There is, in theatre, a technique known as blocking. It’s when you go through scenes and work out where on stage you’ll be standing, where you’ll be moving to and how you’ll be entering, exiting and the like. It’s basically a walk-through, frequently interrupting the drama to discuss what’s coming next, where you need to be and so on.
Writing a first draft is very much akin to this process, so much so that I think of them in the same terms. So much of an initial run-through is taken up not with writing – and certainly not with story – but with asking yourself where and how this scene will take place: the physical environment, whether we join our characters mid-scene, or with an entrance or an exit. How important is this location to the story? Do we need detailed depictions of urban decay and political activism or can we take it all as read and crack on with story?
It’s the most frustrating thing about this stage of writing. All you really want to do is to get on with it, get on, move forwards, bring on the big scenes you have in mind.
But this stage is crucially important, and also allows for new ideas and circumstances to build in your mind. For example, I’m currently working on a scene for my new novel: it’s quite a big event and comes in three parts:
- Late-night walker (protagonist 1) encounters a group of ‘bad kids’: conflict (not necessarily physical) ensues
- The bad kids are run off by the arrival of a Citizen’s Patrol
- The Cit’s are in turn run off by the protagonist – with the assistance of protagonists 2 & 3
That’s what happens. Simple, right? But before I can write it off and move on I’ve got to address a certain number of issues:
- Location. I started with an idea of where this scene would take place, but now I actually get down to it I have to make decisions, to make concrete what may have only been a vague picture in my mind. What’s the lighting like? How much can anyone see? It’s an urban scene so sound will be affected: there’ll be echoes and traffic and ‘hard’ sounds. There’ll be hiding places and shadows etc
- Characters: Many of the characters in this scene are ciphers and don’t need a great deal of ‘inner-life’. But they still need to be plausible within the world I’m trying to create. I need to decide how many ‘bad kids’ – and, in a world of half-light and shadows, how much description will be needed? I need to know their collective motivation. I also need to know at least a name or two
- All the above also goes for the members of the Citizen’s Patrol
- How much action do I want? Obviously I have a reason for putting this scene in the novel, but I also need to think whether this will be a high-octane scene of brutal action, or tense stare-down. That’s affected by the characters involved but also by what’s come before and what’s coming after. Of course, pacing can be tinkered with later but it’s nice to have some idea as you go along
So each scene of a first draft becomes a drag, the writing constantly interrupted by questions and queries. But there is tremendous value in the process. As well as the fact that you are actually moving forwards (never underestimate this: every word written is another you don’t have to write in your next session), this way of practically-thinking through your scenes does something to the writer’s brain. You envisage and describe a location: even if that description is later cut, it sharpens up the image in the writer’s mind. Locations then become solid and permanent and can be reused or linked with others.
Similarly, although some characters may be disposable, others may take their chance to shine. Sometimes it’s only when you’re painting that a particularly vivid image comes to mind. Some of these crowd-fillers may leap out at you and earn themselves greater screen-time. It’s a glorious feeling when that happens. You’ve got a shape in mind for a figure later on in your story, but sometimes they surprise you by taking a form earlier, in ways and places you didn’t expect.
This is the real value of the first draft. You may be desperate to move on, to leap forwards, but by working through one word at a time you’re forced to address some real issues, to solve problems but also to seize opportunities.
So by all means curse your ‘crappy first draft’, but never underestimate what it’s forcing you to do. Every word is making your world come alive, even and especially those words you delete. It’s a slow and painful process, but without it you’d have nothing at all.