Thursday, July 3, 2014

Bare Bones Draft

I used to waste a lot of time on my first draft. I agonized over each sentence. I filled it full of stuff I would later cut or alter. Revision layers took forever to complete, especially repetitive words.

My first drafts are now skeletons. I gradually add muscle and skin and dress the bones in the revision layers.

I start with a conflict outline and a timeline (which I generally mess up somehow anyway and have to go back and fix).

When I sit down to write a scene, I start with:

Date, Time, Location, (Type of ) Conflict # _____ Dick needs to convince Jane to do something.

Date, Time, Location, (Type of) Conflict # _____ Jane is caught snooping around Dick's office.

For me, scenes are visual. I see the characters moving around the room or characters talking to one another. My first draft consists of dialogue and choreography with a tiny of hint of description. It looks a bit like a screenplay.

Dick (insert tag) “ ....”

Jane (insert tag) “...”

Dick enters (describe how Jane sees him)

(insert description of place here) (look at photo of room)

(Need a visceral response here) (angry) (sad) (hopeful)

(Need gesture)

(insert name of place here) (look at map/diagram and fill in)

They move around the space, they fight, they do stuff. Then comes the hard work. Once I have a draft, I make sure the scenes illustrate cause and effect.

Because this conversation occurred, it set up a conflict in Chapter __.

Because this conflict occurred, it made this conversation necessary in Chapter __.

If I can take out any of the scenes without making a difference to the plot, they aren't earning page time. I either strengthen them or cut them.

The revision layers take a lot longer than the draft, but are far more effective because I can focus on one layer at a time.

1) Motive: At the end of the scene I ask myself, "Why are my characters behaving this way?Is this behavior true to his or her temperament?

I find it easier to write with the character profiles nearby, so I can refresh my memory about their motivations and purpose. (Blatant plug - having the Build A Cast Workbook by my side is invaluable).

2) Descriptions: I use photos, diagrams, and other prompts to set the scene, add atmosphere, and describe people and places.

3) Dialogue tags and gestures: I have lists of visceral responses and gestures and cross each of them off when I've used them once or twice. I choose a speech pattern and verbal tics for my characters. I make sure their dialogue is consistent throughout by scrolling through the manuscript one character at a time, stopping when I reach their verbal interactions and checking for consistency.

4) Sentence structure: The first draft has simple sentences. When revising, I vary the sentence length and add cumulative sentences. I make sure my nouns and verbs agree and my punctuation is where it needs to be.

5) Hooks: I add creative first and last lines for each chapter. I try to get the goal of the scene in at the beginning and the new goal in at the end.

6) Theme: I make sure actions and dialogue address theme.

7) Adjectives, adverbs, and other parts of speech: I consult lists and cross them off when I use them.

A bare bones draft gives you the opportunity to get the key ingredients right before you add the magic that makes the scene rise from the page and dance.

First drafts always need work. Why waste a lot of time on something you will rewrite anyway? Give the bare bones approach a try. It might keep you from rewriting sentences over and over instead of moving onto the next scene or chapter.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. It's a great idea, and I can see how it would be much faster to get a first draft out this way. When I write, I "hear" the whole narrative as if I'm taking dictation - everything, including "he said" comes to me whenever I sit down to write. So I don't know how I would pare it down to bare bones. But I'll keep the technique in mind for those difficult patches where the writing gets stuck. It might well work to get the words moving again. Thanks Diana.

    1. My crit partners use this when they get stuck. They just write "insert scene here where ....." and keep writing. Then they go back and write that scene. Sometimes it is no longer necessary. :)

  2. I'm an edit as you go writer -- most of what you've described here goes on in my head as I set up each scene. I do like the idea of your list of emotional/visceral responses or physical gestures. For me, writing everything from the start is a way to learn the characters and the story. I'm of the 'why do a character interview sheet before you write if you'll only use a few of those bits of information? I think a bare bones first draft would intimidate me -- when I hit 'the end' the book is almost done.
    Isn't it wonderful that we each find what works, and are willing to share. You never know what technique is a 'fit' and finding new tidbits can open new doors.

    1. I tried the character interview recently. In planning a new story, I "met" with each cast member and wrote about the inciting incident from each point of view, listening as they explained their take on it. It solidified their motivation for the scene. Fun exercise.

    2. This is an interesting approach, Diana. I can imagine that a character interview used in this manner could bring a fresh (and perhaps previously unconsidered) dimension to any scene involving more than one person. I will definitely try this out.

  3. I agree with Terry that a multitude of writing techniques such as those shared freely here opens up options that we, struggling alone to make our stories fly, might never consider. This is one of the special beauties of Blood Red Pencil.


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