Questionable: Surprises in the First Draft

Roben wrote:

My question: If in the middle of writing a contemporary romance a secondary character takes on an entirely different demeanor than you intended, and he becomes larger than life, the tone darkens and switches to what could be romantic suspense, do you toss that character out of your relationship/love story or do you go with it and expand his character and go back and foreshadow?

Although I never follow this advice, I really do believe you don’t change anything in a first draft until the draft is done and you can see the shape of the whole story. I think the smartest thing to do is follow the Girls to the end and then step back and see what you have. But you’re right in that a change in tone breaks the promise made to the reader at the beginning of the book, so in the rewrite you’re going to have to pick a lane.

The key is going to be what kind of story it is at the end, what happens in the climax. The end of the story determines everything else in it. You can’t have a lighthearted comedy where the dog dies in the end. You can’t do a slapstick ending to a dark plot. (That actually happened to a very good movie, The January Man, a story about a serial killer and the serious hunt to capture him that ended with Kevin Kline rolling down the several flights of stairs with the killer and making wisecracks the entire time. It was awful.) So at the end of the first draft, look back and see what you ended up with, and then see how that outlier character fits in. If he’s a betrayal of the climax, you might be better cutting him or at least making him lighter. But if he’s the match for the climax and the beginning just starts too light, rewrite the beginning. What you’re looking for is unity, that sense the story is all one piece, all the smaller pieces locking together and matching to make a whole.

Standard Disclaimer: There are many roads to Oz. While this is my opinion on this writing topic, it is by no means a rule, a requirement, or The Only Way To Do This. Your story is your story, and you can write it any way you please.

13 thoughts on “Questionable: Surprises in the First Draft

  1. Hmm. What about something that turns, in the first draft, to something with more suspense (someone is trying to kill my MC and take the magic she’s only just acknowledged), but there is also humor (my MC gets clutzy and the story kind of begins with a Terrible Accident involving her beloved MacBook, a fall from a table, an oblivious waiter, and lot of sticky hot drinks). Do the two aspects (humorous MC events and murderous antagonist) belong in the same book? Can they coexist yet bring about a cohesive story that doesn’t betray the reader?

    1. I think you need something to foreshadow that there’s going to be an aggressive antagonist, that the book isn’t just a comedy/romp but has some serious undertones. That can be as simple as having the antagonist on the scene, foreshadowing his own actions: being controlling, showing envy, etc. But if your story is very light and funny and then suddenly this guy shows up and starts hurting the protagonist, readers are going to think that’s a betrayal of the promise you made in the beginning. I think. I could be wrong, I often am.

    2. Speaking as a reader and a librarian, humor and murder can be in the same book. The mystery is classified as a “cozy” and they are my preferred type of mystery. If it is more romantic suspense, the suspense can still be somewhat campy and the villian can be powerful but also have mishaps. The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes comes to mind. The aunt is trying to steal the nieces power but there is still humor in the book.

      My point, perhaps, is that it can be done but the tone needs to be even. Don’t jump from a pratfall to menace or torture and back.

  2. Yes, thank you Jenny. That is what happened to my story. I did the wrong thing though, I didn’t push through and finish it. I stopped at the black moment, and froze because I was surprised at the dark turn of events. It was meant to be a love story, and then switched mid book.
    I went back and began foreshadowing and tweaking. I knew how the ending would happen, but it was like my brain said nope, you can’t write it until the beginning makes sense. ; ) Anyway, this past weekend I had a breakthrough. I’ve been thinking and restructuring and dreaming about the story. That’s always good for me. So I now have my antagonist showing up in his POV in scene two, and showing his passion and obsession for one particular thing. Then it switches back to heroine, then to hero. I’ve tried to smooth out the transitions from one POV to the other and not make it too jerky. Thinking it over, and reading this today, I’m even thinking I could show the antagonists obsession through the eyes of the hero. Maybe? That way I wouldn’t have three POV’s in the first two chapters, although with RS that often happens.

  3. Roben, I’m hearing this question as a possible switch from a romance to a romantic mystery. And I’m thinking your “girls” just added an element you may not have set out to have but that adds structure to your plot. That right?

    If so, agree with Jenny that it could be good to see it through to the end–sometimes the story wants what the story wants.

    But also agree with Jenny re importance of unity and payoff of promise. And Kelly S re tone.

    As a writer, at the point you’re at now, I’d be asking myself: “Am I having fun writing this? Am I excited about what will happen next?”

    The answers will tell you which direction to take. And if you decide to keep going and turn your story into a suspense, you can go back in later as Jenny suggested and rework things in the first half so that the promise you make to the reader matches what you deliver.

    Really, I’d see this development as a gift. Hope things work out for you & your story:)

  4. Thanks, KatyL. Good advice. It’s not that I hate the story it was just shock and that, “where the hell did this guy come from” thing. I had written one contemporary (just submitted to publisher) and I think I wanted another one to back it up but the brain said nope this one will be another suspense. I’d been trying to break away from RS. Next time. Maybe. ; )

  5. At 95K, I cut out a secondary character who kept overshadowing the series’s heroine. I’d reached the point where I could see the story climax and realized that he couldn’t be in it–she’d never shine with him around.

    Cutting him out was horrible. Because he really was a great character and because I ended up pulling out far more words than I anticipated. (ouch, and OMG ouch)

    Can you use this guy for another book? Maybe he needs his own story? Developing him is half the battle.

  6. Thanks for all the wonderful comments, ladies.
    The brain works in mysterious ways. Maybe I was nervous and didn’t think I could fill an 80K manuscript without the twists and turns of romantic suspense, so my character jumped in to save the day. : )
    Divide and conquer. Hmmm? I’d have two half finished books, one contemporary romance, and one from a RS antagonist’s viewpoint. It’s a possibility. But, I think I’m willing to do what Jenny suggests, just push through to the end and birth this sucker and then reassess what I have. No more tinkering.

  7. I have been reading the site for a while with deep fascination, but haven’t commented, but this question has definitely hit a nerve for me too!

    I’m mid first draft for my current novel (after having been blocked from writing fiction for a few years, so it all feels pretty tentative!) – I tore through the first 50k, with a story that felt like it was telling itself, with my protagonist struggling with a group of difficult characters (brought together for a party), and then promptly drove them all out of the picture as my protagonist was desperate to do (made sense at the time – the party was over!), but ever since the story has just gone flat. I have plugged grimly on and now have 90k odd words, but the first draft has just gone limp in my hands, and I cannot work out how to resuscitate it!!

    Thanks to the writing posts on this site, I have just realised that I think I have two main problems (and others, but two that are really breaking the story in this draft) – one, I got rid of all the characters that were creating conflict (!!!), and two, I think I started in the middle (ie at the end of the party when the body is discovered), but looking at it now, I think that is the turning point, not the beginning…?!

    It feels like I can’t push on and complete this draft because it is so wrong that I would just be cobbling together a limp made-out-of-cornflakes replica just to have ticked the box that says “finished”, but I’m also worried that maybe I’m being perfectionist and the option to rewrite feels easier because it’s not finishing… I would really appreciate any thoughts! Thank you in advance!

    1. I’d advise you to stop thinking about it and just write scenes in the story that would be fun to write.
      What I’ve found in the past and now again as it comes back to me, is that the well fills from below: you write something that sounds fun/exciting/moving and in the process you get something else that you want to write. It may not feel like something that will fit, but if it feels like something you want to write, write it. I was working on a book once and really, really wanted to write a softball game that had NOTHING to do with the plot. I finally gave up and wrote it and it turned out to be crucial. It may be that you’ve been doing all the right things, and that’s prevented you from writing some of the things you know would be wrong for the book but that you want to write anyway. My take on that is that if the Girls are sending up stuff, humor them and write it down. They usually know what they’re doing.

      So my advice is to write scenes that may not fit it in the book but that would be fun to write. Crunchy stuff. Let go of the structure–you can always fix structure later–and see what happens if you just write the Good Parts.

      And good luck. Believe me, I feel your pain.

      1. Thank you so much, Jenny! I will try to listen to what wants to be written and let go of whether or not it’s right! I will be chewing over this for a while! Thank you again!

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