Monday Motivation: Should you plan your story – or wing it?

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

I’ve had arguments – some passionate to the point of mutually assured destruction – over this single issue: should you develop your characters and the bones of your story, before you start writing your novel/short story/screenplay, or should you let your characters and your story reveal themselves to you, page by page, as you work your way slowly to your conclusion?

Plan it – or wing it?  Work systematically, or impressionistically?

Of course, some great modern writers – Donna Tartt springs instantly to mind – allow inspiration to guide their every move. Her “method” is curious. She’s said, “You don’t know what you’re doing for a long time. It seems like a huge mess because it is a huge mess. If you looked at the notes from early on in the writing of this book, you’d think, ‘This person is crazy. This could never be a novel.’”

She starts off, not so much with a narrative, but with a “general mood”. The Secret History, her first fabulous novel, “very much started from a mood,” she says. “A mood of cold rooms, ink on your hands and feeling homesick, away from home for the first time.”

In time she stitches together the various dissociated scenes, and finds her way through the plot. But it’s a laborious process. It takes her roughly ten years per novel.

At the other end of the spectrum are writers like Ken Follett. He starts by plotting his stories, and ends up “with between 25-40 typed pages. That is the outline. The outline says chapter by chapter what happens in the book and it contains potted biographies of each of the characters.” After writing the outline, he consults with editors, friends and family for feedback.

“When I have all these comments,” he says, “I rewrite the outline – and this may happen several times. Typically there will be a first draft outline, a second draft outline and a final outline…” The complete process of coming up with an idea, fleshing it out, doing the research, drafting the outline and rewriting the outline takes Follett typically about a year, he says. “There are quite often a couple of false starts within this. I may spend a month working on an idea before I realise that it isn’t going to work and abandon it. But (then) I’m ready to write the first draft.”

“Each sentence in your outline,” he says, “has to be turned into four or five pages of prose. This is where the real imaginative work comes in… Putting flesh on the bones is the hardest imaginative work in the whole process.”

But where do I stand on this?

In the television and film industry, because it’s such a collaborative process, writers are encouraged (read, instructed) to develop plans for their stories that producers can approve or help elaborate, and the money men invited to chip in to what are called “the development costs”.

But in developing story in a more general sense, I’ve always considered myself neither a planner nor a busker, standing somewhere between the two. I argued that it’s imperative to know your characters from the get-go, because if you don’t they’ll in all likelihood either be pale ghosts to begin with, or stereotypes of one brand or another. And I’m not sure which is worse.

I argued that it’s good to know your destination – so that you can judge when your story threatens to go off on a tangent. And to plan ahead, chapter at a time. In other words, when you’re about to launch into a new chapter, plan the scenes that’ll play out within it; and constantly make notes about what’s to come in the next chapter or two.

But more recently, I’ve come round to the view that it’s good to have an even better grasp of the story than this. Evidence in support of this change of emphasis comes from our experience at our Venice Retreat, during which we helped writers devise stories – and outline chapters – in their quest to get to grips with their sometimes ambitious undertakings.

We brainstormed specific scenes: what, we asked, is the dramatic imperative? What characters are involved? What’s the setting? How do we introduce bigger (or more appropriate) surprises? What set-ups does the scene require? What’s the cliffhanger?

The outcomes, these writers reported, were universally positive: a greater sense of confidence, added fluidity evident in the writing, a more assured sense of drama  – and absolutely no loss (as some writers critical of planning say) of creativity or the need to stretch and exercise the imagination.

So if you want to know where I stand today on the issue, I’d say I’m clearly on the side of the planners.

Happy writing,

Richard

Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Why you should be using more details in your writing

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