This post, from Stuart Horwitz, originally appeared as a guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog.
One thing I hear from writers a lot is, “My work has always been more character-driven, which I think is why I struggle with plot.”
I’m not sure what character-driven means in this context. Does it mean that their work is more about what people think and feel than about the things that happen? Maybe. But it may also simply mean, “I like to write really messy first drafts, and the only way I can find my way through the material at all is by identifying with a character or two.”
But guess what: First drafts are supposed to be a mess! And the notion of “plot” is a misconception that leads too many writers to get confused and focus on all the wrong things. In fact, the best way to produce a first draft is to produce a large pile of pages and avoid trying to organize anything at all. At first.
Upon hearing this, writers may ask, “How do I know when I’ve finished my first draft?” In a sense, first drafts are never finished; where you stopped writing is the end of the first draft. Then it’s time to step back and see what you’ve got. And the way I recommend doing this is by using the unfamiliar, plot-free concept of series.
What is this series I speak of?
A series is the repetition and variation of a narrative element within a story, the process of improvement or deterioration which creates the narrative arc.
The repetitions and variations of an object, for example, is what creates a symbol. A series can also be seen in the repetitions and variations of a person (or if you prefer, their identity and change), which is what creates a character.