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About Writing: Don’t Plan Out Every Single Detail

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Note:  This post is part of a series about advice for writers.  All of my advice is based on my experiences, and is offered freely in the hopes that other writers will get something out of it as well.  I highly encourage discussion; tell me your ideas, challenges, and suggestions in the comments!

3.  Don’t plan out every single detail ahead of time

The planning stage of a story can be really exciting.  This is where you figure out the arc of your plot, where you organize your thoughts.  You jot down details and important moments from beginning to middle to end.  This stage forms the backbone of your story.  However, it’s very easy to take this step way too far.

I’m a roleplayer and a world-builder.  I’m used to having to think of every detail because my players will want to know just how things work in the world, and I will need to answer them.  This is great for gaming but not necessarily for writing a story.  Too much planning causes the opposite of the blank page–it gives you no alternate paths, no flexibility.  You may have figured out all the politics of your world ahead of time, but as you begin to write, you find things don’t line up as you expected.  A character develops a life of her own and wants to take the story with her, but because you already have her destiny mapped out, she digs in her heels and neither of you can move.

The story probably won’t do what you think it will.  Even the most elaborate plans can be undone by a single logic question that wasn’t considered earlier (ask me how I know that).  This is actually destructive to the writing process; you’ve done all this planning and now none of it works because of one important detail.  All your energy went into the details and you left no room for change.

Have you ever read a book and felt like a plot point or a character had been hammered in?  Or gotten to the climax, expecting something to happen and instead something else happens–not in the good ‘I never saw that coming’ way, but in the ‘did the author die and someone else finished the story’ way?  Usually those are the result of overplanning, where the writer locked him- or herself into a single path and NOTHING would get in the way of that result.

So how do you combat this tendency?  Try one of these alternative plotting methods:

1.  Write a synopsis, roughly one paragraph per chapter, in present-tense.  Be as brief as you can.  The paragraphs will serve to combat the Blank Page problem (you can copy each one to the beginning of each new chapter as a prompt) and will help you distill the whole story to its most important elements.  By using present tense, you give a sense of immediacy and can trick your brain into reacting as though the tale is happening Right Now.  Here’s an example of one of mine, from a couple of years ago:

Vinia is more interested in their surroundings than in listening to her brother, who is now beside himself at her actions.  Finally she faces him.  In no uncertain terms, she informs him that she would rather take her chances in a new world than live the rest of her life alone.  She gave up her friends, her suitors, and everything else in order to help him return, and her price was to accompany him.  Soud, exasperated, remembers to look for the Shard, who did indeed follow them.  At least that much has gone right.

This was helpful because it was a later scene, and by the time I got there, Soud’s character had changed throughout the course of the story.  I was able to recall my initial thoughts so I kept the feel of the scene, but Vinia’s reaction ended up more appropriate to the way the story had developed.  In the end, I still had a pivotal moment that I’d planned, but had the ability to adjust the scene to fit the rest of the book.

My synopses have no dialogue and very little description.  They are a lot like the thumbnail sketches many artists make before they start a new drawing.  The idea is to capture the important emotion and direction of the story without fine-tuning it.  I find that a full-story-length synopsis helps me focus my thoughts, shows me where I need to build up and where I’m already strong, and it gives me that road map from beginning to end.  There’s lots of room for detours, but at least it’s all there.

Also–I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  the synopsis is not your be-all, end-all.  You may find that as the story develops, things move around.  You are allowed to make changes.  Things may not work when you actually write them out.  It’s totally okay to scrap things that aren’t helping.  You might even stop halfway through and re-plot with a new synopsis if the story takes a new direction.  You’re allowed!

2.  Sometimes, ideas are still too vague for a synopsis, though.  When that happens, I resort to a good old-fashioned outline:

I.    Remaining story for Part I
A.    Anna heals
B.    Anna meets Valeria
C.    Ilario is rescued
D.    Ilario leaves, ending that part

II.    The Shop
A.    Massi helps Anna find a shop
B.    Fedele meets Anna
C.    Fedele holds off on giving her the relic
D.    Introduction of Raphael the Blacksmith

You’ll notice there are no 1. 2. 3. or a. b. c.  This is because I only wanted to see the flow of the story, not the details of the city layout or the politics or even the subplots.

Long character descriptions, personality quizzes, maps, PBs (aka played-bys, where you find an actor or model who could ‘play’ your character in a movie), detailed politics, song playlists (especially when they’re character-specific), and all the other fun stuff we find to do is just clutter.  If you’re not writing your story, then you’re not moving forward.  Recently, one of my dearest friends who happens to be an ah-may-zing writer complained that she couldn’t get excited enough to write her current project.  I reminded her that she was spinning her wheels with all this extra stuff.  Those details start to drag you down, locking you into only one possible route for your story to take.  They create rules that you convince yourself you must follow, and that’s a creativity-killer right there.

On the flip side, those things ARE fun to do, and I’m not saying you never should do them.  But don’t focus on them.  Use questionnaires to flesh out weak characters but don’t do them for every single walk-on role.  Choose a PB or two for your main characters if it helps you visualize them, but try not to obsess about finding the exact perfect one.  Maps are great for reference, but you don’t need to spend hours with a cartography program or editing an existing map to fit your idea of the town.

Creative writing is about flexibility.  Give yourself direction but don’t lock yourself into one true path.

Next post:  About Writing: Write Out of Order

5 Comments

  1. If you look at world building as something you have to do, it CAN be clutter that gets in the way of your story. But it can also be inspirational and motivational. A playlist can put you in the right mindset; politics and religion can help create plot twists or explain character motivations. You don’t have to answer every question, but some of them can be helpful.

    In my novel, I’ve spent three chapters plodding slowly through details and I think it’s largely because neither I nor my protagonist knows what’s going on. A 30-minute world building session would probably help me get past that initial hump and into the meat of the story.

    Writing is a very personal and individual process, which is why everybody’s advice reads differently.

    • I totally believe going into a story with a plan is hugely important, and it does depend on the story itself just how much planning is needed. But when the only thing a writer does is plan, that can bog them down and get in the way of actually writing. I think we (I say we because BOY do I do this myself) get caught up in all the minute details because they’re FUN, dammit. I love combing through icon archives to find the perfect PB, and assembling playlists that give me just the right mood for each character or event. The problem arises when these things become more important than the writing itself. It’s a balance.

      • And I can’t stand looking for PBs, it drives me NUTS. But I’m not a planner; I tend to write without stopping to think much about it and research on the fly.

  2. This is good stuff. It is so great to get a perspective from someone else who is right in the middle (I almost wrote “muddle”) of the process. Thanks for sharing!

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