Start Your Story Late
The less information you can provide before the first point of no return, the better. Here’s why you should start your story late.
In the first draft of my adventure novel, I wrote eight whole chapters before my character even started to think about going on their mission, or passing the “point of no return.” Consequently, it rambled. I was spending too much writing time enjoying my character’s ordinary world that I started to want to keep her there. But if I had, there wouldn’t have been much of a story. Without an inciting incident or a point of no return, you don’t have a plot.
The Outlander series is one of the inspiration novels I studied while preparing to write my own. In Outlander, action occurs quickly, and without warning. In fact, Claire has already gone through the stones to 18th century Scotland by the end of chapter 1 (that’s only a spoiler if you haven’t finished reading chapter 1. You should get on with it! It’s a great series).
So, in order to start my story “late,” I had to get to the point of no return a lot faster. I began to condense chapters, cutting lots of ideas. For example, a scene I wrote featuring my MC bonding with her best friend wasn’t necessary to the story’s advancement. I could easily cut it as it didn’t serve the plot.
Many writers are afraid to cut scenes because of some personal attachment to them. But in many cases, cutting scenes is better for your story. It helps with pacing and means that readers don’t get lost with an overload of unnecessary information.
If it makes you feel better, nothing that you write will ever be wasted, even if it doesn’t make it to the final draft. The process of writing each scene is important for you to learn more about the characters and their relationship dynamics. Once you know this, your scenes can be so much more powerful! And, you can always save anything you cut for use in other projects.
Why start late?
Most writers put way too much information in early drafts. Too much information is incredibly useful to the writing process as it helps distill scenes and characters down to their essence. But as a writer, an important skill to develop is the ability to recognize which scenes you wrote are important, and which are just background worldbuilding. Just because you wrote it, doesn’t mean your readers have to read it. Instead, think of these extraneous passages as ways for you to better learn about your characters.
For example, in my novel, I knew that my character loved her best friend and hoped that she would return to him one day. Writing a long and sappy scene about why they loved each other and wanted to be together was how I first discovered the depth of their feelings. But that long and sappy scene was unbearable to read. It was basically real-life: sloppy and inarticulate. So I distilled their friendship down to one element that could show both the depth of their love and their commitment to the friendship. It took about 6 drafts to get there, but what I present to readers is a version that is airtight and powerful.
TL;DR: My belief is that the entire purpose of first and second drafts of novels is the process of learning about your world and characters so you can portray them better. It’s not until draft three that you actually begin writing the novel.
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