1.1: First draft and pre-first draft
It’s personal to figure out how much you plan, and how much you let the story/characters drive you. I tend to start with some kind of concept, idea or character, and from there ask “what if …?” until I have enough of a story to start writing.
Sometimes I won’t have enough of a story to start writing until I’ve written a few scenes, but that’s acceptable as well! I prefer to have a bit more of a structure than just explore what’ll happen next, but if the story takes a while to shape in your mind, there’s worse ways to handle it than writing.
As for structure, I mainly need to have an idea on where the story is going. I try to at least map out the Inciting Event, the Key Event, the three plot points and the climax before I start writing.
Now it’s time to write! I write scene-by-scene and don’t organise into chapters until the end of the Narrative section. I do this to leave the structure as open as possible, so I don’t end up feeling "locked in".
Fun fact, for my first novel, I’d read this nice article on what the first chapter needed to contain, and I had made sure that everything in it fitted perfectly. And then I had to cut out 3/4ths to cut the beginning as close to the, well, beginning as possible. That’s why I wait with organising into chapters.
Tips & Tricks
Feeling stuck? Write 1st person, past tense stories from each major character’s PoV, and maybe even some of the minor ones. Since this is them telling you the story, don’t worry about info dumping or anything like that, since it’ll help you get in under their skin.
1.2: Structure and usefulness of scenes
Have you ever read an article stating that every word-sentence-scene needs to work for its place in your story? That’s quite true. You shouldn’t have anything in the story that doesn’t add to the narrative and further the story.
But, what does that actually mean? Should you remove every scene where nothing directly related to the plot happens? No, far from. The key point is narrative. What adds to the narrative?
- That foreshadow/mirror future scenes
- Where actual plot happens
- Where we learn things that are key to something else, like that the character is allergic to strawberries if that’s relevant later
- That foreshadow/are plot relevant to scenes in later stories in a series
Which ones don’t?
- Shooting the breeze. If there is just a single nugget of info, see if you can incorporate it in a different place
- Scenes relevant to subplots that were skipped in the end
In the end, you are the person to decide if a scene adds or not. Character development is as important, if not more, so don’t skimp on that, but don’t keep things that are boring.
Jami Gold’s Elements of a Good Scene Checklist
In the resources I’ll share a link to Jami Gold’s worksheet for several scenes, but the checklist for a single scene is also good. Yes, some of the things mentioned here I mentioned above, which is why I added it.
Note, in my view, "action" doesn’t necessarily mean violence, just that something’s happening. Also, many of these things will be deepening in future revision. If you want to keep a scene, note what it’s lacking, and come back to it.
Each scene should reveal at least one of the following:
- A plot point
- A character’s goal
- Action to advance the plot
- Action to increase the tension
Each scene should also reveal at least two of the following:
- Character development
- A cause of character conflict
- An effect of character conflict
- How stakes are raised
- A reinforcmenet of the stakes
- Character motivation
Each scene can also reveal:
- Character backstory
- World building
- The story’s tone or mood
- Story theme
Mark up if you think a scene needs to be Rewritten (and if so, what needs to be fixed), Deleted or Kept. I tend to delete the to-be-deleted scenes immediately, but I know others who puts them in a specific pile, in case they can be reused.
1.3: Plot points and word count
I like to use K.M. Weiland’s articles on character arcs to plot each character out. While the breakthrough assumes a single character whose development is closely tied to the various plot points, it can be tweaked to make the arcs both shorter and longer (I have one character’s arc whose 1st plot point coincides with the 3rd plot point of the novel).
If you used the article on structure I introduced in 1.1, you should revisit the structure to map it to your manuscript. If you didn’t, read it through and plot based on what you have. As with the prior, it assumes a single large arc and doesn’t account for subplots, so tweak it with the needs of your story. After all, there’s nothing stating that the three plot points needs to be connected to the larger arc.
Consider what word count you’re aiming for, and space out your points accordingly. If a point doesn’t exist, just add a placeholder scene for it. After that, it’s a matter of evaluating what scenes are missing. How do existing scenes need to be reworked to help the narrative? The prior step was mainly about deleting scenes, and this one is back to the drawing board. You may not touch every scene, and that’s fine, but you should at that point have a nice plan on how to get the structure of your story pinned down.
1.4: Scene-Sequel Pattern
The Scene-Sequel pattern explained originally by Dwight V. Swain, but that has been expanded on in quite a few posts across the years. I’m going to summarise the technique, and recommend my resources for further explanations.
A Scene (note the capital S) is a time of action. It comes with a Goal (something the PoV wants), a Conflict (an obstacle to what the PoV wants) and a Disaster (something that stops the goal from being achieved in this scene). I don’t agree with the idea that you should never allow a PoV to gain victories, but that’s why these are suggestions.
Example on how to build a Scene:
- Goal: Our PoV Dana wants to ask their neighbour Jayne on a date.
- Conflict: Dana is shy and Jayne is oblivious to Dana’s intentions.
- Disaster: When Dana finally gets the courage to ask, they accidentally stumble over Jayne’s cat, and the mood disappears.
A Sequel deals with the fallout from the prior scene, though if the disaster is big enough, it might take several Sequel-scenes to deal with all of it. It needs a Reaction (PoV dealing with the disaster), a Dilemma (something with no good options), and Decision (the PoV makes a choice that sets up the new goal).
Example on how to build a Sequel:
- Reaction: Dana is beating themselves up over their stupidity and clumsiness.
- Dilemma: Either Dana stops pursuing Jayne, at which point they won’t ever date, or Dana continues, at which point they risk making a fool (if only in their own mind) of themselves again.
- Decision: Maybe Dana decides to instead flirt with someone else, or to ask Jayne to the big party on Saturday. Either or, we have the making for a new Scene.
For each scene that you’ve kept (or added) in the prior structuring, note whether they’re a Scene or a Sequel. Every Scene needs to have at least one Sequel, though it may have more than one. Check that the Scene has a Goal/Conflict/Disaster (or if, failing that, there’s a good reason why it doesn’t), and that the combined Sequels have Reaction/Dilemma/Decision.
Does it matter what plotline the Goals/etc are based on? Not really. This is about writing exciting Scenes followed by introspection, to start the process of pacing and keep the reader wtih you to the very end. In this step you’ll also write the scenes you plotted in the prior step.
Tips & Tricks
If you use Scrivener, you can:
- Add Keywords to each scene to show what Character Arcs show up, what Plotlines, what Characters, what Settings
- Use custom meta data to mark whose PoV it is, if it’s a Scene or Sequel, what the Goals (etc) are