I keep coming back to it. I’ve irritated everyone who I’ve talked to about it. I totally understand the objections and why everyone howls with contempt whenever the subject’s raised. The fact is though that more novels come to a slow, painful death about ten chapters in than ever come to a satisfactory, readable conclusion. Yes, there are light ways of planning and their are weighty ways of planning, there are plans to keep in your head and plans to put down on paper. There are even plans that look best on sticky bits of yellow paper each with under headers like “inciting incident”, “threshold guardian delays turn to Act II”. It’s something, as I’ve said in another post (on log lines and synopses ), that screenwriters can’t get enough of and novelists can’t stand the sight of. How much to plan? what to plan? what to get straight before the first dialogue or description? and what to leave to that divine inspiration that will strike while the coffee’s hot and the view over the peaks is at its dawn-iest?
And here’s the major confession – I’m not at all the planning type myself. If anything I’ve always fought against it. But I have seen its virtues and have, like a kind of re-converted-smoker, finally seen the lighter.
Planning – how will it help me?
It’s not because there’s any one way to do anything or that I want to spoil the fun of boundless creative options – let’s face it, this is why a lot of people write. Yep, nothing more fun than that clean sheet of paper, those first few drips of ink or taps of mac-book, those first words that you’ve been dying to put down because they’ve been buzzing and humming and shaping and mutating in your head for months.
And then say you don’t plan. Let’s just go for it. Soon those first words are down and the character’s formed and what an astonishing opening it is. Creative, vital, inspiring. The trickiest set up for the attractivest character anyone could possibly have imagined. Let’s see how Darcy McWittgenstein gets out of this one…
Yes, how does he get out of this one? (Reason to plan number one.) Actions and events can easily just sit there either with no onward lead or with no effective resolution suggesting itself. Or endings just sit there waiting to see what comes before them. So, all of a sudden, fun bit over. And then a week’s gone by without touching it and then someone tells you a joke so the next few pages are how the girl tells the joke to the guy and then there’s another few pages so let’s have that really smart fact that Wikipedia or QI dished up recently while you were hunting for inspiration. Then, why don’t you use that hilarious thing that happened to your dog in the kebab shop when you were twelve, everyone should be told that story and… and then give up for another few months because that once pristine idea is now a mess.
Before you know it the whole project goes limp because the sound and fury disappeared with those first eager thousand words.
There’s a need to keep going if you’re writing and there are a few different ways of giving some protection against giving up on a large piece of writing, some of which it’s worth having a go with even if, ultimately, you know there’s only one way for you and you know you can get the job done.
Yes there’s a scale of values here, with no plan on the one hand and on the other hand … we’ll come to this in a minute because we’re talking about planning here and not structure, well not necessarily structure anywhere.
Even on our non-planning end of the practice there are a number of possibilities. There are those who, with Enid Blyton-style vigour have a set of principles to stick to and a way with a plot that is so ready-formed that it needs a bit of the spice of exploration. I’ve spoken to plenty of writers who have never planned but who seem to come up with well shaped stories, good character arcs and the rest. Of course there’s an in-built sense of what a story should be, the direction it should take and the whereabouts of the various ups and downs or shifts of pace. Many writers are happy to use this intuition to give the shape, waiting for the writing process to generate new considerations, turns and so on.
On the whole this wholly unplanned exploration will need hefty revision. If you’re unlucky it will involve the kind of revision that sends shockwaves through the novel’s plot lines. What if, for example, your character’s last change of heart has not been flagged up properly throughout. If so it will need some early evidence and the reworking there is likely to need changes at any number of points. After a few of these, instead of an engaging and satisfying arc, your story is looking more like a cardiogram – one with an unsatisfying deadness at the end.
On this scale between plan and explore, most writers will find their way between the two extremes, working differently when faced with different tasks, or at different points in the project.
I’ve noted elsewhere the frustration for the prose writer from collegaues in the scripting business. As Blake Snyder fans will know, there should first be a good sense of the plan around the turning points, the scenes, and get the kind of tight story that will definitiely work (test it in fact in short form) and only then do you start crafting the minutiae, the dialogue, the interactions, the ‘beats’ or steps that raise tempo and the system-values associated with the essential conflict. Phew!
For the proficient film script writer there’s no sprawling exploring that includes a batch of near-complete dialogue. In fact this talked of as the worst trait of the amateur scene writer. How many people have lovingly crafted their James Bond scenario, skidoos and grenades and that witty one liner as he drills the bullet past the fur-wrapped KGB girl who says…. Months going back over the one scene and… and when this scene is done, what? Screen writing coaches have seen too many people fail this way. They will always recommend an exploration in major turns, saving all those details like dialogue until after the plan has been thoroughly drawn up.
But my novel isn’t about a story…
There’s always some earnest wordsmith in any class who points out that story is only for populist, unchallenging works. While not at all true, you can see where this through comes from. For prose fiction writers the work can start in a number of ways that have very little to do with shaping the plot. The novelist is often feeling for the voice of their narrator, or implied narrator. Or, the roman à thèse wannabe is wondering how that vibrant political standpoint is going to be expressed in lucid, compelling prose. Or the character builder is wondering how staccato sentences can reveal a deteriorating confidence in the speaker’s reliability or how cunning their metatextual jokes are going to be.
In short, the novelist often feels their novel does not have its source in a story as such. If it does it is often a vague story. There are reasons for this. It is another difference between the novelist and the screenwriter, one which makes the latter more similar to the writers of short stories. The scope of a novel, allowing as it does, even encouraging, digressions, philosophical discussions, descriptions, contemplations. Many respected novels have very sparse plot lines, especially those deeply unreadable early twentieth-century gems, and this gives encouragement to anyone who fancies groping forward in the dark, wondering where their characters will lead them.
Also, and much more common in the first novelist or early career writer, is that the novel pretends to be about something other than story because there is no story. Instead there are excuses: a half decent set up, a dramatic starting point, “inciting incident” a few James Bond one liners and then little is known about what might happen next.
A word of warning. If you’re waiting for your characters to guide you towards a conclusion, there’s a better than average chance that you won’t keep the project up. At some point the characters will turn back towards you and shrug their shoulders. Or they will sit on the side of the road, wistfully contemplating their own backstory with its heavy-laden childhood incidents and early relationship angst.
So what should I plan?
It takes a while to understand exactly how you yourself will work best as a prose writer. A working regime will emerge, perhaps involving a wedge of notes and scrawls, some practice scenes, an ideas sheet, a character directory. Maybe you’ll be a chart-maker and excel-user or a post-it fetishist.
If you haven’t got your own methods and means as yet. Here are a few ideas that have come from the people I’ve met along my own journey towards some half-decent ways of working:
The comber: Setting off with a hurried trip through a story, getting the broad movements of characters and a sense of each turn in the structure as it moves. Sometimes a sentence to remind you where a whole scene will go, sometimes more detail. Then, regularly going back over what has been written, combing through, taking out the knots making it sleeker. Forward then back, each time edging a bit further forward.
The painter: I call it this because art school studies pushed this as the traditional way of painting pictures. It works for writers too, a bit. A painter of this sort starts with the initial bold strokes, structures the canvas, and then begins to work up the next level of shape, gradually developing from the general elements towards greater detail and greater refinement of each area. The job is completed with a few choice brush strokes to lift a contrast or expose a feature. The advantage is a good sense of direction and overall structure and keeps you constantly in touch with the whole.
The lacemaker: Inch by inch, making each portion perfect before moving on. Some painters, too, have become famous for working this way. Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite founder member, went over the canvass inch by inch making each as fully detailed as possible before moving on. Stanley Spencer worked like this, too. The advantage for writing this way is that you have something complete, something that will represent the finished work in all its detail. It helps with confidence if you can read a page or two back and they’re good. You can move onto the next inch or perhaps pick another inch altogether as long as there’s some shape that’s been sketched in advance.
The sculptor: A marble worker needs their block of marble and then chips away at it. Writing this way is to get a wedge of writing in place a basic lump of solid unformed material. A shitty draft if you like. Then when there’s something on the page you begin to chip away, moving through the work but taking out rather than adding in.
The architect: There are some foundations, but the real point of the architect is that the whole structure will stand firm before any details are added. The cladding, the fittings, the doorways and even the roof all come after that solid set of rivets and girders that guarantee the architecture.
Of course once you’re in the fiction frame of mind then inspiration comes from all sorts of fantastic places. Which planning method you chose might depend on what you have to begin with. What is that first little idea that needs some work in the kindling? Some little character points, perhaps, an ironic turn of events, an illustration of some human trait, a setting. The sketching in rough might help tease out this idea. It might be a while before the plan is ready to take shape. Some good advice I once got was not to see these early explorations as anything to do with the first drafting proper.
Plan to keep it going
There’s usually some kind of plan. Unless you’re an automatic-writing or dice-spinning, randomiser-type writer then you’ll have something in mind, some sense of what will drive you forward. And to be honest if you haven’t got it, how are you going to give it to a reader?
There are some easy ways to fail – and I don’t mean fail as in not write a great book or fail to get published or fail to find readers, I mean just fail to write what you’re capable of or what you’d hoped to, even just fail to finish what you’d started hopefully… not even that, what I mean is fail to keep travelling hopefully, never mind the finishing, we’ll deal with that another time…
No, there are easy ways to fail, and through the chat above we’ve hinted at a few of them. It’s so, so common to resolve an early crisis and discover there’s nothing more to keep you going as a writer without climbing another mountain of conflict-building. (If that’s how you’re feeling as a writer, imagine the poor reader). You owe it to your story not to let this happen.
You can come to an early conclusion: you can end chapters on a closure – each of these essentially suggests that your current thread of interest has now reached completion. If you’d planned better, maybe this point would have been recognised and you’d have have been able to solve it with a push at a greater problem or a build towards a separate thread of interest, sparked by the one you’re about to close.
Related to this, your characters’ problems need to increase in intensity – the stakes need to increase, the pressure on the character to succeed needs to increase, the challenges don’t just need to vary in type, they need to increase in difficulty. Another easy thing to avoid with a bit of planning is that realisation that you have blown your most intense scene early. It’s easy to insert scenes if you’ve planned that they should exist – make a note that character x must do y with character z then go back to it when you feel ready to write that scene/chapter/section. It’s a lot harder to crowbar that scene in if it was never planned to exist. How many people suddenly realise they need a halfway step for a major plot arc and then have to perform major surgery on three dozen pages to get it in properly.
Another thing you can avoid with a bit of forward thinking – and however keen you are to get going and get some words to fill that page this perhaps the best thing you can do – plan your character revelations. Unless you’re completely new to writing you’ve probably become very aware that character exposition keeps going right the way through a work. One of the major give-aways for beginners is that massive character description that keeps going and going and takes up 85% of the first 5,000 words. When children write their biggest flaw is often a succession of major action points. The next stage is when the young writer wants to avoid action points and instead sees their writing as digging for psychology. The worst-case symptom is that paragraph that begins “she dwelt again on that awful time in childhood when…” Ooh, nasty. Expect a rash of miserable little backstory mini-plots none of which help us forward or get us engaged. This is where sickness sets in and in some cases is incurable. A bit of planning could have helped the plight of many a maudlin navel-gazer character study.
Yes, plan, plan like your life depended on it, plan to avoid splurging on a character analysis in the first fifteen pages.
Instead, how about planning what to reveal and when. Plan the steps with which you show the girl is gullible or the boy’s a bastard. Is this three gradual steps or a sudden revelation? Is it better for them to seem the opposite for a while. Where in the story does that skeleton need to scratch at the inside of the closet?
Plan to keep going in the middle ground. Saggy, baggy middles are endemic among both weary writings and beery writers. On the whole, middle acts will show the increasing disintegration of hope and opportunity and (unlike middle-age) will prepare the means for the eventual attempt to counter this [more on plotting another time].
It is very common to have a great beginning and a great end and then to find there’s nothing much in the middle to read for – find your own metaphor , there’s plenty of stuff in the world that has no stuffing. If you’re struggling with this then there’s a stack of books that can help, but again, planning how this section will develop is the only way to guarantee you’ll have something to write when you get to it.
What not to plan
If you’ve ever done teacher training or marketing or travelling then you’ll know the type, the over-planner. There are plenty of mean-spirited stereotypes of the over-planner but I don’t want to be mean-spirited. We’re talking about the person who won’t take the detour to see the street theatre because it’s not on the list, we’re talking about the person who has to hurry those unexpected questions because it’s time to move on and the smart kid at the back can jut shut up and do what’s on the sheet… It’s another way to fail and although not as common as under-planning, we should be wary. If you’ve planned it so that everything is an action waiting to be done then you risk writerly liveliness, you risk the verve, the sudden quick sprint or telling pause, you risk the chance to spin or follow a hunch or trace a casual invention down an occluded alleyway. Only a fool destroys a happy accident, said Joshua Reynolds to the academy and the same holds for writers. Make sure you’ve left all the space you need for that important freedom for the voice.
There’s a time to plan, time to act, time to explore etc etc. You can spend so much time planning that you never do any writing. You can still be in the planning room while everyone else has boarded the ship.Don’t let planning be an excuse not to write. It is for some people and sometimes you do have to leap in.
And the over-planner has their quote ready prepared to use in any situation whether or not it’s called for, while the under-planner throws a quote in when the going gets tough. Not sure which this one is, but the last word can go to Brutus.
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries. Julius Caesar Act 4, 4, 218ff
Tips for writers
- Try some different methods. If you like free writing try a plan and vice versa. Expand the arsenal.
- Don’t be scared of shaping, thinking ahead. Not every day can be a brilliant prose day. Planning is something you can do on the days when inspiration is not doing its stuff.
- Give your writing month a plan, when to go hunting inspiration, when to write scenes, when to do plotting.
- Break all plans sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
- More on how to write your novel on the University of Brighton Writer in Residence blog