When I first started writing fiction back in college, I remember what a struggle it was for me to write a first draft of a story that exceeded five pages in length. Nowadays, I have trouble keeping my first drafts under fifty.
So what happened? A friend of mine recently suggested that perhaps I'm secretly becoming a novelist. Another suggested that the transition made sense: I'm older now, so naturally I have more to say. Perhaps both of these things are true, but I'm not really sure. When I finally finish a story now, it still ends up being a pretty typical length—which is to say, fifteen to twenty pages—and it still usually focuses on a fairly short period of time in a character's life. So why do I now need to write so many more pages in that initial draft in order to get to the point where I'm ready to revise?
For me, the first draft of a story is about discovery. This is the period of time when I'm making important decisions about the tone of the story, the world of the story, and the characters who will occupy this world. It's also the period of time when I'm discovering what's ailing these characters in the first place, what's troubling them, what's happened in their pasts or what's happening in their current lives to make them act the way they're acting. In order for me to come to these answers, I often have to write much more about these characters than is probably necessary. For example, I may end up writing several pages about a character's job, even though that job may only be mentioned briefly in the final draft. Or I may end up delving deep into a character's past, only to discover later that the events of this character's past aren't really relevant to the story I'm telling. And, of course, there have been many times when I have written multiple versions of a single scene, simply to see how the character might react if the circumstances of that scene were changed.
Other writers might not have to do this, but for me it's an important part of the process. In order for me to truly understand my characters, in order for me to feel confident enough to write about them, I need to understand everything about their lives. I need to know how they feel about their spouses, what their childhoods were like, what they most secretly desire. I need to know a lot of things that will probably never make their way into the final draft of the story, but I need to know these things anyway. I need to know them because knowing them helps me let the characters act freely and knowing them also helps me to see the story more clearly. Even though my initial drafts might look like a chaotic mess on the page, even though those drafts might end up being three times as long as the final drafts will be, the process of exploring the characters' lives fully helps me to understand what the story is really about. And by the time I get down to revising, it's amazing how easy it suddenly becomes to make important decisions about the story itself: where it should begin, how it should be structured, which scenes will be necessary and which passages won't.
I realize that not everyone approaches writing this way, and I'm certainly not suggesting that everyone should, but I do think that there's value in exploring your characters' lives fully, in writing more about these characters than might initially seem necessary. In fact, this is something I talk to my students about a lot in class. The stories they're writing now, as juniors and seniors in college, are much like the stories I was writing when I was a junior and senior in college. There's usually some talent there, an interesting premise, a potential for conflict, and so forth, but what's often missing in those initial drafts is a thorough understanding of the characters themselves. So, after their workshops, I'll sometimes tell them to just sit down and write more about their characters, explore their lives a little more, get to know them a little better, delve into their pasts, consider their futures. You might not end up using any of this stuff in your final draft, I'll tell them, but it certainly can't hurt. And you might even be surprised, I'll sometimes say, remembering myself at their age, staring blankly at my computer screen, wondering what to write. You might even be surprised by how much more story there still is to discover.