1 – Which Kind of Writer Are You?
The real trick with planning is to figure out what works for you. Maybe you’re the type who needs to plunge in and write the first draft, and then figure out what to do with the resulting mess; maybe you’re the type who can’t write anything without extensive notes and planning beforehand; maybe you’re the type who changes your mind on the way through the first draft and ends up with something that makes no sense at all, but which is nevertheless a vital step along the way.
Any of these approaches can work, but not for every writer. It’s vital to figure out what works for you, and of course the only way to do it is to try.
So write the first chapter. With no preparation other than what you already know from all the notes you made when you had the idea (you made some notes on the idea, right?)
A lot of things might happen, but you’ll probably find yourself somewhere between these two poles:
1. As soon as you begin, the whole thing starts sparking, you discover the characters all have their own voices and it’s no trouble at all to keep going. On the other hand, it’s a bit of a mess when you read it back – some parts too long, some too short, and it wanders off into tedious cul-de-sacs every now and then. It’s basically unreadable but there’s a lot of good stuff buried in there. Chances are, you enjoyed the process, even if you felt a bit lost sometimes.
2. You start writing but you rapidly discover you have no idea what to write. The characters barely seem human. The story is clunky in the extreme. You find yourself writing about inconsequential things simply to avoid writing the bits where you know you’re going to get lost. It’s a horrible, depressing experience that makes you want to swear off writing forever and live in an igloo.
Number 2 happened to me when I tried this for The Last Man on Earth Club. It was a horrible disaster, prompting me to get on with some serious planning which supplied the very extensive backstory and worldbuilding I needed. If you’re more like Number 1, then by all means jump in and get straight on with the first draft (you lucky so-and-so). Because, for you, that’s how you plan: a novel-length free association that you’ll probably have to rewrite from the ground up – but if it works for you, do it.
And even if you’re a planner like me, the first draft will still be rubbish. Don’t worry about it. It happens to us all. Every first draft needs at least some work. It’s a step along the way, not the end of the process. It feels like a monstrous effort while you’re doing it, and can be very depressing when you look back and realise that the mountain you thought you were climbing was really just a sedate hill, but there’s no other way to do this. Don’t be discouraged.
2 – Research
Even if you want to plunge straight in, you may still need to do some research first. Research isn’t really planning in the sense of figuring out what exactly you’re going to write, though the two can go hand in hand. If there’s a major theme or setting or plot device or profession or technology or anything in your idea that you’re not already an expert on – read up on that before you do anything else, or else you might end up writing complete nonsense.
How much research do you need to do? It depends on genre and the type of story you want to write:
- A Romance or a Drama set in the modern day might need virtually no research other than a general understanding of human nature. A Thriller or any kind of Procedural will likely require specialist knowledge. Historical requires that you really know the period in question. Science Fiction might require knowledge of the latest research in a subject as well as an ability to invent plausible continuations of that knowledge. Fantasy likely requires you to make up the backstory of your world and how things like magic work. The further you get from your own everyday experience – the more research you need to do.
- If your story takes place in it’s own present time, without worrying too much about events in the past, or things going on in the world beyond the immediate story, then you can keep research down to whatever is specifically needed for the events depicted as events happen. Character biographies can be short and to the point. The politics of the world doesn’t need to be explained if it doesn’t affect the story. But if your story looks beyond the present moment and delves into a character’s past or future, or depends on larger events (such as a major war, for example), then you’ll need to research or create material you can use – indeed, you’ll need more material than you can use, because you can never predict exactly where your story will go, and the more material you have to draw upon, the more flexible you can be in response to a new, better idea. This can take a long time, but it’ll be worth it in the end.
There are really two kinds of research: things you can find out in the real world, and things you make up. But both must seem as real as the other to the reader, and a mixture of the two will help; things you take from reality will bolster the more speculative things you simply invent, as long as the two remain consistent. Both will take time and effort. Don’t skimp on the invented material just because it’s invented: if anything, work harder to make it consistent and interesting.
The best research, of course, is the research you’ve already done; Daniel H. Wilson, writer of Robopocalypse, is a robotics expert in real life; JRR Tolkien was already a scholar of the Scandinavian sagas he wanted to emulate in The Silmarillion; John Le Carré was an intelligence officer in Mi6 before he wrote The Spy Who Came in From The Cold; and Jane Austen was thoroughly well acquainted with the lives of the English gentry before she started writing about them. These lucky people either already knew everything they needed, or knew where to get it without much trouble.
On the other hand, Ursula LeGuin has never visited a world of hermaphrodites, as in The Left Hand of Darkness; George R R Martin has never lived in a mediaeval society like that in A Song of Ice and Fire; and William Gibson wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter, before computers were available for word processing, let alone a pervasive worldwide information network. You can bet they all spent a good deal of time figuring out their worlds before they began, and it paid off in each instance.
3 – The Storytelling Pattern
While planning – or while rewriting after getting through your messy, unplanned first draft – you’ll need to accept something that a lot of writers somehow find repulsive: human psychology lends itself to certain patterns of storytelling. There’s a reason why Hollywood keeps churning out the same nonsense year after year: on some basic level, it works. If you think that’s beneath you, then please feel free to ignore this advice and every other piece of advice you ever get about writing because you’re not willing to face up to this fundamental fact: humans have been telling stories for a very long time and those stories have common, recognisable patterns, because that’s what works.
This doesn’t mean you need to write Hollywood crap. Far from it. A lot of Hollywood stories are attempts by a business-led mindset to make storytelling predictable from the viewpoint of accountancy. Hollywood (and major publishers, I don’t doubt) would love writing to be completely formulaic, especially then they can forecast the sales figures in advance based on the story that’s being told. This is what they’ve been working towards for many decades. And yet they fail, because storytelling remains more subtle, more slippery, and more wonderful than can ever be accounted for in any given tax year.
The basic storytelling pattern you can read about in the works of Christopher Vogler, Robert McKee, Michael Hauge, John Truby, Syd Field and many others works, but every interpretation and implementation of it has to be different enough to make it fresh each time, or it fails. The formula for storytelling should never be the final judge of whether your story works – it should be something you understand at a level that means you barely even consider in a conscious way. It’s a skeleton. How much do you think about your skeleton when you walk? Not all. But you can express all kinds of things through the way you walk. And a dancer can do much, much more. But they still have to deal with the fact that they have a skeleton, and it works in a certain way, regardless of how much they’d like it to do something else.
Here’s the basics, which is all I have time for: stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Jean-Luc Godard was quite right to point out that you don’t have to do it in that order. He forgot to mention that you really have to learn to do it in the usual order before you learn how to do it out of order, and that if you do tell the story out of order, you still have to make the story satisfying to the same human psychology that enjoys the usual order. This is horribly difficult. So it’s worthwhile trying to tell a straightforward, normal story if you’re still learning. Or feel free to tell a weird one so you can find out how to fail, but the experience of getting it right the usual way is absolute gold, because you’ll learn all kinds of things about what readers can handle, how pacing works and, most importantly, the basic structure of storytelling.
What’s the basic structure of storytelling? It’s hardly rocket science. A musical impresario called George Cohan put it like this in the early 20th century (but it’s been attributed to many other people since, so it could have been started by almost anyone – Cohan is just the earliest source listed):
1. Get your characters up a tree.
2. Throw rocks at them.
3. Get them down again. If they’re alive, it’s a comedy. If they’re dead, it’s a tragedy.
Or put another way:
1 – Establish the world of the characters while introducing some kind of threat or adventure or deep change or opportunity.
2 – The characters are forced to deal with the threat, go on the adventure, undergo the deep change, explore the opportunity, solve the problem. This is usually a painful experience. Suffering is almost mandatory. By the end of this section, they’ve made a lot of progress but things are still going horribly wrong for them. Sometimes in a seemingly terminal way.
3 – The characters – usually changed by their experiences in the second section – deal with the threat, conclude their adventure, complete their process of change, solve the problem or finally get hold of that opportunity.
Or put yet another way:
1 – Act One
2 – Act Two
3 – Act Three
As you can see, it’s actually very simple. And also horribly complex because you can tell so many different stories in so many genres in this way. In some ways, it’s no help at all when you first come to plan out your story, because it’s so vague. Yet it’s all too easy to get wrong, and so many people think it’s beneath them. It isn’t. It’s just the basic skeleton on which you build. Unseen, unnoticed, but vital.
Why does it work? I have a few ideas:
- Stories about people who have easy, unchallenged lives are dull. Routine is dull. The story structure above is all about breaking out of routines, of life getting more difficult – then seeking a new, better life. Or a more interesting one, anyway.
- Stories of unrelenting misery and injustice are also extremely dull. Story structure gives you a template for getting out of misery into a new life, or defeating injustice, but it can’t be easy for the characters – hence the struggles that must happen.
- Either way, stories are about changes happening in characters and worlds. Change doesn’t happen without the characters or the world undergoing stress, and then emerging from that in their new forms. Storytelling structure is just a sensible way of showing that.
4 – Planning Methods
So now we get to the nitty-gritty of planning a story… and of course, there are many, many ways of going about it. Here’s a few I’ve heard of:
- Jump in and write the first draft, if that’s the kind of thing you can actually do. Just don’t force it if it’s not your thing.
- A gentleman by the name of Randy Ingermanson advocates (and sells software for) a method he calls “The Snowflake”. You can read the details on his own website, and on many others which have copied it from him, but basically, the idea is that you start from a very simple statement of what the story is about, then build up detail progressively until you have a full outline. This is very good if you have a general idea but no idea how to build that into all the places, characters and scenes you’ll have to write.
- Or you can look at some of the more prescriptive storytelling books out there (Christopher Vogler or Syd Field, for example), who advocate that certain types of things need to be happening at certain points in the story. Figure out all these key points first, summarise the scenes or chapters that represent them, then figure out everything else that falls in between, making sure that it fulfils whatever’s needed at that point in the structure. Some people find this to be a great relief. Some people find it to be a straitjacket. For me, it was an excellent way to learn what works and what doesn’t… and then I put it to one side.
- If you have more than just a basic idea of what you want to do, and want more flexibility than the more restrictive structures, an older method is recommended. Take all the ideas for the story you have. Write them all down on scraps of paper, or index cards, or cells in an Excel document – it doesn’t matter as long as it’s something that can easily be rearranged. Treat each one as a chapter or scene. Try and arrange them in a way that makes a story. Look at the story and figure out all the many ways it isn’t working. Then add more scenes, get rid of useless ones, try to make a new arrangement. Keep doing this until you have something that looks like a story you can imagine reading. Something that feels right. The only problem with this method is that it really depends on a pre-existing understanding of how stories work, because you have to be able to spot your own mistakes without guidance. One piece of advice: if you have a scene/chapter in which either nothing of significance happens, or we discover nothing new, then get rid of it. Each new scene/chapter needs to have something that’s worth reading about. It’s surprisingly easy to write something of no interest whatsoever…
However you’ve done it, you should have some idea of who your characters are, the world they live in, and a series of scenes or chapters in which things happen or in which we discover interesting things. That’s an outline. You might want to do more research to flesh it out – do as much or as little as you need depending on the subject matter.
Then write the first draft based upon that outline. If you need to change your ideas as you go along, don’t revise the early parts to make them match your new ideas, because otherwise you’ll never get to the end of the first draft. Just keep writing, and save major revisions until later.
If you start the next draft right away, you’ll probably fail, because no matter how much you hate the first draft, there will be bits of it you love – but which might just be as bad as the rest. There’s no way to tell. You’ll love your first draft the same way you’d love your baby. So put it in a drawer. Or safely encrypt it so you can’t sneak a peek without getting past lots of tedious passwords.
Come back at least six weeks later. Or however long it takes to get the damn thing out of your head.
It’s not your baby any more. Suddenly it’s a fractious teenager and you can barely understand how one turned into the other. That is when you find out just how bad first drafts can be, and how much more work you need to do to make it function as a story.
And now all you have to do is figure out a plan for the next draft…