I’ve invited a group of top-notch writers to share their writing tips with you this summer. Look for a new bit of learned experience each Tuesday.
Will Hobbs: Plot is the hardest part, and you can save yourself a lot of time and effort if you develop a dynamic premise before you start writing. The premise, I came to understand, is what propels the plot. Your “what if,” in one sentence, should contain a tremendous amount of propulsive energy, a sort of “big bang.” Lacking that, no matter how long and hard you work on a first draft, you might have a false start on your hands. That happened to me with my first draft of my third novel, Downriver. It was about a group of teenagers who take a Grand Canyon raft trip guided by the adult leader of their outdoor-ed program. My editor responded to my 300-page manuscript with, “You’ve got a terrific setting and some interesting characters, but where’s the story?” What a letdown that was.
After a couple weeks of stewing, I re-read my adventure story and found it sorely lacking in adventure, no matter how much I knew about the Grand Canyon and how much I loved rowing big whitewater. My editor was spot-on, I realized. Where’s the story? Should I give up on this one, I asked myself, or go back to work?
I went back to work, but only after coming up with a dynamic premise: What if a group of misfit teenagers in a “wilderness therapy” program ditch their adult leader and try to raft the Grand Canyon on their own?” It’s dramatic tension that keeps readers turning the pages, and this “what if” enabled me to develop a plot loaded with dramatic tension. What will happen when those kids face some of the biggest rapids in North America? I could well imagine the danger, the deteriorating group dynamics, and the suspense. This time the story took off like a rocket and went on to become one of my most exciting and successful titles.
If you’ve already written a story—a short story or even a novel—you know the fantastic feeling. Now ask yourself, how can I make it better? Three drafts were par for the course for all of my twenty novels including my most recent, City of Gold. Your plot and your characters evolve as you keep working, and it’s hugely satisfying when your story comes to life at last. You have stories to tell and a contribution to make. Good luck and keep writing!