Telling myself the story


I once read that “the first draft is you telling yourself the story”.

I’m not sure where to attribute that quote, but this is certainly true for me. Whilst I have a good outline of the story whenever I write a novel (including the ending, which is crucial), the precise details of that story are rendered fairly anxiously in a first draft. By anxiously I mean the story is over-explained, repetitious, states the obvious and character dialogue is merely functional at that stage, making sure I know what emotions need to be conveyed. I have to make sure the whole thing makes sense to me, before it can make sense to anyone else.

Should I expose readers to such a draft, they would no doubt feel horribly patronised. However, subsequent drafts eliminate over-explanation and repetition. In fact, the withholding of information, the adding of ambiguity to events, dialogue and so on is a hugely enjoyable process, once you as an author have made sense of the story for yourself. It is almost as though I say to myself “I know what I mean by this. Now I want the reader to add their own interpretation”.

Of course, some writers autocratically want to tell their readers what to think, but the older I get, the more I think this approach is a mistake. What is important to an author will be inherent in the text, but it is better for a reader to bring their own baggage and have wriggle room on interpretation, taking what is applicable to them.

In essence, telling the story to myself also encompasses telling myself how I respond to that story. The rewriting process removes the latter stage, stripping it down to the story only and leaving the interpretation to the reader. The final act in my novel Children of the Folded Valley is a prime example of this. I know what I meant to convey, but I removed the explicit stating of what that is. It is up to the reader to decide.

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