Today’s post is by Allison K Williams (@GuerillaMemoir). Join her on Dec. 14 for the online class Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Story.
You’ve heard a lot about the rough draft—the “Vomit Draft” or the “Shitty First Draft” or Jenny Elder Moke’s wonderful “Grocery Draft”:
But what comes next? What do you do with your collection of words that you know aren’t done?
You shape them in the Story Draft.
The Story Draft is creative work done technically. This might be literally your novel’s second draft, or the first revision after a vigorous NaNoWriMo, or when you organize all the material you’ve generated for your memoir.
Or maybe you’re in a later draft, but “there’s no ‘there’ there”—you have beautiful scenes, but they aren’t building a continuous story with tension and conflict. Or you’ve created an amazing world, but too much is going on, and you need to focus the plot. Maybe the narrator is telling a series of experiences, rather than actively living a story.
Start by focusing on the dramatic action.
Experiences happen in dramatic situations. Stories have dramatic action.
Newspapers report dramatic situations. The reader’s emotional reaction comes from their own experience meeting the facts, rather than empathy for the protagonist or a desire to see them “win.”
Car Crash Claims Three is a dramatic situation. It’s not a story unless a protagonist takes an action, as in these examples:
Crash Claims Three: Earnhardt Jr. Vows to Race Again
Crash Claims Three: Outsider Candidate Calls for Traffic-cam Bill
The big-picture dramatic situation must create an intolerable world for the protagonist. For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s world holds a yearly kids-kill-kids-on-TV lottery. Pretty dramatic situation! But the dramatic action starts when Katniss’ sister gets picked and Katniss volunteers to take her place. If any other kid gets picked, Katniss goes home relieved and there’s no story.
Your story starts when the dramatic situation gets personal. When it directly affects the protagonist and forces them to take dramatic action; or confront their own inability to act and resolve to change, like when a memoirist embarks on a physical quest or starts a plan of self-improvement.
To find your story’s dramatic action, use the “In a World…” test.
Think about the cheesy movie-trailer cliché. There’s a shot of alien-created devastation. Or a sunrise over a battlefield. Or a sunset over a castle. A deep voice intones:
In a world…
And tells us the hero’s intolerable dramatic situation. Overturning this situation is a high-risk, high-stakes problem.
One man… [or woman, non-binary person or non-gendered being]
That’s the protagonist. In fiction, the hero or main character. In memoir, the author. In our imaginary movie trailer, probably a Hemsworth.
…take a dramatic action. Embark on the quest. They must do it. Not “kinda-sorta feel like doing it,” not “maybe if they have time,” they must. The action is urgent and compelling and they can’t live without taking this action.
The rest of the movie trailer shows the hero attempting different actions to overturn the unacceptable world or situation and get to the goal. Moments flash of the villain(s) and primary obstacles, including character flaws and physical challenges, and show us the stakes—what the hero will lose if they fail.
For fiction writers, the “In a World…” moment is almost always in the first chapter, often in the first paragraph. It’s usually pretty easy to figure out:
In a world…where Theodore is alone and on the run…One kid must locate a priceless painting before he and his friend are killed by gangsters. (The Goldfinch)
In a world…where poverty can kill you and a girl is a washed-up old maid at twenty…One girl must marry a rich husband without violating her own scruples and avoid the jerk next door. (Pride and Prejudice)
In nonfiction and memoir, the premise is usually clear in the title and subtitle of the book. Seriously! Right there on the cover, expressed in a sentence. What’s the untenable existing situation? What’s at stake for the narrator (memoir) or the reader (self-help)?
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead
We should also know the stakes.
Preferably in the first chapter. What’s the positive effect on the reader or narrator’s health and happiness if the situation is overturned, and how will they be harmed if they fail?
In a world…where I’ve screwed up my relationships, taken too many drugs, and slept with too many people…I must walk 2600 miles to find myself.
In a world…where we’re taught that vulnerability is weak and must be hidden…you must connect with others and develop genuine compassion in order to live a wholehearted life.
Chances are, if it’s hard to find your “In a world…” moment, your stakes aren’t high enough. The dramatic situation isn’t personal, or the protagonist doesn’t have enough at stake to make the story compelling.
Now you try it.
Write one of these sentences for your story, adjusting the connecting language as needed:
- Fiction/Memoir/Active Story: In intolerable SITUATION, PROTAGONIST must ACTION against OBSTACLE toward GOAL or else/because STAKES.
- Memoir/Literary Fiction/Self-Help/Quiet Story: In ENVIRONMENT, HERO must EXPERIENCE against PRESSURE toward ENLIGHTENMENT and READER TAKEAWAY needed in CURRENT MOMENT.
Now stand up, deepen your voice, and state the premise of your book. Does it sound cheesy and overdramatic?
If it does, you’ve got a story.
Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, please join us on Wednesday, Dec. 14 for the online class Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Story.
Allison K Williams has edited and coached writers to publication with many of the best-known outlets in media. As a memoirist, essayist, and travel journalist, Allison has written craft, culture and comedy for National Public Radio, CBC-Canada, the New York Times, and many more. She leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats series and, as Social Media Editor for Brevity, she inspires thousands of writers with weekly blogs on craft and the writing life. Allison holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and spent 20 years as a circus aerialist and acrobat before writing and editing full-time. Her latest book is Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book (Woodhall Press, 2021). Learn more at her website.