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I tend to burn out developing my stories before they even reach the page, so I'm taking some advice to plan a novel. I didn't quite follow the advice to the letter; I used an idea that had been rolling around in my head for a while. Character A had a backstory, Character B was in conflict with him, and there would be an antagonist to both of them. Anytime I try to introduce the antagonist, however, I find myself losing interest because I have no idea who he is. I'd be happy to throw him away and see where the story goes without him, but I'm concerned that it would lose much of its motivation.

I need to know all of my main characters better. I recently wrote a scene that shed a lot of light on Character B's reasons for wanting to leave the situation in which Character A has placed him. That and Character A's backstory might be enough to provide the motivation I'd miss if I chucked the antagonist. I would like to write some scenes revolving around these details, but they wouldn't be part of the finished novel and I'm afraid of slipping into procrastination.

Is there room for writing scenes that could prepare me for writing the main story, but won't be in the final version of the novel? Is this procrastination, or is it useful for a story I haven't spent a lot of time developing? How can I tell the difference?

  • Since Stack Exchange is not a discussion forum, I've lightly edited your question to make it more answerable. Have I kept your question intact? If I've damaged it, please revert and we can try again. – Neil Fein Feb 21 '12 at 3:43
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    Actually, I think your edit brought out the question I wanted to ask. I am especially interested in hearing the answers of those familiar with pantsing novels, but I won't mind answers from plotters as well. Since that statement seems to be what red-flagged you, I see no reason why that information can't just stay in this comment. – Sheelawolf Feb 21 '12 at 5:20
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    I'm glad mt edit was helpful. In the interests of transparency and clarity about the moderation process: What stood out for me was the fact that the information was a request for discussion. – Neil Fein Feb 21 '12 at 6:09
  • I'd like to learn how to write better questions. I'm not quite sure how I was asking for discussion. I view discussion as a two-way street -- conversation going backwards and forwards. I view SE as a one-way street -- once I get an answer, there is no conversation unless clarification is needed. While my statement could have limited answers (perhaps unwise when a good one can come from anywhere) I didn't see it as asking for a back-and-forth conversation. Does my understanding of SE need to be adjusted? – Sheelawolf Feb 21 '12 at 6:23
  • In my opinion the sentence I edited out, "I'd like to hear from those familiar with writing unplanned novels" is a request to discuss the issue. Since this is getting off the subject of your question, if you'd like to discuss this at greater length, I'd love to go into more detail. Please feel free to ping me in chat by typing @NeilFein. – Neil Fein Feb 21 '12 at 7:12
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Fearing procrastination is procrastination ;)

First: No-one said you are not allowed to develop a character when pantsing a novel. But if you take three days to add detail on detail for just one character, then you are doing it wrong.

Sit down and write your story. If you encounter the problem, that you need more information about one character to go on, take a sheet of paper and a pen and scribble down the character details. Don't think! Just write down what's in your head. The moment your pen leaves the sheet and you start to ponder what to add more, throw the pen away, reread your character sheet and go on writing your story with the new information.

Does something do not fit what you wrote yesterday when using the new character? Shrug your shoulders and keep writing. No-one cares, at least not at this stage of your novel.

Second: Scenes that do not belong to the story? How do you know, that they do not belong to the story? How do you know, that what you plan to write is what you want to write? Maybe these scenes are the real story you are after. Don't keep them separately. Add them to your story, keep writing. You can kick them out afterward if they don't fit. Being unsure and developing from what comes from your mind instantly is part of the game.

Third: Never forget your main goal: Finish the &*$# novel!

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    @Sheelawolf, and John - we can discuss the policy, but let's do so in chat where the other mods can chime in. I'm going to clean up this comment thread so it stays relevant. – justkt Feb 21 '12 at 21:27
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If you are writing, it is NOT procrastination. Believe me, there have been plenty of times where I would sit and think about a character or scene and come up with all these grandiose ideas, but never actually get anything down (or done). Then later I'd find myself wishing I had written something (anything) that would help the story along.

Your first draft should be all about geting everything down. If you provide too much detail (or not enough), you can always fix it when you go through and edit. After the first pass through, you'll have a second draft which may still need to have more information deleted (or added). You may find yourself starting all over from scratch, but at least you'll have plenty of notes and reference material.

Also, there was another discussion about short story spinoffs from a novel. If you end up with some fully (or mostly) developed scenes or characaters, even if you don't use them in the finished novel, you may be able to use them as part of a supporting short story or part of a sequel or spinoff. The main thing is to just sit down and write!

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If procrastination is your problem, it could be that you're trying to edit your first draft before you've actually written it.

Just as with any sentiment that become too dominant, the cure is to do the opposite of what the sentiment urges you to do.

Just write, write anything, without worrying whether it makes a bit of sense or fits into anything. You will either produce something that fits into the story, something that can be re-written into something that fits the story, or something that doesn't fit but which helps you clarify what does. Even if you scrap it, it may serve as something that has a place in a future body of work.

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I am a discovery writer (aka pantser, but I dislike that term). You can see my approach to starting a novel in this answer to a different question. I'd also recommend this other answer that talks a little about story structure.

To answer your question, I never write extra scenes to explore characters, the novel IS an exploration of the characters. The whole point of discovery writing, for me, is to NOT get burned out.

Thirty years ago, I tried plotting novels, after my third attempt I gave up. The problem is not the plotting, I developed good plots I liked. The problem was the plotting burned out my enthusiasm for writing the scenes and details and dialogue. My characters seemed artificial to me. I spent so much effort on the plotting, going over it again and again, that writing felt like work, or felt like watching a movie for the fifth time in a row on the same day. It was not exciting to me anymore, I didn't feel like I could change the characters without damaging the plot, so I gave up on that approach.

IMO writing "extra" scenes to get to know your character is a plodder's strategy (oops, I meant "plotter"). I begin with a character, and she is going to have a problem. She will also have friends, a job, perhaps a romantic life, etc. I don't write ANY of this down. I am usually obsessed by this character, and spend about a week thinking about her, her reactions, her day-to-day problems, what she finds fun, whether she is sexually active or not, or wants to be, where she has been, what she hopes to be, if she thinks ahead at all. I think about her in traffic, at lunch, at work, at dinner, even watching TV or reading, she will make comments in my head giving her opinions.

But I don't write it down. To me, writing releases the energy of imagination, I don't want to do that. I just want to know her. When I write, I have some opening in mind for her, some little problem (not necessarily part of the main plot) she has to solve, that reveals something important about her character. The first thing I write is her name, and she will be in action, doing something. The first 1/8th of the book is all about her normal world, not about the main problem, just so the reader gets to know her, through her actions and dialogue with others. We meet her friends, coworkers, acquaintances. About 1/8th of the way through, we have the "inciting incident", about 1/4 of the way through, this has grown into the major problem of her story, and it forces her to leave her normal world -- mentally, metaphorically, or physically, and sometimes combinations of those -- in order to do something about it.

Follow the basics of the three act structure (see second link above), without plotting. Let your character react and develop, she is not static. She can learn things, her friends or allies can learn things, and new things about her. I know, because I have internalized the three act structure, basically the kind of thing I am working toward, and how many pages I have to do it.

I do always have some rough ending in mind, which I write in sketch form. No dialogue, no prose, just the basic facts of how her story gets resolved. I treat this like a compass direction. But it is changeable, if what I am writing is going to preclude that ending, my personal policy is I have to come up with a different ending at least as good, or scrap what I am writing and start over, avoiding the dead-ending.

This is not an "efficient" or "time-saving" approach to writing! I have scrapped 5000 words I wrote that led to a dead ending. I have scrapped my first chapter in more than one novel, and started over.

But because I have NOT plotted, I am discovering the plot as I go, and I don't burn out. Also, at every new turning point, I can invent that for how the characters are at that point in the story, so they don't feel forced or unnatural in their decisions. And I actually like inventing challenges that might alter their character in some respects, I don't mind at all if my characters evolve as they go. That's how real-life works too, we are all molded by our experiences, so why should my fictional characters be any different?

I don't draw maps, up front, I don't write character bios. I do keep maps, as I am writing. If I need a lake or mountain range or river, I check my map-so-far to see where I can put one in. I do keep character bios in a sense, if a character reveals something important (their age, sexual experience, biases, likes, dislikes, traumatic experiences) I keep a note on their bio and may consult the bio to make sure I am not introducing an inconsistency. But that's it, I want the physical map or setting to be consistent, and I want the characters histories to be consistent.

From one discovery writer, that is how discovery writing works. It keeps me interested in the story, from start to finish. I do review my finished story, several times with much editing, but the story is complete and I am getting ready to send it out, and that is exciting too. I feel like I am strengthening it.

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