Side writing: Any exploratory piece of writing that helps a writer get to know elements of their story but isn’t intended to make its way into a draft in its entirety. Examples include journaling from a character’s perspective, writing a scene from an alternate point of view, or creating sensory word lists for a particular setting.
Writers tend to feel strongly about side writing, one way or the other. I’ll admit it. I was not a fan of it for most of my writing life. Sometimes, I still have trouble working up the power to sit down and write, period.
But I’m going to make the case that whether you love it or despise it, you owe it to yourself, your story, and your reader to write one piece of side writing. Just one: the origin scene.
As writing instructor, story coach, and author Lisa Cron calls it in her book Story Genius, it’s the transformative scene in your protagonist’s life that forever changed the way they see their world. It is the moment before your story opens when their view of life changed dramatically enough to warrant the need for the story you will tell. It’s a scene so pivotal that your novel is built upon it. We’re talking about the moment when the protagonist’s wound/baggage/lie/misbelief/whatever-you-want to call it was born. And yes, I’m talking about a fully-formed scene.
It won’t become a prologue. It won’t be your first scene. And it may not become a full-fledged flashback. So why write it?
We’ve all heard the expression of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. The origin scene will allow you to see your story world through protagonist-colored-glasses.
As an editor, it’s common to work with clients who aren’t conveying their protagonist’s misbelief as intimately as they hope. As a writer, I’m guilty of it myself. We often generalize this critical piece of our protagonist’s backstory into something generic. He was bullied, or she was abandoned, or they lost a loved one. But this sweeping statement of what has fundamentally transformed our protagonist robs us of conveying it authentically. It reads like cardboard because we haven’t written it out so that it actually happens, moment by moment, to our protagonist in a way that we feel like it happened to us, as well.
Knowing the details of the scene where your protagonist’s life veered in a new direction will help both you and your reader know them far better than you can ever imagine. There are loads of character inventory sheets or questionnaires online, asking us to list our character’s favorite movie and hair color and tastes in music. But what matters in a story isn’t their favorite color; it’s genuine emotion.
Emotion is the reason we read, the reason we write, and the reason we care. And unless you can mine the details that have fundamentally shaped the person you are writing about, all these random facts about your character will fall flat. The origin scene gives rise to who your character really is when your novel opens. What they’re carrying when we first meet them. It makes the case as to why your story matters, why your story earns its power to undo this misbelief.
First, the good news: the origin scene doesn’t have to be polished. That’s right—no revision. Yay! It can be messy. Loaded with telling. Packed with bad dialogue. Brimming with named, abstract emotions. There’s every chance no one will ever see it but you, so it can be as short as you need or as long as you want. What matters most is that you, the writer, have slipped into the skin of your protagonist to experience in real time the moment that dramatically changed their world. That way, you carry it forward as though it happened to you. The payoff in authenticity on the page is worth it. I promise.
More good news: having written their origin scene, you will know far more clearly what your protagonist is up against internally. You will know what demon(s) they are battling as scene one opens in your WIP. This will better set you up to show how gradual their internal change will be at each of your critical turning points. You will understand their reluctance to change, as well as the forces necessary to undo the misbelief. Similarly, you will be better equipped to plot external events that are powerful enough to yield that internal change. You will know just how high the stakes need to be in order to put that misbelief to bed forever.
And perhaps, the best news: pieces of this scene will make their way onto the page. Every page. You will carry forward potent details that will help you understand the pain or joy your character experienced as though it happened to you. You will be wearing those protagonist-colored-glasses, seeing the world through their eyes. That feeling can’t be faked unless it feels real to you, the writer. Sensory details, physical objects, dialogue, and other bits can emerge in your front-story scenes in order to jog the protagonist’s memory, stirring up remnants of that deep-seated emotion. You will sprinkle in bits of the origin scene, both at turning points and as the misbelief is finally killed off. Making this scene as crucial, if not more crucial, than any scene that will appear in your manuscript.
Cron recommends writing the origin scene in first-person POV, regardless of your novel’s POV. She says our main goal in this scene is to clearly track our protagonist’s emotions and expectations as the scene opens. Then, experience the moment those expectations weren’t met and track how it emotionally impacts our protagonist. Finally, spell out their emotions and the solidification of their new belief after the turn. The birth of the misbelief.
So, what are you waiting for? Give this one piece of a side-writing the try you, your story, and your reader deserve. Fair warning: it may transform your WIP in ways you may not expect, ways that will make you wish you’d done it sooner. Who knows? It may even turn you into a fan of side-writing after all. And, if you’re already a fan of the origin scene, I’d love to hear your thoughts on writing it and know how it’s helped you develop your stories!
Marissa GraffResident Writing Coach
Marissa has been a freelance editor and reader for literary agent Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary Agency for over five years. In conjunction with Angelella Editorial, she offers developmental editing, author coaching, and more. Marissa feels if she’s done her job well, a client should probably never need her help again because she’s given them a crash-course MFA via deep editorial support and/or coaching.
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