I think the best writers come to embrace writing as an evolutionary process. We’ve all heard that great writing is rewriting, but there’s still something inside of us that wants to get it right the first time. It makes sense. Crafting a story is hard work. It takes a lot of mental energy, and finishing a first draft of anything often feels like we already poured everything we had to give into it.
But there’s good reason to fall in love with writing as an evolutionary process rather than a one-and-done event. No matter how skilled you are or how creative your imagination may be, your first draft should be your worst draft (not necessarily bad but definitely not the best you have to give).
So how do you tease out the better story from an initial story?
- Finish the First Draft. Great stories need to evolve, which means the first draft of any story is more like the seed of a better story. But you have to finish the story first before you can begin finding its strengths and weaknesses.
Take the latest Star Wars film, for example. The Force Awakens has proven to be a story that resonates with a lot of people, but what few people realize is the evolutionary journey The Force Awakens took to become the film so many people love. Screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) began working on the script for The Force Awakens in 2013. All we really know about the original script is that it was vastly different than what people saw in theaters. Some of its most popular characters didn’t exist in the initial draft, but that’s where the whole journey of discovery started.
- Dig deeper to explore the possibilities. The real fun begins after you have a completed first draft because this is when you begin digging deeper into the story to discover new ideas.
J.J. Abrams, who also directed The Force Awakens, and Lawrence Kasdan, screenwriter for Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, took Arndt’s original draft and began revising it. This included the further development of characters and the creation of new ones such as Kylo Ren. Even after Abrams and Kasdan took over writing duties, they continued to let the story evolve, taking things out and adding other things in.
The point? If J.J. Abrams had taken the first draft of The Force Awakens and filmed it, it wouldn’t have been the story that was met with resounding success at the box office. (If you’re interested, The Art of The Force Awakens by Phil Szostak is a good read that covers more of the story’s evolution.)
In your own writing, try applying the following “what if?” questions to see what new ideas develop.
- What if this character didn’t show up until later in the story?
- What if this character showed up earlier in the story?
- What if this character were combined with this other character?
- What if this scene happened in a different location?
- What if another character became the main character?
- What if the antagonist were someone different?
- What if this event triggered something else?
- What if this scene were cut?
- What if a scene were added here?
- What if this character died?
- What if these two characters fell in love?
Digging deeper is bound to produce a wealth of new ideas that are even more exciting than what you originally envisioned for your story.
- Get outside feedback. The Force Awakens began with one writer before two other writers took it over. The story’s evolution was a collaborative process. While I wouldn’t encourage you to relinquish control of your story, I would encourage you to let other people take a look at your story and tell you what’s working and what isn’t. Some of my most valuable experiences came from participating in writers groups and getting constructive feedback on my stories. Find a writing group, and don’t be afraid to let people into your creative process.
- Trust the process. We’ll never find the better story until we get the original story out. Write the first draft. Celebrate that you did it. But don’t be afraid to look at your first draft and ask, “What would make this better?” That’s where the real fun begins, and that’s where the best stories are born.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens quickly became one of the most successful movies of all time, but it never would have been the story people came to love without J.J. Abrams and company digging deeper to find the best story possible. Storytelling is an evolutionary process. So write your first draft, but don’t let that be where your story ends. Dig deeper, get feedback, trust the process… and may the force be with you.