How to develop a story idea – Step 2. The first messy draft

How to develop a story idea – Step 2. The first messy draft

- June 12, 2020

Now that you’ve captured your idea, you can move on to writing the first draft of the story – unless you can’t. After all, the world you’re about to create will assuredly end up as something significantly more than is expressible in a few lines of text. The next consideration you’ll make, then, is…

The outline: To expand or not to expand

In part 1 of the “How to develop a story idea,” you crafted an outline. Certainly you’ve thought the story out further and you’ve got supplemental ideas-within-ideas. Whether the original minimalistic five-part outline is enough to jump right in is left to the individual writer’s discretion; for a short story, that sketch could well be enough. Writing long-form will almost always require some substantial fleshing out of the idea’s bare bones.

Again the writer comes to a fork in the road: He/she may add ideas of character, inciting events and plots throughout the outline, expanding it further and further á la Turgenev. Alternatively, he/she may immediately begin the first draft – though we’d recommend that those choosing this option should keep a notebook or Word document to take down ideas as they pop up.

The reason for a first draft

In The Symposium, Socrates himself offers a theory on the ideal method for writing (theatre, in his case) – namely that the writer should compose the entire first draft while drunk as possible, followed by a second draft done in a completely sober state.

The Philosopher’s reasoning was simple: When in an altered state, fanciful, even radical, notions and plot devices flow freely, the mind dancing on ground which in its sober state it would fear to tread. Of course Socrates was no dummy: He realized that many (most, perhaps) ideas dreamt up in alcohol’s haze are dead on arrival, and the writer’s sober mind is well trained to discern the gems in the rough.

We’re not espousing the virtues of alcohol in the writing process here, but Socrates was on to something when reckoning that one’s mind must be made freer, more open to the possibilities and as insusceptible as possible to any internal censoring. The writer may use or not use whatever techniques he/she needs to get “in the zone,” but the key principle is to resist the temptation to delete anything.

Writing the first draft

In most college writing courses, the teacher will have students occasionally engage in an exercise called “free writing.” A prompt may or may not be given, the exercise may involve the writer’s extant material or something brand new. The teacher sets an arbitrary time limit and sets the students off with the instruction that the flow of words should be as continuous as possible.

We suggest that the entire first draft should be written in similar fashion. You have something of a plan in the outline, but if new ideas as to twists and subplots crop up, don’t be afraid – engage these new elements as new storylines are uncovered or new limitations are revealed. Enjoy these discoveries as your idea expands: This snowball effect may make writing the first draft your favorite part of the process, especially in long-form writing as in the screenplay and novel.

And when the first draft is complete, you’ll have a glorious … something on your hands. The truth is that most will find their work is a bit untidy at best, utterly unruly at worst. The pragmatic trimming and sprucing up – the second half of Socrates’s masterplan – is next.

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