When your writing project is complete there is this surreal moment of satisfaction and joy that you finally did it. This is the point we all want to reach.
But it’s not so easy to start writing or finish that first big project you’ve started.
At their core, most good stories have a beginning, middle, and end, a protagonist, an antagonist, challenges to overcome, and some form of character growth or change that happens throughout the story.
But there is so much more to think about and understand. Here are some of the key points to keep in mind when planning your story.
- Understand that an idea is not a story. A good storyteller can take an idea as simple as “a surfboard washed up on the beach” and craft a compelling 300-word action, romance, or fantasy novel; while a person without the same idea but no understanding of storytelling may get 15 pages before it all goes awry and becomes a boring slog.
- What is the theme of your story? If you were giving a TED talk, what is the one thing you would hope people would walk out of there thinking about? The same goes for storytelling. Your theme can be a moral, an idea, or a statement; regardless of what you go with, the theme drives both the narrative and the character’s internal and external conflicts.
- No different than using a pickup line at a party, you have one or two sentences to “hook” the reader with your story. Here are a collection of examples from how other author’s opened their stories.
- Who is your protagonist? Why do they get out of bed in the morning, what have they lost, and what do they need to overcome? Do they have a particular set of skills that make them a dangerous killing machine, or do they run a coffee shop and fall in love with a customer who comes in regularly?
- What challenges will your characters face, and how will they overcome them? Forcing your characters to problem solve will reveal more about them to you as the writer and to the reader. Take something important away from them, or give them two difficult choices where they don’t know the outcome to create suspense.
- Do you need a second sub-plot? Are there multiple character points of view? Do you need to do any research to get the details right?
These are the basics, but only the beginning. Take a moment to go through each of the above points and think about questions you have and go out and find the answers to gain a broader understanding of them.
Seat of Your Pants Versus Planning
Do you outline your novel, or start with a general idea and a few characters and let loose? If you know your characters well and have a clear sight of their goals and the challenges they must overcome, throwing caution to the wind and finding the story as you go may work best for you. That freedom can be liberating for you and your story.
On the other hand, you don’t want to get halfway through your writing project only to discover you don’t know how you got there or where you are going.
Thankfully, you can balance these two by generating a quick outline with a few major plot points you know you need to hit, like the beginning, the first inciting incident, the midpoint, the second inciting incited, and resolution. Add more to this if you think you need it. Here is a look at outlining made simple by Russell Blake.
First Drafts Are Never Perfect
Some authors will say their first draft is always 90% complete, and good for them! However, for every one of those authors, there are countless others who tore their draft to shreds and started over. That’s not to mention writers who stick the first draft in a drawer never to see the light of day.
With your second draft, you have the opportunity to truly find the story and the characters. With each successive draft, as you add or cut, and refine what you already have, it will start to feel like it is ready to sit open in a reader’s hands. Remember, you aren’t alone in having a crummy first draft. So many of us have experienced this, and the feeling of disappointment and doubt can be so overwhelming you feel like giving up. Never give up and you will get there. Just don’t get lost in perfectionism.
Who’s Your Favorite Author?
“Pay homage” to other writers. We don’t mean that you should copy their plots or introduce their characters into your story. Rather, look at how your favorite authors introduce the elements of their stories. What kind of tone do you hear in your head while reading their work, how do they bring in characters and plot points, how do they pace their stories, and so on?
Most of us learn by, one way or another, “copying” them. Then, as we gain experience, we forge our own path forward.
Go Really Fast
One of the biggest obstacles to writing is doubt that you are any good as a writer, and the fear that once people see the finished result they will hate it. Like a bandaid, sometimes you just have to do it really fast.
Sit down to write without distraction. Turn off the internet. Have plenty of coffee and snacks around your desk. Set strict quiet-times with your family so you can focus. Most importantly, don’t go back and look at what you have already written. Always move forward, one chapter at a time, and don’t stop until it’s done.
1,000 Words a Day
Consistency is king. You can’t write a little on Tuesday, give yourself a break until Saturday, and pick up again on Wednesday. Write 1,000 words a day, at a minimum. The average novel is around 60,000 to 80,000 words. At a pace of 1,000 words a day, you can have a completed first draft in less than three months. Impressive stuff!
Break the Rules When You’ve Earned It
With your first writing project, play it safe, and stick to all of the rules. You are still very green and most likely not ready to break the rules and craft something that is less conventional. Plenty of writers have surely tried to break into the industry by writing something they thought was bold and fresh that turned out to be incomprehensible; others wind up never finishing because it gets so far out of control they can’t right the ship before it’s too late.
As you get better at writing and storytelling, you may find yourself ready to steer away from conventional wisdom and what is seen as “best” in favor of taking risks and presenting your stories and characters in less than conventional ways.
What is the goal of your writing project? Do you want to be a best-seller? Are there so many ideas rattling around in your head that you need to get them out any way you can? Are you a voracious reader that wants to contribute to the art form you love so much?
There is no right or wrong reason to write. But more often than not, there are approaches to writing that typically work to help you complete what you started versus leading to one kind of failure or another.
If you are still an amateur writer, learn the basics of writing and storytelling, plan your work of fiction with a strong foundation by learning from others, and finish your project. For the next project, start to find your own footing.
The time and effort will be worthwhile when you complete your first work of fiction.