2 min read

A first draft should make sense?

A thought I have sometimes in relation to my own fiction-writing is that a first draft should make sense. This includes real-world consistency and logical coherence. That matters a little, and it's unclear how much. But it's also about do the characters' decisions make sense, does the dialogue make sense, do the motivations make sense. This is hard. It's harder to meet both standards at once.

It is about real-world consistency and logical coherence. Jacob Krueger wrote about how untruth and falsehood hurts screenplays, and Stephen King emphasized a certain kind of honesty in On Writing. That rings true to me; whenever I have tried to lie my way through a draft it feels false. I once tried to write a short parody of a show/franchise I've never seen and you could tell. The draft was thin, relying on secondhand info from other short parodies of the same show. Half the time it was just doing the thing as if it were a joke. It felt like shit, like a waste of time. It wasn't the first time, the last, or the worst. I'm reminded too of Ultraspeaking and the idea of honesty there. Whenever I start lying to match the prompt with a story, it's an awful speech.

It's unclear exactly how much this aspect matters. The need for coherence/honesty is in tension with King's other advice in On Writing that once you start writing to just write and leave the research until later. That also seems true to me. Stopping to do research has sometimes killed an idea entirely, and in retrospect those ideas probably could have worked out somehow. I think of r/rational. I like the spirit of "rational" fiction. To me, the work of designing a cool magic system that can't break physics sounds exhausting. The work of integrating that magic system with a complete consistent reasonable history of the world is so much more on top of that. If I had to work all that out in advance, or retrofit it onto a first draft, I probably would give up on writing. There's too much to know and consider.

But besides consistency with the real world or logic, there's also character coherence. Do their decisions make sense? Does their dialogue make sense? Do their motivations make sense? Does the draft make sense emotionally?

This is hard; if I just write these things tend not to make sense, and if I plan things out then they become stiff, brittle, and stereotypical. Because of that, once I have a plan I no longer want to write what it describes, and if I hold myself to it then usually I won't write, or if I do it is dry and lifeless. There's no way to get better but writing, so I prefer to just write as much as possible. This means that the motivations don't always make sense. And without a sense of the motivations, it's easy to get stuck. It sure would be nice if there were some way to get in touch with those.

Achieving both real-world/logical and emotional coherence at once seems even harder. It sounds like magic.

I wonder if these standards make sense. These sound like high standards for a first draft to meet. Standard advice for writer's block, which I don't have, is to give yourself permission to write garbage, to write stuff that doesn't make sense. Though it doesn't make sense, trying to write something bad on purpose makes for a movie some people like. On the other hand, bullshitting gives bad results. So what's the alternative?