To Plan Or Not To Plan Your Novel? by Kelly Inglis
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
~ E.L. Doctorow
To plan or not to plan? Now that is the question. It’s a reasonably simple one, but the answer is very individual. Do you plan your writing with excruciating precision, writing detailed notes on timing, character emotions and actions? Or do you come up with a general idea for a great plot, and simply write it as you go? Or do you fall somewhere in between the two extremes, needing a few solid pages of notes on the plot, sub-plots and character dynamics, but without the intricate details?
I know authors at either end of the spectrum – those who plan the finite details of plot well in advance of writing the actual story, and those who simply fly by the seats of their pants after their initial brilliant plot idea. Me? I’m somewhere in the middle.
I’m a research scientist by qualification, which has taught me to plan the details of every experiment, calculating concentrations and assay parameters well in advance of buttoning up my lab coat. For science, everything needs to be thoroughly planned in advance to ensure the assays are executed flawlessly. Advance planning of the minute details has ensured my experiments are accurate and the results reproducible; both extremely important aspects of research.
However, that level of planning in my fiction writing doesn’t quite work for me, which actually surprised the heck out of me! When I first started writing, I meticulously detailed character interactions and a multitude of tiny plot nuances along the way. Much to my surprise, planning out every single detail of my story prior to actually writing it was a complete waste of my time, stifling both my creativity and the flow of the story. The resulting story sounded like one of my dry, factual research papers rather than an exciting action sequence. My stories were much more exciting without all the intricate planning. In saying that, there are certain things that I do need to plan.
Regardless of whether you’re a stickler for planning details or prefer to completely wing it as you write, I think there are a few very important things you do need to think about and plan ahead of time.
Taking the time to thoroughly profile your main characters can save you an awful lot of time when you are writing your draft. Create an individual file or folder for each character. Make notes about their appearance, intelligence, likes, dislikes, family history, habits, sayings, fears, dreams, the car they drive etc, and keep the file handy for quick referencing throughout your story. That way, your character’s shoe size will be consistent, the mole will always be on the same side of his face, and her pet cat’s name will always be Marmalade! Additionally, and more importantly, if you know your character inside and out, although you may never write all that background information on the page, you will know who they are and why they react in a certain way to a certain situation. While many of the details you write in your character profiles never reach the page, understanding your characters helps them truly come to life in your story.
Personally, I also need to have a general idea of what the major event or conflict of the story is. Having at least a general idea of where your story will lead can also save you an awful lot of time. For example, for my current work in progress, I started with an idea for a character. She’s kind of quirky, a little sarcastic, a little bit funny, a little bit of a disaster, and gainfully employed, but she detests her job. She has tried and tried, but can’t quite seem to break out of her current loathsome position. I spent several hours detailing her character profile until she felt like my best friend. I adored her, and I started writing my novel based around her as my central character. Her job was going to expose her to some underhanded dealings and an explosive main event… but I could not, for the life of me, settle on exactly what this life-changing event was going to be. I was stuck for literally months on the logistics of her story, unable to write anything more of the actual plot, because I had nothing solid to go on, and no definite direction. I kept juggling and then throwing out idea after idea because none of them fit my character’s situation properly. Finally, a local news story triggered a fantastic ‘main event’ plot idea and the story then flowed. I dashed away from the dinner table to type out a few pages of plot and sub-plot notes, and now it’s all about finding the time to finish writing it. But now that those brief notes are there, I can come back to them any time I need to. On top of that, they are comprehensive enough to provide structural guidance, but brief enough that many of the preliminary events can change as inspiration strikes, without affecting the framework of the story.
So regardless of whether you’re a planner or prefer to wing it, if you have at least profiled your main characters, and planned and written down the bones of your story as Natalie Goldberg calls them, you have committed the essential foundations of your story to paper. And if, like me, you have to squeeze in your passion for writing around a full time job, a spouse and your children, the framework for your story will be there when you have the time to dedicate to it, and your great ideas cannot be forgotten.
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