Navigating a path from start to finish of a novel can be hard for both plotters and free-writers; enter the Skeleton Draft.
The Skeleton Draft is an idea-dump. Maybe you outlined the novel using a story structure such as the Hero’s Journey or any of the five, seven, seventeen or twenty-four point methods. Or maybe you have a scant clue of your story without a real structure in mind. The Skeleton Draft is a means to dive into the story and explore characters, conflicts and events without getting hung up on prose before you really have the idea worked out.
Also called a Skeleton Outline or Draft Zero, the Skeleton Draft provides a bare-bones outline of the novel scene-by-scene. Without dictating hard rules, the Skeleton Draft should include:
- Main characters
- Basic location, time, setting
- The conflict of the scene
- Key events or arguments, with suggested key lines of dialogue
- The outcome or resolution of the scene
This is a free-writing tool. This isn’t full prose, there’s no concern for grammar or format.
For free-writers, the Skeleton Draft avoids the trap of under-thinking the story and wasting a lot of time on prose or story elements that don’t work. This may sound like the opposite of ‘go where the text takes me’ free-writing. Nobody says you have to use it, but consider; how much time and effort goes into drafting and re-drafting text when the direction changes? The Skeleton Draft at least offers an opportunity to road-test the story idea beyond the basic ‘elevator-pitch’ that motivates a lot of free-writers.
Working at a summary level, you can map scenes to plot points or plot-points to scenes without committing to a whole lot of prose.
You don’t have to draft every single scene or even fix the precise order.
Uses of the Skeleton Draft
You can use the Skeleton Draft in several ways:
- identify your story beats and their place in the overall structure
- help to identify themes if you haven’t already
- clarify the key characters and their roles
- identify character motives and flaws
- ask yourself why characters behave as they do and the consequences that flow from their decisions and actions
- bring focus to conflict, reaction and decisions – this is vital to keep the story moving and developing
- work through your existing ideas for character and plot
- spark additional thinking about character and plot; play ‘what-if’ and add new ideas as you lay out your concept for the story
In terms of genre, the Skeleton Draft also allows you to consider the set-pieces and genre-tropes that readers expect to see in a genre story. Where does the meet-cute occur in your romance? What triggers the ‘all-is-lost‘ moment?
The Need for Speed
Above all, the Skeleton Draft is a short-cut to productivity. Rather than stumbling around working through plot and character as you write, a skeleton provides a shape and a test-bed for the story. If you’d rather free-write your way into and out of trouble, taking as long as it takes, that’s up to you. There’s a lot in favour of the creative exploration – as long as it doesn’t turn into a creative fug or creative dead-end. But most writers want to light up that brilliant story concept and get the words out with minimal waste.
Here’s the opening scene of Chapter Two in skeleton form. I didn’t outline it this way originally and it lacked focus, demanding a lot of re-writes. A Skeleton Draft would have saved a lot of effort in the early stages.
Jovanka’s party heads into the Outlands. The Captain and the guards are fearful of discovery by hostile Horse Clans. They don’t know the reason Jovanka is slowing their progress.
Goal: Jovanka needs to find her Gray Rider in the middle of a Wilderness, as her second sight has shown her.
Conflict: Jovanka reacts badly to the Captain treating her like a child and responds by withholding key information about the mission.
Outcome: An awkward stand-off where Gulatta, Jovanka’s retainer, has to intervene.
Reaction: Jovanka and the Captain’s contempt for each other deepens.
Reflection: The upcoming battle with the Reavers is in Jovanka’s Sight. She knows the Gray Rider will come, but it will cost her dearly. Her Sight is a burden as much as a gift
Decision: Jovanka pushes on. The Captain’s loyalty to Jovanka’s father (and need for money) sees him swallow his pride and follow her orders.
The Skeleton Draft doesn’t have to include every scene. You can just cover key scenes for the main story beats, just to keep the story on track and free-write from one ‘what happens next?’ moment to the other.
It doesn’t even need to be a document. Some writers have their skeleton draft on a set of sticky-notes or bullet-points on a white board. However you choose to use it, the Skeleton Draft is just another writing tool that comes in many shapes and sizes.