First Draft Problems and How to Solve Them

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All first drafts have problems.  But all first drafts can also be polished into gems with a little (or a lot) of rewriting. Here are some of the most common first draft problems and how you can solve them.

Info Dumps Through Dialog

This is when a huge amount of the plot or back story is conveyed through dialog.  Rather than showing the reader the conflict and allowing them to gradually learn about the history of your character and universe, you simply stuff everything necessary into a verbal info dump.

“I don’t understand,” Maggie said.

“Let me explain it to you,” the wizard said. “It all started twenty years ago when your great, great grandfather wanted to rule the kingdom…[100 words later]…the king didn’t want that to happen so he sent away the man servant and told him to never return, but he secretly…[250 words later]…and then you were born and raised by mountain trolls…[200 words later]… so now you must regain the glory of our kingdom by fighting the dragon of the north.”

Solution: Find ways to trickle this information throughout the book.  Think critically about what your reader needs to know in any given moment. So long as they get the information before it becomes relevant, you’re good, so space it out.  Also, think critically about whether the information is needed at all. Condense the story down to its bare essentials.

Info Dumps of the Past

This happens when the novel is packed with things that happened before the start of the story. You may be constantly backtracking to explain things. It gives the reader a sort of whiplash as they are ping-ponged from the current events to the past and back again.

Angela looked at me in that crappy way of hers, eyes bugging out of her head.  I hate that girl.  Last summer when I went out with Max, but he was still in love with Abby, who really wanted to be with Kristy, but she was totally hung up on Brad…[200 words later] and then she totally didn’t even show up to my birthday party and she had the nerve to ask me to…[450 words later] …so that’s why I don’t like Angela.

Solution: Follow the advice for info dumps through dialog and also consider the possibility that you are starting your story too late.  Sometimes info dumps about the past can be eliminated by adding a well-structured first chapter that shows the reader what they will need to know to understand the rest of the story. For more help: How to Dump Info Without Info Dumping.

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Over Explaining

In large part, this has to do with not trusting your reader to “get it” without your (extensive) help. The result is that the same thing is explained over and over and over again. This is often the cause of super long word counts.

He was sad. His eyes welled with tears. His head dropped to his chest. “It’s so tragic!” he cried, wiping away tears. His heart felt as if it were breaking.

Solution: Trust your reader! And keep it simple! If you explain something once, the vast majority of your readers will understand and remember it.

Under Explaining

This happens when you’re too close to your own story. Everything feels so obvious and clear to you (as the author) and as a result you are leaving readers scratching their heads wondering what the heck is going on.

Charles opened the fridge and inside there was a GooblyOobly. It pulled out its wattyboo and cast a Famblaster spell that cracked Charles’ hobmufster in two.

Solution: Step away from your work! Get some distance (a few days to a few weeks), then come back to it with fresh eyes. Try to read it like you’ve never seen it before. If this doesn’t work, have someone else read it for you and mark where they get confused or feel lost.

Chapters with the Same Purpose

Each chapter or section should serve a unique and necessary purpose in your novel. In a lot of first drafts, there will be multiple chapters that share a function.

Perhaps you want to show that Lexi is scared of water, so you write a scene where she has to take a sponge bath instead of bathe in the tub.  Then you write a scene where everyone else is going swimming and she can’t go.  Then you write a scene where she has a panic attack when a glass of water is spilled on her.  Okay, we get it!  She’s afraid of water!

Solution: There is nothing wrong with including all of these scenes in your book so long as there is another purpose to each of the scenes.  You can only have one scene with the exclusive purpose of demonstrating her fear.  After that, there must be a different conflict, a different purpose, or else the scene should be scrapped. For more help: How to Spot a Bad Scene or Chapter.

Chapters with No Purpose

This is the dreaded filler!  If your characters are eating, smoking, staring out a window, or thinking of the past, you have most likely written a chapter or section with no purpose.  Each chapter/section must have a conflict and a resolution.  If there is neither, it’s just filler.

I have found that NaNoWriMo novels in particular have a lot of filler because writers are racing to meet the word count.  Filler can also happen when a writer isn’t sure where they want to go with the book so they ramble for a few chapters before getting back on course.

Solution: If a scene has no conflict or resolution, cut it out.  Don’t whine and moan and cry about it.  Just cut it out and move on.  You’ll never miss filler scenes when you get down to the finished product.

Got a problem that isn’t addressed here?  Have a writing or editing question?  Leave a comment or check out the Help Desk.

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