I’ve got a question for you. Are you struggling to finish the first draft of your novel?
(If you prefer audio, you can listen to this episode on the Smarter Artist Podcast)
What I mean is do you start it, get a little ways into it, get lost or bogged down and then scrap the whole thing for a fresh start, only to repeat the same cycle of not finishing?
If you answered yes to that question, then I’m here to tell you that you’ve nothing to fear, my fellow story jockey, for you are not alone.
I’ve been writing fiction and studying the craft of writing fiction for nearly four decades, virtually my entire life.
In that time I’ve been all over the United States and been in writing groups, and critique groups, and brainstorming groups, and more than a few college classrooms dedicated to the storyteller’s craft.
In each and every one of those there were people who were having problems getting through that first draft.
The reasons for this were many and varied but more often than not it boiled down to a lack of direction or focus.
Now before you ask, no, I am not going to go off on yet another pantsing vs plotting tangent. That horse has been beaten to death, buried, dug up, stomped on some more and then thrown into a landfill. That poor horse has been through enough.
If you’re new to writing–or if you’re someone who has written but might be looking to streamline or speed up your process–then I’ve got a suggestion that just might be the thing you’re looking for.
I realize that most of the folks reading this are writing prose, but we’re going to step into the world of screenwriting for a moment. Let’s borrow five key plot points that are inherent in most screenplays.
Why would we do this?
The simple answer is that good storytelling techniques are very often the bridge between mediums, and I think that’s the case here.
With these five plot points in mind before you start writing, you may find your first draft moving along faster than ever before.
The first plot point is what we call the Inciting Incident.
It’s pretty much what it sounds like.
It’s that action or event that sets the story in motion.
This isn’t necessarily the same as the beginning of the story, but rather that thing that gets the plot moving forward.
Let’s take Star Wars Episode IV as an example. The inciting incident in this story is when Luke Skywalker discovers a recorded plea for help from Princess Leia in the databanks of some junky droid he just bought.
Sure, there was some story before that which explained how the droid ended up with Luke but it was this moment where things started happening because of it.
Next we have the Lock-In.
This is that moment where your protagonist commits themselves to the plot’s resolution. Think of it as a kind of point of no return.
In Star Wars Luke initially rebuffs Obi-Wan’s efforts to join him on a trip to Alderaan but changes his tune after returning home to find that it’s been destroyed and his family murdered.
That change of heart is what commits the character to a course that ties him inexorably to the plot.
Third is the Mid-Point or First Culmination.
This is a moment near the middle of the story where some of the main character’s problems get solved but some other, usually worse, dilemmas pop up to take their place.
This is the moment where Luke and Obi-Wan have successfully secured passage to Alderaan aboard the Millennium Falcon. They escaped the Empire on Tatooine only to arrive at Alderaan and find that it’s been reduced to something akin to galactic dust bunnies.
To make matters worse, they get caught by the Empire and brought aboard the Death Star.
It’s very much an out of the frying pan and into the fire kind of moment, and that’s the feeling a good mid-point should convey.
Next to last comes the Main Culmination or as I’ve often heard it called, The Black Moment.
This is a highly emotional and climatic moment near the end of the story. It needs to further complicate the main character’s journey to the story’s resolution.
Remember how Luke lost his cool and started screaming when Vadar cut down Obi-Wan as they were trying to escape the Death Star? That was Luke’s Black Moment.
And the emotions that ignited in the character spur him on for the rest of the series as he sought to even the scales with Vadar.
Last but by no means least we have the Twist.
The twist is that moment when a reader or a viewer should stop and think holy crap, I should have seen that coming!
These moments are very often what readers and viewers remember most about a story.
In Star Wars Hans Solo and the Millennium Falcon comes swooping out of nowhere and blasts Darth Vadar off course so that Luke can blow up the Death Star.
Twists don’t have to be that flashy to be effective, though.
Remember the old lady in Titanic dropping that ridiculously gaudy necklace back into the ocean?
How about that box Morgan Freeman opened at the end of Seven?
Or the look on Bruce Willis’ face when his character realizes he’s been dead the entire movie?
The point is a twist doesn’t have to be big and flashy, but it has to be memorable. That’s the key.
So, let’s assume you’ve got your five plot points figured out and you’ve committed them to paper or pixel or quill and parchment, whatever your jam happens to be.
At this point you might be thinking so what? How is this supposed to get my first draft written?
Well, the answer lies in a small shift in your thinking.
When you look at those plot points all laid out before you, try not to think of them as plot points.
Rather think of them as targets. These are the plot targets that writer you is going to shoot at with your prose firing weapon of choice.
To accomplish this, the first thing you need to do is forget about the whole story.
Forget the nuances of relationships and the subplot that starts in Chapter 20, and the climax and whatever else it is that’s further down the road that is cluttering up your mind.
Just forget all that stuff for the time being.
Instead focus your aim on that inciting incident and start writing. Just start anywhere prior to the inciting incident.
Your character waking up in the morning, or getting out of rehab, or escaping from a clown-faced serial killer, whatever.
Just start writing and- this is important -don’t look back.
Don’t correct typos. Don’t reread what you wrote. Don’t even worry about proper names you can’t think of on the fly.
Make notes as you go if you must, but the only thing you need to worry about is the laser-like aim you have on your target. Focus on putting down the words that get your main character to that moment in the story.
Forward momentum is everything at this point.
Once you hit that target, great, pat yourself on the back, dance a jig, have a whiskey, whatever it is you do to celebrate the little victories in life. You’ve just taken a big bite out of your first draft and you’re that much closer to being finished!
Then, focus on the next target and repeat the process.
Using these five plot points as targets allows you to break the manuscript into smaller achievable goals. Eventually those add up to a finished first draft.
The key is to always be writing forward and not backwards.
Don’t worry about whether or not what you’ve just written is perfect or even good. It almost certainly won’t be.
That’s kind of the point of first drafts after all.
No matter how bad it might be, I promise you that a finished first draft will almost always be more productive to work with than the blank page you’d be starting over on.
If you’d like more information on the five plot points I discussed above, then check thescriptlab.com and their plot point breakdowns of various films.
If you’d like to know more about yours truly and the speculative fiction that I fling at the world, then head on over to cstevenmanley.net and give it a look.