The Three-Fourths Theory of First Drafts

This fountain, which I photographed in 2009 in the Trasevere neighborhood in Rome, reminds me of the courage it takes to dive into a first draft.

I call my work-in-progress my third novel, but really it’s number four. And in terms of books, it’s number five due to a nonfiction jazz band biography I wrote in 2000-01. But that’s another story.

What those numbers mean is that I’ve written a lot of full-length first drafts. All of which had fatal flaws in those initial, rough stages.

In thinking about those old wobbly-legged first drafts, and the one I’m working on now, I’ve developed a three-fourths theory. If you break down the essence of a traditional story, whether it’s genre or literary, you find four main components: plot, character, voice and sense of place. During the first-draft stage, it seems I’m only able to render three of those elements while casting words onto the blank page.

My earlier novels (and even the biography) were strong on character, voice and scene setting in their first incarnations, but lacking in plot. It’s taken until my last novel, BODY COPY, for me to really learn how to successfully thicken the plot through rewrites and to learn the fine art of dramatic irony. One story element must build on another. That was the missing piece in those earlier two novels, which, despite vibrant settings and quirky characters, came up short. That’s part of why the BODY COPY writing process took six years, and why I love the result. I was able to incorporate all four parts while playing with time and narrative structure.

So with my new novel, I have plot (tons!), a strong voice and plenty of historical scene-setting, but my character motivation is missing. Ask me how my protagonist feels at any given moment in my draft so far, and chances are I’ll answer, “Umm, I think maybe, well actually, I’m not sure.”

Until now, this has terrified me–because one change in character motivation could send the whole novel spinning in a different direction. The bones are so nicely structured, and the story is heading exactly where I hope (with a few hiccups). But without the proper emotions in place, and a deeper sense of my protagonist’s character, there’s no reason for a reader to keep turning pages.

In coming up with this three-fourths theory, though, I have reassured myself that there’s no such thing as writing a perfect first draft. (Yes, there are brilliant writers who have done so, but I’m not one of them, and I don’t know any of them personally.)

So back to the theory: If you can get three of these four elements on the page (plot, character, voice and place), it’s totally feasible to add the fourth during rewrites.

  1. If you’re short on scene-setting, throw in more descriptions, or moments of looking around at the novel world from a particular standpoint.
  2. Try telling the story a different way, or from a different point of view, or through several characters’ eyes, if the voice falls flat the first time around.
  3. Find your loveable, flawed protagonist more obstacles, keeping in mind how the solution to one problem could create the next difficulty, if you’re lacking plot.
  4. And if you don’t know your characters, go through scene by scene and figure out who’s thinking what, and why.

If you find more than one of these elements missing from your first draft, then maybe it’s time for a deeper look at your manuscript. For inspiration, check out Roz Morris’ post, “A bad book? No, it’s a good book you haven’t fixed yet.”

What do you think about the three-fourths theory? Does it apply to how you write first drafts? Are you eager to suggest more categories and argue for a four-fifths theory or a seven-eighths one?

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Fiction, Revision, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The Three-Fourths Theory of First Drafts

  1. While I wholeheartedly agree that a perfect first draft is an impossible (or at least, very, very unlikely) goal and that if you can manage to incorporate three-fourths of the necessary novel elements, you can consider the first draft a success that is ready for a rewrite, I wonder if the various “fourths” can really be weighted equally. Specifically, character motivation would seem to be a much more important element than setting, because it should be that which is driving your plot, not your outline. Does that make sense?

    As I progress through my own first draft (I’m about 27,000 words into it now), I find myself re-plotting again and again, even though I began with a pretty strong outline. The reason I’m re-plotting is because after writing some scenes, I’ve uncovered a better–or at least different–motivation for my character(s) that, in turn, necessitate changes to the plot. I don’t resist this, because I feel this is how I SHOULD respond to new insights into the characters. It also keeps the story vibrant and exciting to me, because I’m having an experience that is more like reading a novel–I don’t know exactly where the story is going to take me, even though it is my own brain and subconscious doing the driving.

    So, if you don’t know your characters’ motivations, doesn’t it worry you that your plot is going to feel contrived to a reader? And while this can certainly be seen as something you can fix in a second draft, isn’t that a little like a contractor saying that yes, there is a problem with the foundation, but we can fix that after we build the entire house? Because, to me, character motivation is that fundamental to story.

    • I like your idea of weighted fourths, although perhaps it depends on the genre. With historical fiction (or sci-fi or fantasy), getting the world building right is as crucial as the other pieces, I believe. In those forms, it’s about building credibility.

      I should clarify that my character development exists, and it has affected my plot in terms of how things happen and when. I know why my character does what he does in the finished chapters–but not how he’s going to feel in the unfinished ones. The reason I consider character my weak fourth is that I’ve backtracked and changed the timing or reasons behind my protagonist’s actions. Take the moment when Henri realizes he isn’t going back home. Instead of returning to page 1 and reworking that trajectory, I kept pushing forward. I left a mess of thoughts about home that mostly need to be taken out, or tweaked, so the ah-ha moment doesn’t come too soon, or as a total surprise. I haven’t built toward that realization in a clean way, because I didn’t know THAT would be the moment until it actually happened on the page. Does that make sense? I have to go back and look at how he feels about home in each instance, and take out anything that doesn’t lead up to the culminating “I’m staying” scene.

      Another example: I have Henri and his brother fighting right now, and I have no idea what the outcome will be. Once I figure that out, I’ll have to rework other thoughts of his brother to lead up to that moment. Perhaps it is a totally backwards way to work, but it’s working for me in this particular story.

      • Ah, I see. That makes sense and clarifies what I was misinterpreting. 🙂

        • And to your point about foundations, last night I decided to reread and rework the draft so far, because I’m not sure how much farther I can push the plot without cleaning up some of the mess. Being stuck on the brother-to-brother scene is what prompted me to untangle some of the motivations and straighten out Henri’s trajectory. I have to fix his ah-ha moment about not going home before I can successfully deal with his surprise in finding his brother has arrived in America. I did this one other time a few months ago, fixing a different issue, and it really helped me figure out where to go next.

      • “With historical fiction (or sci-fi or fantasy), getting the world building right is as crucial as the other pieces, I believe. In those forms, it’s about building credibility.”

        Not only credibility, but in those cases setting can drive the action forward. If the world (a country, for example) is in a precarious position in the world, that can drive the plot in and of itself.

  2. Interesting, as usual.

    First of all, when you say “scene,” are you talking about setting? I ask because when I think of “scene” I usually think of it as in drama (“this chapter has three long scenes”). Just want to be sure we’re talking about the same thing.

    My first novel, A Sane Woman, is pretty solid on all four, but it never had a “first draft.” The first five chapters were published as I wrote them, in little chapbooks that I would send to people, but I always knew where I was going (it’s a mystery, and I always knew the solution). But the other three parts were written separately and then assembled at the end, so there was never a real “first draft.”

    My second novel, U-town, was a total pants-a-thon for the first half, so it was not tightly plotted. Halfway through I had to tighten things up (and still it ended up being 170,000 words), but even in rewrites I kept it pretty loose. Not every story has to be tightly plotted, and some stories digress more than others. It is character-driven (and setting-driven) and I think it works. It’s not an encyclopedic novel, but it covers a lot of ground.

    I’m just now starting a second draft of novel #3 (I’m only counting the ones which were actually completed). Plot, definitely. Setting and characters (the same as #2, mostly). It may be voice that needs work. I wrote it the first time in a pretty omniscient third person, but I’m going to focus in on one character and tell it, at least in part, from her POV. We’ll see how it goes.

    • Yes, I used “sense of place” and “scene setting” because I’m not just talking about knowing the town or the house the action’s taking place in, which is often what people think of when they think of the word “setting.” I mean it in the larger world-building kind of context–what this story-world is like physically, but also who lives there and all the details that make up historical (or fantasy) worlds.

      So you are one of the rare people that wrote a novel without a first draft. Fascinating.

      Sounds like your exploration with novel #3 will be really interesting. I’ve known a few people who changed POVs several times until they were happy, and the results were well worth the effort.

      • I have a few goals with the new POV. One is that she was not in the first draft of the book, and I don’t want to just go through and wedge her into the pre-existing scenes. Also, she’s a great character who we’ve never seen from the inside — just how other people react to her. I’d like to get more into how she thinks.

        Plus, the first draft was bogged down with explanations and clarifications from the second novel (yes, it was 1700,000 words and there were still unanswered questions 🙂 ). I want to clear all that away, and she’s a perfect character for that because she wouldn’t care about any of those questions (she’s just a kid).

        • Interesting, Anthony–you’ll see your draft through a new character’s eyes. What a great idea for a revision. Between taking time off from the manuscript and inventing a new POV character, you’ll get a totally fresh take on the material.

          • She (the new POV character) has already had a rather unexpected reaction to another character, so I guess it working. 🙂

            BTW, I’m going to posting tomorrow that I will be looking for a very specific type of beta reader for my current rewrite. I want a couple of people who have never read anything of mine who can read the first few chapters as I post them, to see if it all works and makes sense for people who haven’t read the earlier novels.

            Now that I’ve learned that the second novel is 170,000 words, I’n certainly not going to make it required reading in order to read the new one. 🙂 This one has to stand on its own.

  3. I agree about getting three written and then going back and editing in the fourth. I also agree with Leanne. (We’ve actually just had the re-plotting discussion on my blog.) Still, it’s something I’m dealing with in a revision, and I’m actually doing all that I can to add in all of those essential elements you’ve mentioned. Great post as always! I can use all these helpful hints during my revision process!

    • Thanks for the comment, Emerald! I’ll have to go check out the replotting discussion. I’ve been surprised that my original outline has stayed the same through the first half of my first draft. The one big gaping empty hole in my original outline has been filled by a new idea, and I think it’ll work with my protagonist’s ongoing development, but we’ll see. That might be what changes.

      • Through my first draft, everything pretty much stayed the same to my original idea. It’s only now that things keeps changing in it’s second revision. Although, I’m not complaining. The book is definitely better now. I know I still have a long way to go in edits, but I like the new additions I’ve made to it. It’s all about knowing what works and doesn’t work for your story/characters. It’s like you said, you think that new idea will work for your protagonist’s development, and that’s great!

        (Oh, and that replotting discussion is under the Round and Round We Go post! 🙂 )

        • Very interesting that your second revision is bringing up these big, but important, changes in your original idea. Since I’ve always been such a pantser, I’ll be curious to see if major changes happen in draft two (or three or four…) of this plotted-out novel.

          It’s always exciting to add more new material and realize how much life those scenes bring to your story. And thanks for pointing me to the replotting discussion. That was fun to read.

          • It really is exciting to see the life new material brings. I’m actually enjoying the revision this time around. And you’re welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. I enjoyed the discussion myself.

  4. Bob Robson says:

    This was so informative. Thank you so very much.

  5. Oh, this makes me want you to read my novella even more. I know you’ll totally rip it apart! … and that’s probably just what I need… 😦

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