To Plan or Not To Plan Your Story?

Got a PlanI wish I knew the best way to create a story. I’ve tried planning and I’ve tried going with the flow and both have their pros and cons. It’s more than likely a personal choice thing and there’s no advice that will truly hit the spot until I try it on for size.

I absolutely hate planning though.When I was working in a proper job I would never plan. It just wasn’t part of who I was but then I became a Project Manager. The whole job was about detailed, OCD planning of not just your time but everyones. I learnt some skills there that I then brought to this writing lark. But what’s best?

I was absolutely convinced that the best way to go was a detailed plan, chapter by chapter, and then when it comes down to write just fill in the gaps. If you do it this way then you know the beginning, the middle and the end from the off. You know if the story’s plausible, consistent, and has those nice little bits sewn in to the story that gives it the direction.

But… if you have such a robust plan what happens when you think of something else while you’re writing. It could be a gem of an idea and then you have to throw the plan out anyway.

The reason I’m questioning the approach again is that I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing. In this book, which is amazing by the way, he talks about how he goes about crafting a story. His method is to come up with some characters and a situation, then just take it from there. He sometimes knows how it’s all going to end but how the characters get there is unknown even to him. He claims that he is the first reader of the story and so he wants to know what’s going to happen as much as the readers he’s writing it for.

This sounds cool. I like the idea and I love the other advice he gives in the book so I feel a responsibility to at least give it a go. I think there could be a lot of wasted time if you end up writing a story for these characters and it turns out that they go to the shop and then they get a takeaway and then go home to watch a film. I don’t know if I truly buy in to the fact that the characters lead the writer.

His justification to this approach is that story’s that are planned always seem to be formulaic and obvious. Where as if he doesn’t even know what’s going to happen in his books then they’re definitely not going to have obvious endings. We’re not talking about any old hack here, we’re talking about the author of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, The Shining and Carrie. You can’t argue that his stories don’t have great, unexpected endings.

His advice comes with some clout so I’m thinking seriously about it. I may well tentatively go for a hybrid next. Come up with a situation and then roughly outline a plot that they’re going to follow. Have you tried different approaches, what do you find works best for you?

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10 responses to “To Plan or Not To Plan Your Story?

  1. I’ve heard so many good things about the Stephen King book you reference. I will have to check it out. By the way, I purchased Scrivener after reading your posts. I’m in love with it. Can’t believe all the writing I’ve done to this point without it.

    • I’m so glad you love Scrivener. It makes the whole thing so easy once you’re done that it’s a no-brainer. You’ll definitely have to get the Stephen King book. Really fascinating to get that insight as a writer.

  2. I’ve tried on a couple of my books to start by writing an outline and trying to follow that. Yeah right, as writers we know how that usually goes. Although it does help with keeping things straight in your mind. Most of the time I know how I want the book to end, but the in between can take many turns from what I originally planned. My outline usually ends of looking like a train wreck.

  3. I was listening to a writer speaking on the radio the other day. She was saying that she starts with the idea of how a book begins, and might then think through how the ending might be. What happens in the middle happens as she writes. Sharpening up the beginning this author found to be her stimulus for getting a book written.
    The idea of being the first reader of the story sounds a bit far fetched, but then we’re not talking about journalism where the story would have to be completely planned.
    Does it actually matter? surely it’s what works for you that matters.

  4. I always start with an abstract idea or a first line, and take it from there. My ideas come out of nowhere, and I never know where they’re going. One short story began with “My house sings at night” and took off from there. I had no idea where it was going, but loved where it went. 🙂

    I tried the outline thing when writing my Master’s Thesis in grad school. And I knew when that blew up in my face that writing fiction was never going to work for me if I did an outline.

  5. After 25 years of attempts to write a novel using a by-the-pants approach, I discovered a couple of years ago that I’m a planner.

    In the past, I would come up with some interesting characters, an interesting situation, and I’d plunge into the writing process. Not by design, but because I simply thought that was “how it’s done”. I would inevitably hit a wall that I couldn’t seem to find a way over or around, and I’d abandon the work, thinking it was a horrible idea.

    In 2010 I started reading some books written by James Scott Bell on the craft of writing. As a result I decided to try a different approach. This time, I would plan out the major plot points and have some idea of how the thing was going to end before I started. This way, I would always have a compass to guide me. This process led me to finish my first novel, after 20+ of false starts.

    But there’s a danger: cliche. When you’re making a detailed plan, the first ideas you usually reach for are cliche, even if you don’t recognize them as such at first. In my planning phase I go through a lengthy “what if” process, where I basically interrogate all of my ideas and twist them around. More often than not I wind up with different plot points and a somewhat different ending. And that’s fine by me…I’m never married to my original idea. What’s important (for me) is that I come up with a basic road map before I begin writing the prose.

    Sometimes things go off in a new and interesting direction as I’m writing. I’m also ok with that. But I always hit a point where in order to progress I need to know where I’m going. In the past I would abandon the work, thinking it had no merit. Now, I just hit “pause” for a while and change my road map.

    As always, great post Michael!

    • Thanks for explaining what you do Nat. Planning to finish a book is important but, like you say, when you’re up to your eyes in the blood and guts of it all you have to be able to flex with the story. Thanks again.

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