Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Benefits of Planning

"Writing is easy; all you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." -- Red Smith, sportswriter.

We all know writing is hard. There's a minimum of seven* things you have to consider when writing a novel, short story, etc -- Plot, Character, Setting, Consistency, Timeline, Accuracy, and Pacing. If one is even the slightest bit off the mark, then the entire story goes off-kilter and you lose time trying to figure it out. If you don't know your character inside and out, for example, you might have them act a way they normally wouldn't simply because they have to in order to move the plot forward. If your timeline's off, then you might state something happened Tuesday in one section when it needed to actually happen on Thursday. If you're inconsistent, then you have Character A say something on page 26 which they completely contradict on page 246.

You get the idea.

So what's a writer to do? You can write and rewrite and go over each new draft with a fine tooth comb, or you can plan things out ahead of time. Planning's not for everyone, not by a long shot, and woe be to anyone who tries to change your style to fit theirs. However, it works for me, and I'll tell you why: I lose my place much less often.

Case in point: Work's in one of its busy seasons now, and had been steadily getting more intensive prior to that. Because of this, I've not had as much time to work on CALLARION AT NIGHT during the workday like I did last year. Which has necessitated that I do a lot of work on nights off from the part-time job and waking up early on weekends to get writing in. I took it upon myself then to compose a Scene Development document for each chapter of the story. It's not done yet, but my goal is to have these different areas figured out for each scene in each chapter of the novel. This serves a twofold purpose: one, I get a deeper picture of the scene, and two, because I have the scene scripted out I know what to write simply by looking at it.

This Scene Development document is not an outline. That's important to note, because I know some of you might be thinking that already. No, what it tells me is the major motions of the scenes -- the turning points and the character goals and whatnot -- those background moves that influence the on-screen action. By knowing those, I know the scene. And when I know the scene, I can write it much smoother and be free from the concerns of "what comes next?"

That's the big benefit of planning, I think. You lose that pause in momentum from wondering what comes next because you already know what comes next. You planned it out; looked at it from all sorts of angles, and made 100 percent certain that your characters are being logical and acting in the way they would act. The end result of this, I think, is a tighter story with leagues more impact simply because you the writer have a better handle on the action. That's what I think at least.

What say you, fellow wordsmiths?

* EDIT: Because Adam pointed out that I miscounted.


Anita Saxena said...

"If you don't know your character inside and out, for example, you might have them act a way they normally wouldn't simply because they have to in order to move the plot forward."

You hit this right on the money. I often take writing breaks, not because I get tired of writing but because I need time think more about who a character is, their motivations, and figure out what would be a natural action for them.

Great post.

Adam Heine said...

Agreed. Though as an obsessive planner, I feel obliged to point out that you still have to go over everything with a fine-tooth comb.

Also, that's seven things. Not six.

Valerie Geary said...

Planning makes me a much better writer. Also... when I plan I do not turn into a crazy, psycho stress-ball. So ... yeah for that.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I do general plans so I don't get totally lost. I love it when I come up with a new idea, sit down, and the words just come pouring out. That's when the spontaneous scenes pop out of no where.

Matthew Delman said...

Anita -- I had a flash of inspiration for the MC of CaN the other day, when I realized she wouldn't readily accept help from anyone, least of all a stranger. There was a scene written where she was open and welcoming and I went "hang on, she wouldn't act that way."

Adam -- Well of course you still have to go over everything with a fine-tooth comb. The best plan in the world can't protect you from unexpected deviations. And I did revise the post to show that I miscounted.

Valerie -- Yeah, becoming a stress ball isn't advisable in this game. I find plans have the same effect for me.

Stephanie -- The spontaneous scenes are fun too, particularly when it's the character deciding that the way you'd planned it isn't in keeping with their worldview. Had a scene like that in CaN too.

Unknown said...

The problem with planning is that sometimes when you actually get to writing out the scenes they take a direction that doesn't quite fit with the "plan" and then you have to go back and change everything anyways. My outlines usually consist of a list of things that are probably going to happen but I cut things out of the list and add things and change the order they go in every couple of chapters. It does get pretty chaotic and I've been experimenting with more detailed outlines but even then I think a good plan doesn't 'lock' things in to be a certain way. The story needs to breathe.

At least, that's my approach

L. T. Host said...

I appreciate the benefits of planning, that's for sure. I may even try it someday!

I do most of my planning in my head, which is dangerous because then I forget what I've planned or why I planned it that way. I really do need to start writing it down.

Great post!

Matthew Delman said...

Taryn -- That's why the Scene Development doc is so useful. It's chock-full of motivations and details, but no actual outlining. That way, if the scene needs to deviate it does so without horribly messing up the plan.

L.T. -- With the amount of stories bouncing around in your head, writing some plot points down can only help.

Dawn Simon said...

Excellent post. I just got bogged down in one scene, and I realized the problem was I didn't have a good enough handle on some of my characters.

Regarding timeline, something I do is print out a calendar and mark it with story events. I'm sure lots of people do that, but I thought I'd mention it since it comes in handy so often.

Natalie said...

That sounds like a good way to do it. I keep getting lost in my current WIP. I'm feeling like I should have planned better in the beginning.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I'm a hyper planner (and also just hyper), but strangely I don't always plan out my stories. It goes something like this:


But I do follow the strategy you mentioned on a scene-by-scene basis, knowing what I (and my characters) want to get out of a scene before we start.

Also: I've started keeping better track of my research, because there's just too many details to keep in my head.

A tool I've found very useful for this is Liquid Story Binder. It's a great way to keep all your links, pictures, rambling thoughts about the price of tea in China or lineage of a certain slang word, all in one spot that you can easily refer back to. It has way more functionality than I use, but just the basics serve me really well.

So I don't completely lose my mind when I write! :)