There are many different kinds of writers. I like to use the analogy of architects and gardeners. There are some writers who are architects, and they plan everything, they blueprint everything, and they know before the drive the first nail into the first board what the house is going to look like…And then there are gardeners who dig a little hole and drop a seed in and water it with their blood and see what comes up, and sort of shape it…I am much more a gardener than an architect. - George R. R. Martin
Before we get started, it is important to note George R. R. Martin’s nugget of wisdom up there. The planning process is a completely different animal from the rest of the experience of writing your story, and there is no right way to do it. This post endeavors to familiarize you with planning in general as well as some of the different types of planning processes and maybe figuring out which one can work for you.
- Why plan? You wouldn’t tell your friends a story if you didn’t know how it ended. If you tried, you’d end up just Forrest Gumping it and saying, “well, the rest of it hasn’t happened yet, so that’s all that I have to say about that.” For a fiction writer, writing without planning means working on pounding out your brilliant prose, hoping that each scene will reveal itself in due time. Sometimes that works, but it often doesn’t. In that moment, you look at your work, you look at your plot and your characters and what you’ve done, and you realize that you have no idea what the Faulkner is going on. The planning process can preemptively save you from that crippling moment.
- Start with an idea. The planning process doesn’t work unless you have something to plan. One of the more important things in planning is the development of a goal, which requires an idea. If you’re having trouble with that, check out the resources listed in this post. You’ll find that having a goal will get you a long way in the planning process.
- Get organized.You will forget things. It is inevitable, with all of the genius floating around all over the place, that some stuff is going to slip through the cracks. For this reason, you need two things. First, you need to have some way to jot down ideas wherever you go, because things will hit you at strange times. Second, you need a system to organize your ideas. Keep all of those notes in a small notebook, or keep an organized document on your word processor with bolded headings and things of the like. Make a binder with different sections for different aspects of your work. Write reminders to yourself. You can also use tiddly wiki, an online resource that allows you to organize your story in a wiki-style format. You’ll need to reference your information at some point, and keeping it together is necessary in being able to do that. Find a method of organization that works for you.
Now let’s take a look at some of these planning processes.
- Break down scenes. A scene is like a very small story. It starts at a defined point, has rising action, a climax, and a defined ending. Before you start writing a scene, try writing a paragraph or two that describes what’s going to happen and how it’s going to affect the rest of the story. If you want, you can outline your entire story like this. This collection of scene outlines will help you greatly when doing your rough draft, because you’ll know exactly what the task at hand is, and all you have to worry about is finding the right words to get it done.
- The interrogation. Ideas don’t usually come to you in their complete form. Their many layers and ramifications will be largely unknown to you, and this is when the interrogation can become useful. Sit your idea (or your character, plot element, theme, or setting) down, and just ask questions. You’re a literary Jack Bauer. This thing that you’ve created has information that you need, and you getting that information is key to your understanding and use of that idea. Often, the interrogation leads you down meandering paths that can stray from your initial line of questioning. This is good, it means that the ideas are flowing. Keep at it, keep inquiring, and soon enough, you’ll have an idea to run with.
- Take public transit. Ask yourself: “How can I get to there from here?” You’re in a certain space with your story (a random streetcorner in Manhattan), and you want to get to somewhere else (you’re friend’s place in Queens). You also need to drop off your cat at the vet, acquire chips and dip, and pick up your friend at her office. For planning a story, this means looking at your destination (your current goal, which is often not the end of the story itself), and figuring out how you want to move characters, plot elements, and ideas to get to there from here. Those errands become helpful. While you have that long-term goal in mind, you know you can’t get there unless you do these other things first. These other things are smaller goals for your story along the way; they keep you focused.
- Work backwards. This is somewhat similar to the public transportation method, but it is based entirely around moving backwards. You start with the end of your story and work backwards through the climax and go all the way back to the beginning until you figure out how all of this started.
- Analyze. Don’t write without thinking. Often, you will get to a point where you have a bunch of options (or, seemingly, no options) or your characters have to make an important choice. When you see yourself facing such a crossroad, it might be time to analyze. Take all of the elements at play in making this decision (this includes things like setting, mood, and logistics, not only characters, plot, and theme) and analyze them. Try some freewriting. Get in the character’s head, try to figure out what he or she would do. Use what you’ve already done with this character as your basis, but also use what you want this character or idea to mean by the end of the story as a catalyst for development. It is also helpful to do an analysis of each element of your story at the very end of the planning process so you can determine what needs to be revised and what needs to be emphasized in the first draft.
- Use the snowflake. The snowflake method starts with a short, fifteen word synopsis of your story. You continue to extrapolate and expand upon that one sentence, until you arrive at a couple of summaries, character analyses, and a spreadsheet that details everything that’s going to happen in your novel. The benefit of the snowflake method is that you don’t have to start with very much, and it provides a rigid structure through which to develop your plan. For a full detailing of how the snowflake method works, check out this page.
There is no proper way to plan. The idea is that you find a way to develop and organize ideas that works for you. You might try some, all, or none of these ideas. You might not plan at all. Every writer is different. What matters is finding something that is going to make your writing better.