When I first started writing, I would write until I hit something like a place name, or a character name that I didn’t quite have figured out, and I would stop the drafting process to brainstorm a name, or a town and often this led down a rabbit trail of creating a currency system for my new town or a complicated backstory for a minor character that would never be heard from again. This meant that I would stay stuck on one section of my story until I figured out the name for something that really didn’t matter much to the grand narrative of the story.
This also happened to me when my characters would do something that I didn’t know much about. When writing one of my cop stories, I got hung up on the interrogation process and the specific types of words and charges a cop could or should use when interrogating a suspect. I spent hours researching and procrastinating when I couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for.
Since then, I’ve changed the way I draft so I can avoid these story-stopping pitfalls. Now, I use placeholders.
Place or Name Placeholders
These can be done in a few ways, but how I approach it is simply by typing [placeholder] into the spot where I don’t know a name or idea, or character. This keeps me from stopping every couple lines during the drafting process to find a new name or try to answer a research question. I encourage you to be descriptive with your placeholders so that when you go back to fill them in you have an idea of what you are looking for or need to research.
A few examples of this from my work are [head guy] who is the director of my federal intelligence agency, [hometown of MC] which is obviously the town where my main character grew up, and then I have names like [guard that isn’t rude] or [round-rim glasses advisor].
What these placeholders do is help remind me of the character or place that I need to name while also giving me a tiny bit of the most relevant description that I previously used to identify them in the story.
The second use of placeholders comes to specific scenes that I, for whatever reason, I cannot write effectively during the drafting process. I am a rapid drafter and after seeing how my progress would slow to a standstill, I have become very liberal with the scene placeholders I use.
Basically, anytime I am not sure how to proceed, or I know what happens at point A and point C, but not point B, I will use a placeholder scene. If first drafts are just telling yourself the story, then my scene placeholders are the epitome of just telling myself the story.
My scene placeholders are bare bones descriptions of the event that will or could happen. They look something like this: [Okay, so MC and her crew have to go through the cave to find the treasure, but I don’t know what kinds of traps or issues the cave will have, but I just know that [loyal sidekick] gets mortally injured and MC has to question whether or not this quest is worth sacrificing her friends’ lives over.]
What this placeholder does is tell me the event that is going to happen: explore a cave, and [loyal sidekick] getting injured. It also tells me the emotional aspects of the scene: MC questioning her motives and goals. And the placeholder also tells me some of the things that prevented me from writing the scene when I first got to it: I don’t know what kinds of traps or issues the cave will have, or how the [loyal sidekick] is injured.
All these pieces of information arranged very informally in my story help me keep the flow of my writing while also designating the area, goals, and problems of what I will need to come back and fix and think more deeply about.
I also use placeholders to signal the need to use a thesaurus. These are placeholders when I have a specific word or phrase in mind, but I can only think of near equivalents. Instead of wasting time trying to get the perfect phrase (for a first draft no less), I use placeholders to describe the phrase I want even if I can’t put my finger on it in the moment of writing.
One case where I used a thesaurus placeholder for was when I was trying to describe how my character was getting worn down like a rock in a river. I was specifically thinking about the harshness of water refinement where all rough edges of a rock are worn away by repeated encounters with rushing water, but my description of such a comparison was long, clunky, and didn’t portray the spirit of the event as much as I wanted, but I could not for the life of me get the water/rock/refinement/character weariness to all work together. So I placeholdered the spot with something like [when the water hits rock lots and makes it smoooooth]. With this description, I knew the sensation I was trying to capture, and I could wrestle with the exact language later, preferably not during a first draft.
I ended up taking that section out of the story, so spending 20 minutes trying to figure it out while I was drafting would not only have been a progress-halter, but also a waste of time for something I would later cut.
The last way I use placeholders is for notes to my future editor self. Sometimes I will be writing a scene, and I know it’s not working out for some reason like timing, tension, the emotions. Perhaps I’ve noticed an inconsistency with the character and the way they respond to certain things, or I’ve noticed that the plot isn’t advancing quickly enough, or that the character with a broken arm last chapter is now lifting buses with an injury.
Sometimes I leave these placeholders because I get excited for what’s happening and I can’t help but leave a margin note for my later self. Whatever the case, these editor note placeholders don’t so much aid the drafting process as they do signal specific events or ideas that I should focus on as an editor.
Obviously, I have a love for placeholders of all kinds. These little notes to myself about character names, scenes I haven’t written, words I can’t quite describe, and messages to editor me all help me through the drafting process faster by keeping my writing stops to a minimum. They boost my first draft productivity while leaving room and reminders of the things I will need to fix or research for my second draft.
Today I’ve highlighted the pros of using placeholders to prevent stalling during the first draft writing. Do you use placeholders in your writing? When do you most use them?