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How to Write a First Draft that Rocks! (Using the 4 D’s)

The Internet seems to be of two general thought schools on the subject of first drafts.

They go like this:

One: The first draft is your brain-barf, pure, unadulterated word puke, a memory dump, Michelangelo’s block of marble. The writer’s job in the first drafting process is to get as much of it down on paper as humanly possible; it’s for second drafts and beyond to chip away at the mess left behind.

Two: Word-spew is for amateurs. Efficient writers who want to write real books and make money to write more books will plot out their drafts, making Excel spreadsheets full of color-coded scene lists, arranged by character and codified by act. First drafts are the upwellings of all this hard pre-work, and are polished, precise, and require minimal rework before being shipped to your agent or CreateSpace, whichever you prefer.

Can I offer a third way? I’ve nicknamed it the “Four D’s” – four elements that help make a first draft, even an unpolished one, coherent and complete.

first-draft

Dilemma

The plot of your first draft must be defined by its biggest, most distinctive elements – its conflicts. Before you leap into your first draft, take an hour or two and sketch a quick list of the major conflicts in your story, and should include:

  • The inciting incident (that gets your characters moving in the beginning)
  • Act I’s conflict that sets up your protagnist’s quest, change arc, undoing or rebirth
  • Act II conflict(s) in which your characters strive for what they want, and fail or are rebuffed
  • Act III’s rising climax and final showdown (often a sequence of two or three intertwined conflicts)

Duos

By duos I mean the brief appearance of at least two, but ideally even more, of your main characters. This can be as simple as your pro- and antagonist, but for the most successful first draft, I would suggest not only that pair, but at least two of your most significant supporting characters, as well. In your first draft, sketch out at least one characterization scene for each, that lays out their main goal, their main obstacle, and their own, personal voice.

Thinking of your characters carefully during the first draft helps prevent that I’m-definitely-creating-cardboard-people feeling that can plague later drafts.

Dynamics

Dynamics, the rising and falling of action, are a critical aspect of plot, most particularly in the middle of your novel where, as you maneuver your characters from Point A to Point Z, you may get mired in plot muck.

The cure for mushy middles is a steady authorial hand that not only moves the plot inexorably forward, but steadily builds tension by raising the stakes again and again. Your character is fighting for the survival of their village? Up the ante and kidnap her mother. Your protagonist is getting snared in ever-more-complex plot devices as he makes his way slowly toward his goal (is that you, Frodo?) – bring down one of his tentpoles, like his house, or his dog, or something vitally important to him, and clear the air of over-complexity before you move to Act III.

Doom

I can’t ever say enough good things about doom. Good old impending doom is one of those magic little devices that helps hook your readers, and keep the pages turning. Through your first draft, deliberately drop in those little hints, those atmospheric asides, that let the reader know that your story is careering closer and closer to the edge of that cliff. Even if all you can do is give your character a premonition, trigger a memory, or gather cumulonimbus clouds on a deceptively sunny day, keep the doom faucet on a steady trickle.

Until you turn it on full blast, of course.

How do you create a first draft and where do you stand on the infamous plotter-versus-pantser debate? Share in the comments.

This post is by Positive Writer contributor Shanan Haislip.

About Shanan Haislip

I'm a full-time business writer, an essayist, and webmaster at The Procrastiwriter, a blog about ways to fit writing in around a full-time life (without going insane). I'm also a regular contributor on PositiveWriter.com and contributed to The Audacity to be a Writer. Join me on Twitter at @Write_Tomorrow.

  • Karen Emilson

    Love this post! I follow the Four D’s and believe it is a balanced way to begin a novel and it works very well for me. Like the panster, I need to get some of the scenes on paper because it helps stimulate conflict and my characters come alive, but if I go too far the story starts to feel flat and there is so much re-writing, it takes me forever to finish my manuscript. By adding elements of the three act structure early on I’m forced to think about the story as a whole and for me this generates excitement. I highly recommend the “Four D’s” approach.

    • Thanks for the vote of confidence, Karen! I came to this approach once I was done being utterly convinced that plotting every detail was the right way to go. Like you said, the work just fell flat from over-planning. Just killed the fun! Glad I’m not the only one. Thanks for reading.

  • Has anyone told you lately that you are brilliant???? I was definitely not the first two, but your four D’s is probably more of how I write. I was feeling like an oddity that I didn’t fit in to the real writer’s world because I didn’t barf up nor plot. Your method has a mix of planned chaos! That was my style when I used to design gardens…and now how I write. Thank you for making me feel normal! Great post.

    • Thanks! I could use a little more chaos in my garden planning, now that you’ve mentioned it.

  • EmFairley

    Love the post. Having previously just run with my writing, I’m much more of a plotter now, to the point where I write a chapter, then edit it repeatedly until I see it as the very nearly finished article. Sure, there might be a few small errors that need correcting later on in the final edit and format, but nothing major.

    • I think that’s a very healthy approach, but I don’t think everyone can see the whole work through the lens of one chapter the way you can. That’s a really great skill. Thanks for reading!

      • EmFairley

        Thanks Shanan! I’m working on the novel with a coauthor and while we just ran with it the first time around, and were really happy with it, due to work commitments we both had to take 9 months away from it. When we went back a couple month ago we decided to change the plot a bit and in effect do a rewrite. We are keeping the original for the most part, with some major editing and enhancing, then filling in the considerable gaps. We’ve both become much more methodical this time around and write as we do, as described in my original comment, to ensure that we’re both happy with it, and in effect ‘sign off’ on each chapter

        • Richard Chatfield

          lol, Hey I got my answer from my question above. All I had to do is read… =)

          • EmFairley

            No worries, I’ve expanded on this in my reply to your question. Yep, I didn’t see this reply either. LOL

  • Richard Chatfield

    Liked the Article Shanan. The way I write my first draft is to create a chapter title index that captures each major point of the story. I then brain dump and passionately write the 1st paragraph of each chapter. Sometimes I only get one key sentence out. I then go back and work on chapter one much like Em rewriting it two or three times like a plotter till it is almost done. The cool thing about this method is it helps to prevent writer’s block because when I move on to the next chapter, the first sentence or paragraph is already written and it is like a waiting springboard for me to jump off of and dig right in.

    • EmFairley

      That’s great Richard! The one thing I’m not doing at this point and will be added during the final phase, is adding the chapter titles. Kinda ironic, but hey ho, we all have our quirks lol. Further to my comment on my own post, during the plotting phase this time, I’ve pasted in the original work to where we see them in the new chapters, adding in some editorial notes. That way, a chunk of the chapter, or at least a guide, is already in place. Having said that, a number of the new chapters have been totally unplanned and we’ve just run with them because we’re now so familiar with the revised plot and indeed the characters. When that happens, we take what was already pasted in to that chapter and move it to the next, bumping the others in turn.

      • Richard Chatfield

        I got a question for you Em. Where do the revised plots or unplanned chapters come from? Do they originate from a spontaneous approach? From Collaboration? It is an interesting thought to write something and then name what it is rather than title something and write to it. When I think about it, I wait to title my songs and my poems till after I have finished writing them. The title becomes more from how the over-all piece makes me feel, where as, due to the nature of my topical or compartmentalized writing style, I find outlining with titles more helpful to organize my thoughts.

        • EmFairley

          The revised plot came from a number of conversations with my coauthor, which were pretty much verbal brainstorming sessions. While initial idea, as I think I’ve said, was great, it was lacking a conflict. Over time as we’ve chatted we’ve decided on that element and developed it to the point that it’s really clear for both of us. While the early conversations weren’t recorded or documented, those since we really started concentrating on it have been.

          The unplanned chapters have been spontaneous and have been written because they just flow. So that part at least has been near “word puke” as Shanan puts it. Those have been the ones that have needed more editing, but because of our collaborative approach it’s better for us to both be very happy with what’s written before moving on.

          With regard to chapter titles, because the work is still so fluid and free flowing, in spite of being plotted as it has, we’re deliberately not titling before writing, in case the point of the title doesn’t actually happen in that chapter. That said, there are some chapters that will be brought in from the original manuscript, edited and added to, that we might feel able to title straight off, because those chapters don’t need as much work and their original title remains valid.

    • That’s a really interesting idea, Richard! One question – do you think one paragraph is always enough to anchor you mentally while you write the chapter? Just curious.

      • Richard Chatfield

        Yes Shanan, I kind of botch my explanation a bit. The paragraph I write isn’t always the 1st paragraph of that chapter, but rather the key paragraph or sentence of the chapter. As I am mentally thinking through the flow of the book at this point in the process, the titles help bring organization to my thoughts while the paragraph or sentence lets me capture the urgency of my swirling thoughts. It gives me permission to let it go knowing that I have captured the essence of that key thought. Now I can turn my attention to other matters and when I return to this point, I will have something more than a blank canvas staring back at me. It is a thought push so that my mind can swing =)

  • Laura Page

    Stellar piece! I’ve dreamed of writing a few different novels, but I suck balls at plotting. I’m a relatively good outliner, though. If I ever did write a novel, It would be character driven, not plot driven. I like this “third way” though, because it’s a happy medium. Good read! Thanks!

  • J Eliot Mason

    Great article but I kinda don’t agree with you about SUPER plotting; excel, etc…. King and Koontz do not plot. I liked everything else though.