As I’m getting through to the end of an epic fantasy series, I’ve found the way I’ve planned my novels has changed massively over the years. My general approach to planning is way different to way it used to be. So I wanted to talk about telling your story. Whether, as a writer, you think about the bricks and mortar, the scaffolding, the engineers, the builders with their copies of The Sun stuffed down the front of the van windscreen, or whether you’re happy to wing it. That sort of thing.
When I worked in editorial positions, I always noted the sheer varieties of ways people went about their planning. The important thing to remember is that it’s whatever works for you, not what some idiot on the internet says, least of all me.
I used to be a story traveller. I had a few loose story ideas in mind, but I mostly wanted to go exploring. It was fun. I had a bunch of characters or a setting as a starting point, and tended to work outwards from there. It’s not a bad route: you get to know your characters well, you get to explore a world through their eyes. Everything feels very, very natural, and you can capture a lot of nuances of human interaction because you’re not trying to fit round things through a square shaped hole to make your plot move forwards.
The downside is you can wander off anywhere, kind of forgetting that plot unless you knew instinctively where the characters should be heading. Wandering is good if you’ve a strong sense of place and you want to explore that. It’s useful for that travelogue element of SFF, of discovering places. It puts your imagination in centre stage (though you better have a good one). It’s possibly even useful for some cool character interaction. But I wouldn’t want to write an intricate crime novel this way, and nor is it useful for making calculated story structures.
These are the types of writers who need to plan the plot out in immense detail before they’d even go near the actual writing. I’m talking about a far extreme on this writing spectrum. Some folk want to know not just the beginning, middle and end, chapter by chapter, but every little detail in the middle. That’s cool, of course. You can do a heck of a lot of clever stuff this way. You can not only tick off the kind of structure you want (three acts or more?) but you can make intricate things happen, or see plot issues before you get stuck writing them. You can research the hell out of a concept and nail, for example, a classy piece of period detail. Some say it’s a great way of preventing writer’s block, too, because you know absolutely what you’re going to write about.
Personally, committing fully to this approach takes away a lot of the fun. I like the element of discovery through characters’ eyes, which can then impact the plot, and what if I want to tweak the plot half way through, if things don’t feel right? What’s more, I can’t even get a feel for things until I begin putting prose on paper. Perhaps things can seem a little forced – as if characters are simply jumping through hoops and not acting like human beings at all. It’s not the case all the time, of course, but this is the internet and it was made for sweeping generalisations.
The lighthouse seeker
You’re the kind of kid that sits somewhere in between. You need those markers to aim towards, perhaps the general story acts you have in mind. You can go for runs or a long walk and dwell on nudging things in certain directions; that creative freedom is there. But you can’t be doing with the rigid planning. In fact, rigid planning is just so 1980s, and makes you feel like you’re wearing Spandex. You know instinctively, however, if your story does not hit those certain points at the right time, you’re going to be royally screwed. You story will collapse quicker than a tower of cards.
I used to be like you too, for one book, then Trying To End A Fantasy Series happened to me.
The fluidly fluid approach
Now this is how I’m currently finding my planning efforts. I’ve got in-depth character sketches. I’ve got my worldbuilding all done. I’ve got a series to end, a fairly rigid plot in mind but I need the fluidity of being able to shift things around. To make pieces fit. To make characters resolve their personal plot-lines, to clean up four books of a sprawling mess of ideas. There’s a whole fuck-ton of juggling that’s going on right now, and I still want to maintain that individual novel essence, rather than this book end up being a linear coda to what I’ve done before. No clean-cut approach to planning will work. I need to respect the novel.
I guess in the days before Scrivener this could easily have been arranged with a bunch of Post-It notes and scrapbook scribblings, but on screen, in that wonderful programme, everything is much easier to control. I can move back and forth between a plot or sub-plot, and my writing, which then informs the plot, which then informs the writing, and so on. With Scrivener, I’m totally on top of everything. The idea of sitting down and planning a beginning, middle and end seems laughable right now – I’m picking up ends from two other books. Likewise, if I just went into this blindly, I’d be a moron. Having simple checkpoints doesn’t seem to be enough either, and a world without writing software fills me with fear. Who knows how this will end?
It’s important to say that there’s a whole load of other stuff to keep in mind. You’ve got the worldbuilding (real or secondary), the style to choose (first person or third?), the characters to make real and give lives to, but I’m not going to harp on about those parts right now.
Like you lot, I find the process fascinating, because it shows much about the mind of a writer as it does explain their end results. So, how do you go about planning yours? Are you anally retentive or a free Bohemian spirit who eats writing rules for breakfast?
Funny, this is something that’s been on my mind a lot recently! Interesting post.
For the most part, I’ve definitely been more of a Wanderer. When you want to do something grand it’s very difficult to wrap your brain around it all. Sometimes it’s easier to explore things in bits and pieces first then later try to string it all together—key word being “try,” heh. The more numerous the pieces, the more challenging the puzzle. Don’t think I quite understood that first starting off…
Anyway, I tried to be an Architect (I really did), but it killed my desire to write. After that, I adopted more of a “lighthouse seeker” approach and decided to stick with that for the first novel.
Even though I’m still editing this first project, there are already vivid scenes and plot sequences presenting themselves for a sequel, informed by the details and happenings of the first novel. I’m guessing that my second project is going to be more planned out than the first, now that the major worldbuilding and character development has been done. Those things being clear to me now, it would make sense to try and do more exciting things with the plot.
I wonder if this kind of flip-flopping on planning processes isn’t shared amongst most new writers. Even so, I don’t think I’ll ever be a hardcore Architect. That’s just not how I think. (And this is probably why I’m shooting for a career in interior design, and not always seeing eye-to-eye with “those Architect types,” heh.)
Mah, I should be sleeping now. Apparently, though, I’m more of a nighthawk, which can be problematic waking up at six in the morning… Good food for thought, though, those planning types.
Great post, thanks for the insights!
I used to plan only the setting to the extreme, but only with the most tenuous of plots. The characters themselves developed in the actual plots, as a I put pen to paper. This was great fun to write – with a real feeling of discovery and adventure for me as each scene unfolded.
I found the opening scenes would be great material as I committed all the ideas that had been buzzing around my head for months… turns of phrase, snippets of dialogue, establishing character relationships etc. BUT, after the blazing open scenes, the story would quickly start to fray, meander and dilute.
Now I plan to the other extreme, with each scene plotted out in detail, characters profiled, settings developed. It’s taken some of the exhilaration out of writing but definitely makes it up for it by giving me regular plot ‘milestones’ that keeps the focus whilst allowing me the freedom to wonder in between.
It also means that if I’m not in the mood to write a mushy romantic scene, I can jump to a mid-story bloody battle, and be pretty confident it will all fit together in the end!
Ultimately, I now know the entire story before I start writing – conflicts, resolutions, critical dialogue, relationships and changes, loyalties etc. I personally use yWriter to manage this, but I’ve heard good things about Scrivener too.
I’m a lighthouse seeker. But I’m also working forwards. Revisions to the novel have been painfully slow (I’ve learned to stop compounding the issue by worrying about it – I don’t have a deadline so can afford to take my time), especially in the final chapters as I’m not only trying to ensure that all the character, plot, story and emotive threads are drawn together nicely, but also that I’m setting things up for those potential future books – that revelation you read about in book 5, that makes you go and look back at book 1 and go “holy crap, it was there all along.”
But I try and remain fluid. The later chapters, due to the amount of revision need rewrites and only last night I realised the reason the words were coming slow was because in the climatic moments of the novel, the protagonists were basically standing around watching other people solve the situation. Hmm, I think, perhaps they need to be the ones doing heroic things? Hence a minor re-rig that won’t ripple beyond the chapter but still needs a bit of thought today.
For myself I think I sit firmly in the middle ground. A few stories have never got off the ground because I couldn’t make myself believe in the logic. Others haven’t even needed a plan.
Any chance of a screenshot (with text blurred out) so we can see how you use Scrivener? 🙂
I’d say I was a Lighthouse Seeker of sorts. I may have an ending in mind and have a few scenes I want to hit along the way, but as my main plotline and subplots are usually complex, I don’t always stay on the right path. When a deviation occurs that alters something I’ve already written, I make a note and continue as though I’ve already made the change. Quite often the scenes I was trying to hit never factor in the finished piece. Likewise the ending will change due to some unforeseen character development, but by then the structure (though complex) is all there and I can see it as a whole. I don’t enjoy the first draft.
Once I reach the end is when the real work starts, and this is the part I love. I’ve got to know the characters along the way, and now I can rewrite scenes with their voices and back stories as a standpoint. Dialogue often changes to not only move the story forwards but to reveal more character. I get to delete a lot of dialogue attribution at this stage because the voices are clearer and there’s no need to qualify. Weak subplots and ideas that dead-ended are removed. The complex plot needs to be as clean as possible.
The final stage (not including all that fundamental bobbins such as polishing, continuity, etc) is reserved for thematic resonance, metaphor and symbolism – all that artsy-fartsy poncy stuff that comes from having the literary la-di-da stick secreted up your backside. If it’s there anyway, why not shape it to fit (I’m not talking about the stick here). I think it shows a deeper understanding of the material, and if it’s picked up by the reader – even subliminally – the story can only be richer for it.
Tiyana – I wouldn’t worry too much about the flip-flopping; I think writers seem to change tactics quite often (I do anyway). I tend to think each novel brings about new challenges, and you have to respect what the story wants. Even if that’s uncomfortable at first.
Charlie – no problem! Sounds like you’ve got a stable process there. How does yWriter work then? I guess it’s the same sort of thing as Scivener in many ways.
Adrian – yeah, that’s a good point about planning for series and planting seeds that sprout later on. I love it when that sort of thing happens, but it’s nice to know the connections are there. When I wrote Nights, I left a lot of things open so I could pick them up when necessary; it was actually quite a liberating process – planning for openness.
Sam – you know, I might just do that… I’ll have a look and see what I’ve got for bk three, perhaps nearer the time of publication. Remind me if I don’t!
Darren – yeah, that’s an excellent point in your second paragraph. I think I’m like you in that, once I’m more familiar with these people, I can go back and iron out any flaws in their character. Or make them more true to themselves. And since you know them, it is more fun.
I am most definitely an architect. I live and breathe three act structure, and plot out each and every scene, but even with a coffee table spread with post-its (you and yer fancy writing software, why in my day…) I still find there is plenty of room for discovery. I might know what the characters have to do. I might have some rough motivations in mind for why they do it, but when I get down to writing the words that come out of their mouths, THEY tell ME why they’re doing it, and its often very different than what I thought. Then, like Darren, I go work my way backward through the story, weaving in the motivation that just became clear.
I look at structure like this. If you have a bunch of really talented musicians (yer prose chops) and no structure, you end up with 30 minutes of noodling space-jam – sometimes very pretty, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. If you have a good tight song structure (plot), layered with heartfelt lyrics (theme and character), you end up with “Nothing Compares 2 U.” four spare minutes that’ll break your heart.
Hmm, I’ve gone from wanderer, to lighthouse seeker, to architect, and back to the lighthouse seeker. I usually need at least an idea of the climax of the novel before I begin, but so far I haven’t figured out one way that works best for me. I’ll change my approach to be whatever I need to do to get it done, and have alternated between approaches in the span of one story, switching when I hit a wall, or a tangled plot problem, character conundrum, or stop feeling it. Come to think of it, that does sound a bit fluidly fluid…
Nathan – not a fan of jazz then? 🙂 I get what you’re saying with that. But how many great songs are written out of jamming sessions? Liking this music metaphor, too.
TS – That is definitely sounding like a fluidy fluid to me! I also like to think that it’s good to explore different ways of planning – I mean, the types of story often have different demands on a writer.
Nope, not much of a jazz fan. But you will notice that many jazz musicians use nice, tightly-structured songs to riff on. They still need the foundation of verse, chorus and bridge over which to drape their improvisations.
I would say that the jam session is the freeform thinking that comes early in the invention process, when all the elements are floating around in your head and you’re still playing with what the story is going to be about. Once you make a decision however, you have to start building a structure to fit it all in.
I guess what I’m saying is, yes, good songs may come from jam sessions, but one shouldn’t perform them in public.
Nathan – I think that’s where Prince went wrong: he started recording jamming sessions as albums. He needs an editor as much as Anne Rice.
Hope you were talking about The Family’s version of Nothing Compares.
Mark, and you other series writers – my head hurts just thinging about one novel.
“The final stage (not including all that fundamental bobbins such as polishing, continuity, etc) is reserved for thematic resonance, metaphor and symbolism – all that artsy-fartsy poncy stuff that comes from having the literary la-di-da stick secreted up your backside. If it’s there anyway, why not shape it to fit…”
Darren, I have a response to this particular comment, though it’s kind of lengthy and off-topic to what Mark is discussing here. I don’t wanna clutter up the conversation, heh. Is there a way I can contact you? (I can’t seem to find anything on your site to do so. :()
I myself have mostly been a wanderer but since studying with the OU I’ve found myself leaning towards the Lighthouse Seeker approach. I tend to do some planning but find that if I do that for everything then the pleasure of moulding a character out of the unknown is taken away from me 🙁
Tiyana – just leave your email address in one of my comment boxes and I’ll email you back – after deleting the comment, of course.
Like a lot of authors I would say I am somewhere between the two. I tend to start writing with a bunch of characters and then a story tends to form in my mind. I then start to plan out the story but only roughly.
Before long I have a very rough chapter outline of, “things that will happen,” and the fun is in exploring these events and characters. Often one chapter will become two or I find I have not enough to say on some scenes and three chapters will become one – sounds like that should be a spice girls song!
If I planned out each detail I would not be able to finish the story as the enjoyment would have gone.
I’m definitely a lighthouse seeker. I know my beginning and end but also know some key plot points I need to hit along the way. I like this method since it allows for some creativity and the “lighthouses” also make the task of writing the novel a lot easier because they act as secondary targets other than just “The End.” I find it helps to break things up a bit and make the goal a lot more manageable. Writing a series though, I have found that some more planning is required in later books, just to stay consistent with what has gone before, both with characters and the overall timeline/continuity.
Good luck tidying up all those loose ends Mark!