How do you start writing a book? Are there certain things you should think about first, second, and third? If you're anything like the writers I work with, you've probably wondered some version of these questions at one point or another.
In this post, I'm going to walk you through five questions to ask before writing the first draft of any story. And I'm excited to share these questions with you because if you do this work upfront, you'll have a much easier time writing your first draft. But before we dive into the details, let's talk about the purpose of a first draft.
The purpose of a first draft is to tell yourself the story. It's not to write something that's perfect.
In fact, even if you do all kinds of planning and outlining before writing a first draft, it will still never be perfect.
And trust me, I’ve seen this first hand -- I’ve seen people write INCREDIBLE first drafts, but they’re still not perfect. They still need some tweaks, or some rewriting, or some smoothing out. They still need a second draft.
Now, that being said… your draft doesn’t have to totally suck either.
By doing some of the important work or heavy lifting upfront, you CAN write a stronger, more efficient first draft that feels more like a second or third draft.
To do that, you need to understand one really important thing...
Stories are all about change. If you can write a story in which the protagonist faces and has to grapple with change -- on both an external and an internal level -- then you’re more likely to write a story that works.
And a story that works is one that’s entertaining and one that impacts readers.
Now, let’s dive into the five questions to ask before you write a first draft. These questions will help you start to see that arc of change (both internally and externally) AND start to determine how you’ll be able to evoke emotional responses in readers.
Not only that but by thinking of these five things upfront, you’re more likely to write a draft that feels cohesive story instead of one that feels like a hot mess of random stuff happening.
The very first thing you’ll want to determine is who the protagonist of your story is. So, who is this story about? You may immediately know the answer to this, but if not, that’s okay too.
If you don’t know who your protagonist is, consider who has the most at stake -- or who has the most to lose or gain over the course of the story. You can also consider who has the most opportunity for change throughout the story, too.
It’s important to know who the protagonist of your story is before you start writing because everything the reader experiences will be filtered through your protagonist.
So, first, figure out who your protagonist is -- and then consider what specific thing they want and why. What’s their overarching story goal and their motivation behind wanting to achieve or accomplish that goal?
If you need help fleshing out your protagonist, check out this podcast episode and blog post that’s all about getting to know your characters.
If you’re not 100% sure of your answer yet, that’s okay -- move onto the next questions and then come back to this one before you start writing.
The beauty of these five questions is that they can (and should) inform one another. So, sometimes by answering one question, you’ll uncover the answer to another question at the same time.
The next thing you’ll want to consider is the main genre of your story.
Your story’s main genre can give you insight into all kinds of things like how your story should be structured, what your character wants and needs, what the theme of your story might be, and more. It also tells you what kind of change readers will be tracking over the course of the story.
So, for example, in a romance novel, readers will be tracking the main romantic relationship to see whether two individual characters will get together or not.
In a horror novel, readers will be tracking the protagonist’s survival as they come in contact with the monster or antagonist.
In a worldview novel, readers will be waiting to see if the character’s worldview changes or if they stay stuck in their old way of thinking.
You get the idea, right?
One important thing to point out here is that I’m not talking about commercial genres or the bookstore shelf labels.
I’m talking about the content genre of your story.
So, if you’re writing fantasy, I’m talking about what kind of fantasy you’re writing. A mystery set in a fantasy world? A fantasy romance? Something else?
If you’re not sure what I mean about content genre or if you need help figuring out which genre best suits your story idea, check out this blog post and podcast episode where I walk you through some questions that will help you narrow in on your story’s main genre.
The next thing you’ll want to figure out before you start writing is what message you’re trying to convey with your story. Or what point are you trying to make?
Now, the really cool thing about this question is that your answer will directly impact your character’s arc or how they change internally.
So, for example, let’s say you want to write a story about the power of friendship. If you’re writing an action story set in a fantasy world, your protagonist might need to learn a lesson about sticking with his or her friends, or about working with his or her friends, before he or she can be successful in defeating the antagonist -- or before he or she can accomplish their story goal.
When I coach writers 1-1 or in my Notes to Novel course, this is always a HUGE a-ha moment.
And I love this too because if you don’t quite know how your character will change yet, you can look at why you want to write this story -- or the message you want to share with readers for clues. On the flip side, if you know how your character will grow and change, or what big lesson they’ll need to learn, you can use that to inform your story’s theme.
If you need some help uncovering the theme of your story, check out this blog post and podcast episode where I'll walk you through three ways to get to know your story's theme.
The next thing you’ll want to ask is where AND when does this story take place?
The first part of this question is usually pretty straightforward. Where your story takes place is the setting. And I’m not asking you to do a bunch of worldbuilding here, I just want you to consider the main areas your story will take place in. So, don’t just say Earth or the name of your made-up world. Try to drill down into a few main locations if you can.
Now, we’re not just looking for the setting of your story here. I also want you to identify when your story takes place or how much time passes over the course of your story, too.
And the reason this is important is because I work with so many writers who start or end their story in the wrong place. And by that, I mean they start or end their story too early or too late.
Ideally, you want to start your story at a point in time when things change. And then (ideally), you want to end the story when the central plot question has been answered.
If you need help figuring out where your story should start and end, check out this blog post and podcast episode where I dive into the general start and end points for each one of the content genres.
The final question you’ll want to ask before you start writing is what happens in the plot?
Hopefully, if you’ve answered the other four questions, you know who your protagonist is, how they change or what lesson they learn, how long they have to learn that lesson, and what genre you’re writing in. You can use your answers to those four questions to inform your story’s plot.
So, first, you can look to your genre to help you create a roadmap for the external events of your story. If you'd like to see the key scenes for each of the content genres, check out the links at the bottom of this blog post.
Beyond that, I want you to think about how your character changes internally and then ask yourself what kinds of events can help force or encourage your character to change?
So, for example, if your story talks about having courage, and if your character needs to gain courage over the course of the story, consider events that will force him or her to build up their courage. If your character needs to learn that they can trust other people, think of some situations that can help him or her develop that kind of trust.
Now, of course, you’ll want to layer these types of moments within your character’s journey to accomplish or achieve his or her story goal.
So, using our example of a character who needs to develop courage, let’s say his story goal is to break a curse that was put on him by the antagonist. Ideally, the external plot events of your story would force him to develop a sense of courage in the face of danger.
Something else I should mention is that this is a natural time to start the outlining process if you are someone who likes to outline.
Either way, whether you like to plan out your story or whether you’re more of a discovery writer, these five questions will help you write a much better, more cohesive first draft.
As a bonus tip, I’d like to leave you with a bit of advice...
Commit to getting to 'The End' of a draft before you go back and revise anything. There are SO MANY gems that will come out of your first draft that you’ll never uncover if you keep going back to rewrite or revise.
As a perfectionist myself, I know this can be challenging, but trust me as someone who works with many writers across all genres. The writers who finish their drafts, and the writers who go on to publish their work -- they allow the first draft to be messy. They push through to 'The End' to get the story out of their head so that they have something to revise later.
Yes, it will be messy. Yes, it will be uncomfortable sometimes. But don't worry -- it's all a part of the process. It happens to everyone!
As always, if you need help pushing through to 'The End' of your draft, check out my 1:1 book coaching packages or get on the waitlist for my Notes to Novel course. I'd love to help you push past your doubt, overwhelm, and frustrations so that you can turn your book-writing dreams into a reality!
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