Should You Plan Your Book?
29th September, 2020
Every person is unique – so it stands to reason that we all have our unique take on writing. Just like we have categories to help us understand people in general, such as introvert or extrovert, we can also use categories to help us perceive writers.
Every writer could be placed into one of two categories: the planners and the non-planners. They correspond to people who plan their stories out before beginning to write them and those that just start writing and see where their writing takes them – the latter of which I will refer to as freewriting.
Unfortunately, as with many categories out there, it can soon descend into heated debates about which category is the best one. And when it comes to planning or not planning your writing, sadly it isn’t any different: you won’t have to search far to find an absolute take on the subject matter.
I believe, however, that both methods have their strengths and weaknesses that every writer should be aware of.
Planning you first draft will likely get you to the finish line much quicker. With defined characters, chapters, and a start, middle, and end, there is a lot less time writing into the unknown. A solid plan might let you write at your peak daily productivity (if judged solely by word count), and, in addition, editing time at the beginning of the second draft may also be shorter, as no big structural changes need to be made before moving onto honing your writing.
It can really sound like there are no downsides to planning your first draft. After all, how often are we told not to plan the essay we are writing? Or not plan the work report we are going to present? But fiction writing is in a realm of its own, and too much planning can fundamentally interfere with the development of a good story.
With fiction we want a story that is suspenseful and unpredictable, with characters that are believable and compelling. For sci-fi and fantasy, we want to experience a different world, and yet a world also grounded in believable logic. These are very elusive traits to capture.
Even when applying all the structural narrative tricks at our disposal, the risk of a plan is that it delivers a story that doesn’t come to life. Everything is a little too perfect. Characters are two-dimensional, and the hidden hand of the author is all too visible: as a series of deus ex machinas, and other contrivances, always appear to keep the plot (or the plan) on track.
Ultimately, it is all down to the perspective of the author, who has delivered the story from the position of the all-seeing controller, looking down from the clouds and shifting the pieces around to construct a story. A plan for the first draft may help get us to the finished book much quicker, but there is a risk that it may deliver a story with very little soul.
And anyway, isn’t it more fun to write with a little bit of suspense?
Freewriting can help inject life in story by shifting the perspective of the author. The author writes with no plan at all or only a barebones outlines, and the story is developed moment by moment, or sentence by sentence.
Instead of a perspective looking down on events, the author is now part of the events, and doesn’t quite know where they are leading. What does a character say? What do they look like? What do they do next? It is the little questions, answers and moments of discovery that builds a story, characters, and world, piece by piece. The sense of discovery while writing this way can make the process of writing a first draft a lot more interesting. The author might write their characters into a sticky situation, and then, just like the characters, has to figure a way to get them out of it.
Many writers believe that their characters eventually take on a life on their own, and at that point the author simply has to let them take control of the story. This is a good signifier that a well-developed character has arrived. But just like life, a free-written story can go in totally unexpected and not necessarily satisfactory directions. Conflicts can be left unresolved and plot threads forgotten. The story can seem to expand exponentially, growing outwards with more details, more characters, but never forwards to a resolution.
With freewriting there is always the risk of the story veering out of control. While a planned story can lead to an author being too distant from the events, a non-planned story can lead to the author being too close to the events to step back and look at the wider picture. When the editing begins in the second draft, these problems can be resolved – but it might take a lot of time and effort. Entire chapters might need to be discarded, and characters removed or merged.
Both categories have their strengths and weaknesses. But are these two modes of writing even competing at all? And where does the line between the categories occur? Ultimately, just like people sit on a scale between total introvert and total extrovert, there is a scale between the meticulous planner (with some writers’ plans being longer than the book itself) and the complete free writer (writing with no plan and no attempt to control the narrative direction).
All writers sit somewhere on the dial between the two extremes, and most of us probably have remained in the same position since we started writing. Being self-aware of this position may help us to level-up our own writing.
If you are prone to planning, why not try to do less planning in favour of more freewriting? And if you freewrite, why not try and adhere to a plan? Ultimately, knowledge of both methods can help us identify if we are falling into the pitfalls of either. If you are freewriting and feeling like your story isn't advancing, it's probably time to take a step back and consider making a plan. Likewise, if you feel your planned story isn't really coming to life, it might be time to let go of the plan and start taking it sentence by sentence. We always have the option to shift between the two modes to progress the story we are telling. A change in writing method can also help restore our motivation to get the story finished.
We hope this article was of use to the budding writers out there. Please stay tuned for announcement of new features coming soon to First Draft App.