It’s official – I completed another January goal: I finished editing the first draft of my manuscript. It was not a pleasant experience, as my previous post would suggest, and it became a real struggle to force myself to read line upon line of badly-worded, sloppily-phrased prose.
The most pressing problem which loomed as I finished reading the first draft was that the plot needed a drastic restructure. ‘Restructure’ doesn’t even really cover it – I needed to slash at least half of what I’d written, and replace it with something much, much more interesting. Namely, what my first draft was missing is the most important ingredient for all plots: conflict.
Stories thrive on conflict, and wither away without it. It’s an important lesson for any story-teller, and one which Tolkien touches on in The Hobbit:
“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”
This passage comes when Bilbo visits Rivendell, and I vividly remember finding Tolkien’s descriptions of that wondrous haven so comforting that I found myself wishing, as Bilbo does, whether he might stay there forever. Unfortunately, as the narrator so aptly points out, that would not make a good, nor a long story. It is fair to say, therefore, that my first draft was neither a good, nor a particularly long story (although I certainly felt that it dragged on).
Conflict is probably one of the first elements of a story which writers conceive, when they first come up with an idea. Without conflict, there can be no quest, no motivation and absolutely no progression. Can you imagine The Hobbit without Smaug the dragon? What about Paradise Lost without Satan’s plot to deceive mankind? Think about your favourite stories, and what would be left of them without the sources of conflict which drive them forward. Pretty grim stuff, right?
It’s fair to say that I did have a source conflict in mind when I began writing this WIP, but this means of motivating my characters onward did not prove to be quite so urgent as I might have liked. But seeking out a source of conflict, having already shaped a setting and characters, is quite different and, in truth, quite difficult.
It was probably not wise to start plotting for a second draft so soon after I had finished looking at my first, but, unfortunately, time is precious and with a weekend alone in the flat I thought it was the best use of my time. I started searching for a new source of conflict by asking myself some questions: Where must this tale end? What must be achieved on the way? What obstacle might prevent this from being achieved?
It took a while to get there, but once the idea came, everything started to fall into place. I am pleased to report that I now have a full outline for a second draft with a new and shiny source of conflict. This single (but significant) change has helped me to develop not only the plot, but also my characters, my sense of pace, and most importantly a story which is much more interesting for me to tell and (hopefully!) for you to read. Those three simple questions really helped me to pin down what my intentions are as the story-teller, and I’d really recommend that (even if you don’t end up in the same predicament I found myself in) that you ask yourself the same questions.
I have a lot left to do. My plans before the first draft were not comprehensive and, for the second draft, I want to spend a little more time setting out my plot scene-by-scene, exploring my characters’ backgrounds, and preparing myself for a more successful draft. All of these pursuits, however, have been made much easier by the fact that I now have a solid grasp of the conflict for my yet untitled WIP.
Moral of the story – as unpleasant as they might be, every story needs a Smaug, a Satan, or a tone deaf Pierce Brosnan (thank you, Mamma Mia).
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