Is Failing to Plan Planning to Fail?

It’s almost the New Year. This means that it’s just about time to start making wild promises to yourself about how you’re going to be a much more efficient, organised and less befuddled person for the next 365 days. It is time to set out the plan for your next year on this earth and be fully committed to following it because the words on the paper don’t look like they’d be that difficult to do, right? And it’s not like you have to start right now. Taking up a sport, learning a new language, figuring out how to cook fancy French meals, working out the life plan and getting up every single day with nothing but sunshine and happiness on your mind are all goals for your future self to worry about.

So, in the spirit of creating trouble for your future self, I thought I might talk about planning your story.

I’ve talked about planning before and how, even with a story that has seemingly grown by itself, it can be immensely helpful in achieving the goal of writing that coveted The End while sitting back with a cup of tea and feeling pleased with yourself.

However, this time I thought I might go through a few different techniques you might like to try the next time you sit down with a great concept and ask yourself the magical question ‘What’s going to Happen?’

Technique 1 Pantsing

For those not up with the NaNo-lingo (As a side note: I feel like such a cool kid because I get to explain slang rather than sit there dumbly while people patiently explain the language the kids are using these days) Pantsing is short for writing by the seat of your pants. Not planning what’s going to happen in your novel and effectively letting the characters take you were they will is a totally viable option for your novel plan. It allows you to be open to new things, allows your story to grow organically rather than being contrived and is liable to leave you staring at your work and wondering what sick genius wrote the incredible prose before you and why aren’t they there all the time??

Writing a story is a creative exercise, there is magic involved. Failing to plan is planning for the magic to happen and not putting any roadblocks in its way.

However (and this is a big however) it doesn’t always work. Pantsing is a great technique when you want to just let the creativity flow. But, like with all techniques that require a liberal application of voodoo magic, failure is possible. Don’t let it deter you but always be honest with yourself.

Technique 2 Plot Triangle

This is for those people who enjoy the magic and spontaneous creativity of Pantsing but want to always have a single vision in mind. Pantsing is great for discovering new and fascinating directions for your plot but creating a plot triangle gives you a goal, a place for your story to move towards and, most importantly, can help reduce wasted time pursuing Car Park Violations in your plot.

Creating a plot triangle means splitting up your plot into the familiar Beginning, Middle, End, divisions.

Remember this?

So, for example, let’s say that your beginning is your protagonist (let’s call her Millie) railing against fate because she is deeply in love with someone who knows that she exists but is utterly indifferent to that fact. During the middle there is an unfortunate incident to do with a spork and Millie’s dream guy becomes interested and turns out to be a stalker. The story ends with Millie’s surprisingly attractive best friend who’s been helping her out with her schemes to catch stalkerboy being all heroic before he and Millie ride off into the sunset… on a motorbike… with classic rock blaring in the background.

Also there was a subplot about mushrooms…

Your story has a goal and a clear arc. It’s now your job to fill in the gaps.

Technique 3 Plot ramble

This is my favourite technique. It’s the one I stumbled on to while I was a teenager and figuring out that writing might actually be a thing I was passable at and it’s my go-to technique when I want to plan something.

I write a plot summary in an incoherent ramble that takes up at least 5 pages. No actual writingwriting. Just pure summary of the ‘And this happens, and character X is sad so they do THIS and then a baby elephant is gifted to one of the side characters and then they must go on a quest in order to find magical baby elephant food in order to make it’s ears grow and allow it to fly like Dumbo’ variety.

That’s how elephants work, right?

This has all the advantages of pantsing, allowing for spontaneous events to happen and allowing your plot to unfold organically but in a shortened, not-soul-crushing-if-it-doesn’t-work way.

However, the plot ramble has a major disadvantage in that you must have the discipline to go back after you’ve finished the summary and actually write the story. The plot has just played out in a beautiful ballet inside your head and then you’ve got to go back and do the dirty work of making in into an actual story with characters and moods and everything else that a story requires. It’s difficult and requires discipline and requires the ability to look at your brilliant plot summary and declare that it’s not enough.

Technique 4 Plot Map

This is one of the more structured but still spontaneity-friendly planning techniques. I only tried this one out last night and it works surprisingly well. First you find a whiteboard/ piece of paper and you divide it into six columns.

These columns represent the flow of your story. Each column flows into the next and ends with a conflict or disaster (major or minor, it doesn’t matter) then sketch out the events that lead up to these major plot points in bullet points. Keep track of your characters and don’t stop until you have a logical story that moves from point to point with apparent smoothness.

Then set about writing the scenes that connect these points. Because you’re limited to dot points this shouldn’t be quite as hard as the plot ramble because dot points tend to limit the organically flowing creative madness that can occur. However, dot points have the ability to make anything feel like work and it can feel like the magic has been sucked out of the process.

I like this technique because though the points ostensibly connect with each other it is your job as a writer to connect them in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re playing connect the dots. Creating a story that feels organic when it’s set on a semi-rigid (All plans are guides and should not be adhered to at the expense of your story) plan is challenging and interesting. Creating the logic that allows Millie to go from deeply in love to finding refuge in the arms of her hot best friend is part of the joy of writing and that’s your job as a writer. The plan just tells you that that’s where you’re going.

Technique 5 Snowflake Method

This technique, created by Randy Ingermanson, works by looking at your novel in progressively more and more detailed steps. First you start with a broad outline and then you work your way in, working out the details and plot twists and your characters as you go.

This technique is for the true planners among us. I got about halfway through his steps before I got bored but I’ve also got the attention span of a gnat so I don’t think the technique is to blame for that. This technique helps to give you a true understanding of your story before you even begin writing and gives you a clear and defined roadmap. The snowflake technique allows you to follow the path of your story with no guesswork and no errors. It is a planning person’s Holy Grail.

Technique 6 Tolkien

Create a world with its own lore and history. Create different cultures and languages within that world (The more detailed you can make these the better). Create family trees and side stories and legends that won’t make it anywhere near your novel. It doesn’t matter— it’s all to give you a better idea of the background and to give you a truly complete understanding of the story.

After you’ve created this crazily detailed world— start adding characters.

These techniques are only ideas about how you might want to try planning your next story. Every writer is different and, more importantly, every story is different. What works for one plot won’t necessarily work for another. None of these might work for you or all of these might work for you at different times depending on what mood you’re in, what day it is and whether you’re wearing your lucky underpants or not.

However, even if you do use a plan while you’re writing always remember that a plan is there as a helpful tool. If it’s not working for you, or if it feels like the plan has taken all of the fun and joy of writing it is not a good plan. Plans are there for you to use as a writer. If it works, excellent, if not you’re creating magic so who really cares?

How do you like planning (if at all)? Are there any techniques you rely on constantly? I’d love to hear them.

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About Meg Laverick

I can never be found without a cup of tea in my hand or a notebook in my bag. In between university and generally being awesome I read, write and nerd (that's a verb, right?). I also like analysing things that are probably best left alone.
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3 Responses to Is Failing to Plan Planning to Fail?

  1. I tried the Snowflake Method, too. I ended up with an impressive binder of detail, but no novel. Now I’m thinking I should did that out and see if there’s something there….

    I am interested in trying the plot map method – I’ll let you know how it goes!

  2. phoenixandtiger says:

    I have never exactly tried any of these methods – the closest I got to was probably pantsing, but I don’t really think it could be called that since I did plan it out… with plot points, just completely out of order. I can’t wait to try some of these! (and maybe that Phase Outline thingie going around the NaNo forums)

    Speaking of forums: I was on the NaNo forums the other day and read about someone’s outlining process: apparently, she writes the entire story first, pantsing, and then goes back and does a full outline. Then edits following that outline she did after writing the story. ??? I’m guessing it works for her.

    And you can rescue the small orphan by letting the hungry tiger eat you instead of the orphan =)

  3. Lainy says:

    I think the plot map is calling to me…. and at the same time i think i’m currently in a semi-Tolkien planning phase, except i already have the characters but i’m ignoring them and creating the world then shoving them back in.

    I just don’t think i could do pantsing. I think i would get stuck to often and then get frustrated. I at least need a point, doesn’t have to be detailed at all but still a point, to get to XD But i feel i could definitely over plan things and get bored with them. i need to find the awesome ‘just-right’ middle ground.

    Then again. I may actually do the whole pantsing thing in my head and think over it for a while and then plan a little bit and then maybe write.

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