are purely for character development or interesting relationships like romances, and can be woven into the background of other scenes. A subplot may consist of a single scene or back-to-back sequence, or it might be threaded throughout the entire book, popping up now and then.
If you feel the need to throw in scenes for exposition or random character interaction, even if it’s necessary or interesting, remember to include conflict. A scene where a pair of characters goes shopping—meant to show off your cool marketplace as well as show these characters bonding—will be boring and feel unnecessary unless there’s some conflict. If not between the characters, then perhaps with other characters around them. Or, include a small element of plot; maybe they see the villain at the marketplace buying something mysterious that will show up later. Remember that scenes that are serving other purposes are perfect places to drop “Chekhov’s Gun” moments that will come back later and not feel undeserved or random.
For me, this stage is the threshold of major doubts. Once I see the outline coming together, what was once a vague (and awesome) idea is now a specific (and flawed) story. Intellectually, I know that this is the only way to write anything—I will never be able to just pluck the vague idea out of my head into completion without making choices and finding flaws. But it’s hard to look at an outline that’s cliché or inelegant and convince yourself to keep going and see all of its 300 pages through anyway.
But that’s what it takes to be a writer: writing. Who’d have guessed?