I’m speaking for myself personally, but I have good reason to believe that it’s a fairly common feeling. One of the most illuminating quotes on the matter I’ve found is;
Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
E. L. Doctorow
That’s a heck of a quote, isn’t it? I adore it, myself.
So what should planning be, then? What use is it? Or, more specifically, what do I personally plan in advance?
Well, the answer is an awful lot. Planning is still a useful process, because it’s where your theoretical and academic understanding of writing shines through brightest. If you understand storytelling because you’ve been studying it, been applying yourself to the abstracts and the higher order processes behind it, this is the part where you put it into the story.
This is true for me personally. A lot of pantsers, including Stephen King and — as a commenter helpfully pointed out — Terry Pratchett, apply this to the editing process. They see the raw material they’ve created for themselves and chisel it away until the deeper meaning shines through, and then apply polish to it.
Other authors, like Ben Pearce who did the editing article a few weeks prior to this one, as well as myself, change a lot less in editing. Usually the story we put down is a lot closer to the kind of idea we saw in our heads, and the planning comes up front.
This is just to stress to you that you don’t have to plan if it’s not right for you, and there are plenty of talented, successful authors that choose not to.
But I do plan, as I said. I just don’t plan much of what happens.
A good story has a cohesive feeling that runs through the entirety of it, a cohesive message. Considering how long it takes to write a long-form story, it’s far more important to me to plan how the story feels — and what you’re trying to say with it — than it is to plan the actual things happening. When you think about a story being planned, it’s tempting to think of the final product of your planning being a long list of “and then, and then, and then”, a string of definite events that you just need to flesh out.
The problem with this is that when you get to those scenes, if you’ve only planned on what happens… you’ll find the ‘why’ eludes you. It’s got to happen this way because your plan needs it to happen this way, and you’ll force the characters to fit the mold for fear of breaking the plan.
This is where I find over-planning breaks characters. By planning too much of the ‘what’ in advance, you’re likely to tell the characters what they need to do rather than asking them what they want to do in the scene. Good writing is a discussion you have with the characters, not just a director barking orders. That’s not how you get the best performance out of them, at least.
Instead, plan on what your story should be about, what it’s trying to say. Work out exactly what you were thinking about when you wrote it. There’s usually a moment when planning a story where you start making a string of rapid connections, of realizations, of realizing why things should happen. When you think “and then, and then, and then…” naturally.
I advise you don’t write down what you come up with in those moments more than bullet points and key words. Trying to reverse engineer what you meant by those keywords forces you to work out your intentions, which are just as important.
Write down what you were feeling, what inspired you, when you were making those connections. In terms of literally trying to recapture that feeling, I recommend making a long music playlist, at least two hours long, and play it exclusively while working on the project associated with it. For me, music is great because it evokes a certain emotion, but it also stores the emotions I was feeling when I listened to it. When you want to hold the most consistent emotional state possible on a project, having a consistent music selection helps.
Otherwise, the why. Work out why your story is interesting beyond the elements of what happens. What is it a statement about? What is the core morality? What larger idea are you trying to convey? Is the story about your feeling of helplessness? Helplessness about what? Political apathy, social isolation, dealing with chronic illness? How does your story convey that emotion? What is your statement about that feeling?
Every good story is about something, whether you choose it to be or not. Now’s your best chance to make sure it’s about the thing you want it to be, and work out the best angles to attack it from.
After that, I plan the characters. I’ve shown previously how I plan characters, or what I look for in planning them, but at this stage you can also add in; “How do they feel about my core ideology”. Do they agree with it, disagree with it, what? What do they represent to that larger belief in the story-behind-the-story? What angles do they show?
Then you work out your ending. You’ve already thought of the basic concept to get here, so what does your story end on? If you know what it’s about, you should also know what it’s trying to say, which means your ending is you giving what you believe is the best answer to the idea you’ve posed to the audience. It’s one of the biggest reasons planning an ending is so important, to me; Even if you figure out what you’re trying to say is completely different by the end of the story — and it often will be, you’ll be analyzing your own ideas a lot more in the process of writing about them! — it still gives you a direction to work towards.
After that, you work out the core events in the world — what a screenwriter would call the main story beats — that the characters can react to and bounce off. These are all the middle bits. It’s totally okay to have huge gaps between your planned beats that you’ll fill in when you’re writing, because to me the framework exists as skeleton, not musculature. You’ll work out what’s actually interesting about your story while you’re writing it, and you’ll figure out what you want to explore most between those scenes when you get to them. It’s more fun.
Mostly, planning those beats out now is to prevent writer’s block, so when in doubt you always have an idea of the direction you’re heading towards, even as you work out the route as you go.
I’d say this kind of planning is most like making a rope bridge. Pick the cliff face you want to cross, and that’s your big idea. There’s nothing but empty space between where you’re at now, and where you need to be. You pick an anchor point on the other side, and that’s going to be your ending. Then you throw some rope over in that general direction, and that’s your characters. Tie them off to the anchor point. They’re not a bridge by themselves, but they’re what you build everything else off. You tie them off at that anchor point, because you know where they need to end up.
Without a strong ending to tie the character ideas off to, you’re not going to know what their arc should be, or what it should represent. Without knowing what the character arcs should build towards, you’re not going to have good, specific ideas for scenes.
Those scenes are the last thing you put down. They’re the wooden planks you lie across the characters, and you hope your cast is strong enough to hold the weight of them. And you hope that you picked an interesting place to end up on the other side, as well.
Then there’s nothing left to do but cross it, and for the love of God don’t look down or you’re going to get paralyzed halfway across the damn thing and get stuck at a scene, not knowing how to move forward from it.
The reason I don’t plan more than that is because a rigid plan would work out character reactions in advance, and that is the number one reason I see stories stall out, or writers get blocked. It’d be inconvenient for their characters to act the way the characters are telling them they should. They need to do something else for the story to work…
Well I’m sorry, friend, but ignoring your characters is an even quicker way of tanking the story as well as making it a slog to write. For me, the scene usually writes itself because I’m mostly just listening to the characters figure out what they want to do, how they react to the conflict I’ve planned for them when it occurs.
This is also how I taste the food before I put it before guests: if I’m not finding it interesting when I think that through, my audience won’t be when they read it. If I’m interested while I’m writing it, if I’m wondering where I’m going with something, odds are very high my reader will be as well.
It’s very hard for me to get a feeling for a good pace and rythmn if I’ve planned it out in my head too far in advance, or too rigidly.
Ultimately, the strength of this sort of planning is that you aren’t providing yourself with solutions, you’re preparing your toolbox. It should ultimately make you more flexible when you do encounter problems, make you more resilient to writer’s block, and give you a more consistent end product.