Allow Drafting to Evolve Your Stories: Using What Is to Help You See What It Could Be by Brad Windhauser
What your story will become is usually quite different than what you imagined it to be when you began typing. The beauty of being the person adding words to the page is that you get to watch your story develop, the first to witness it to take shape. But this process is not automatic. Stubborn writers get in the way of their own work. These writers don’t allow characters or events to happen in unpredictable ways—they set out to write, say, about a couple fighting over a toilet seat and the story must stay that way. However, as a writer you need to learn to allow you work to evolve past what you might have first imagined, into new, deeper possibilities. You do this by trusting the drafting process, which means listening to your story and characters; let situations dictate what can happen next, allow characters to reveal who they are.
Think of drafting as dating: you really get to know people and situations only after you’ve been around them for a while.
I never get a story right on the first pass. For me, drafts allow for ideas to flow. I sketch a situation through which I can draw out who my characters are, what they want, what they do, and significant moments of change I can depict. Doing this allows the plot to emerge.
In their earlier stages, stories are more about finding out what they aren’t rather than what they are. Drafting presents opportunities for the obvious to surface—what a character says, how he or she reacts. Let’s say you feel like writing a story about a relationship. One of the individuals gets bent out of shape about something—you need conflict in a story, right?—and your story examines this moment. What happens as the character (or characters) allow that conflict to build until he/she/they can’t take it anymore and “explode,” and then the issue is resolved (or what happens when it is unresolved), thus providing the change.
This provides a basic structure for a short story. Reading the structure of a story this way also sounds quite boring—and it is. Allowing your stories to evolve past this will create something interesting.
First step: create a situation that contains the couple in the relationship—who are your characters—ages, gender, race; where do they live (house or apartment) and in what city—East Coast people live a little differently than west coasters—ditto for southerners versus mid-westerners. It’s not about judgment, it just is. Now, how long have they been together—new relationship or old one? How about somewhere in the middle—five years? Who they are (or become) will dictate the types of things they do together and what makes them tick (or flounder) as a couple.
Second step, create an issue. What type of conflict would make this couple go at it? It can be as obvious as one person cheating or it can be as mundane as leaving the toilet seat up. Both choices are stale for a story, but pick one and write it anyway. The point is that there is an issue, and this issue will get your characters moving, thinking, reacting—this is what you want. Create a framework for the back and forth—what is said, what is done? Allow your characters to reveal themselves to you.
Now you have s starting point. When drafting, if I get hung up on the issue, I stare at a blinking cursor. I may not like what I generate initially but at least I have something to work with. I might question my abilities when I’m writing a story about a raised toilet seat setting off a couple, but by setting this plot in motion, I’m able to see how each character reacts—this is the important reveal, for how people conduct themselves during stressful moments reveals a lot. If a character acts in an unexpected way—say he removes the toilet seat—that becomes interesting, for it reveals a thought process that can then be interrogated for other possibilities later on—what else might set this character off and how would he react in that situation? Now I’m closer to an interesting story—the toilet seat is really not important, but what it reveals about character is.
As I continue to draft, I realize that my character cares nothing for the actual toilet seat—rather, it’s about control. So what are his control issues? What is he not in control of in his life that this reaction is a substitute for? Did he just find out the fourth round of chemo is not working and his cancer diagnosis is now terminal? This is a huge leap—and perhaps cliché—but at least now you are onto something more serious and worth exploring. Your mind is now primed to go big. This happens because you allow elements to reveal themselves.
So, you might set out to write a story about a couple fighting over a toilet seat, but if you allow this germ of a story to develop into something else, you have something stronger than if you stayed committed to your original idea.
Good work takes shape over time. Through embracing this you can take a large step in how you approach your craft.