Hey guys, this is the second article in my series about the writing process. If you’re interested in a broader look at the basics, check out Part 1, How to Write Your First Story. This time we’re going to look at planning in a little more detail. This article will show you how to turn a good idea into a great plot, so get out your notepads and follow along.
Writing without a plan can be difficult, deceptively so, because part of writing well is making the twists and turns of a story look natural and flowing. In a well crafted story the hand of the author should be invisible, leaving the reader to getting fully absorbed in the tale. A well writing book leaves the reader thinking the writing process was as effortless as reading it was, with one event occurring neatly after another until we come to satisfying end. Some writers do work this way and produce very good books, but for most the results turn out less impressive. Writing without a plan leaves the writer vulnerable to writing themselves into a corner, or losing all sense of pacing completely.
A good plan is like sketching out a canvas before beginning to paint, or framing and lighting a photograph before snapping away. Some free spirits will tell you that writing a plan is constrictive, but done well the process can be liberating. Letting you unleash all your creativity onto your first draft without worrying about how the plot will develop next. There’s nothing to lose, if you find the plan isn’t working for your story any more? Well, you’re not obliged to stick to it.
When people ask me about getting into writing, I always advise them to experiment with short fiction. I like to try out new things in stories around a thousand words because I like the format and you can get results pretty fast. If you read Part 1, then you’ll know I covered my process for a story that length from start to finish, but in this article I’m going to really try to explore planning in more detail. This is less of a step by step guide, but if the advice is useful to you, then you can go back to Part 1 and incorporate all of this into that guide.
A short story shouldn’t take as much planning as a novel (for obvious reasons) but you can still get yourself tied in knots if you aren’t careful. Part of the problem with writing off the cuff is that so often it’s hard to tell the difference between a good plot and a good premise. Having a great idea can send you scurrying to the keyboard, but there’s some development between “what’s the story about?” and “how does the plot unfold?” For example, “dinosaur clone theme park” is a great premise, but it tells you nothing about the plot. It takes a little time, and a little planning to turn that into “a billionaire clones dinosaurs to use as theme park attractions, he invites a small group to tour the park and endorse it, but during a storm the park is isolated and the dinosaurs start to escape.” And that doesn’t even include an ending!
A good way to think of planning is taking a simple premise and extrapolating a beginning, middle, and end. It doesn’t even need to be much. A functional short story plan can be achieved just by writing a quick couple of sentences that cover the key points of the plot.
When I wrote my story Lift, I started with a simple premise. An old lift (or Elevator for my American readers) is operating on its own in the night. When I sat down to plan, I set my target word count and broke that down into three blocks. I then tried to flesh out a story with that in my head. I knew I wanted a protagonist, someone to hear the lift operate, otherwise it wouldn’t be as spooky as I imagined. I knew I didn’t want to be to overt about the cause, so I came up with an ending I liked, and I went from there:
Block 1, Alfie hears the lift and thinks about hearing it night after night.
Block 2, Alfie gets up the courage to go investigate.
Block 3, resolution. (I’m not going to spoil the whole thing, you can read it here.)
The story only ended up a little over a thousand words, and the plot is hardly elaborate, but by planning out a loose sequence before I started I was free to write the story how I wanted. I really liked the way it turned out.
Most stories in the western literary tradition follow this three act structure. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s the model most TV shows, films, and popular books follow. If you’re reading this, it’s a form that you’re probably unconsciously well versed in, and that means that it’s a great place to start when it comes to planning stories. Formally it’s defined as Setup, Conflict, and Resolution. Though, you’ve probably also heard the “put a man up a tree analogy,” which says you should put a man up a tree, throw stones and him, then get him back down again. Place your characters in a situation, give them problems to overcome, bring them to a resolution. Again, remember that this is just a model. A guide to aid your own storytelling skills. It’s not a blueprint for every piece of writing you do, if you become to rigid about it your stories will feel stilted and contrived.
Personally, I find a character focused interpretation works well. What is your central figure trying to achieve? What stumbling blocks will they face in achieving this goal? How will they overcome this? That makes it sound a little lofty and dry, but it works pretty well for all kinds of stories and characters. Take a typical adventure story like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones wants to find the Lost Ark and rescue his old mentor. This is difficult because Nazis are also looking for the ark and they have kidnapped his mentor. He overcomes this by recruiting his mentor’s daughter, tracking the Nazi’s down, and learning the history of the Ark so when it opens the Nazis are killed and he isn’t. Of course, the film is a more layered and complex narrative, but the broad strokes still fit into this form.Most of the classic action adventure films do. Adopting the form for short works will make it easier for you to keep your plots focused. When you move on to longer, more intricate stories it’ll still apply.
Plan it more detail if it’s helpful to you. For longer stories, I’ll usually devote a paragraph for each third of the story, and try to flesh out specific events in more detail. The more characters and scenarios you include, the more forethought it’s going to take. There are pitfalls, however. It’s important to leave yourself room to breath. A lot can change in the course of writing a first draft, and it’s important to have key plot points established before you begin, but you need room to work. If you find, over the course of a story, that it makes sense to drop a character, or for people to leave, arrive, change sides or even for the setting to change completely, this shouldn’t send you completely back to the drawing board. Characters are important because they draw people into your story, but planning is about making your plot work on a functional level.
You probably have a few ideas for short stories already. Try taking one and breaking it down into three sentences representing the beginning, middle, and end. You briefly planned the story from start to finish! Now flesh out the plan a little, rewrite it in a little more detail, a couple of sentences for each act. For a short story, this is probably enough of a plan. For a novel, you can follow the same process, expanding a little more each time.
The most important advice is always not to worry. At this stage you’re just framework for the story, the adornments come later. A story isn’t finished until you send it out into the world. It’s never too late to fix things, when you’re writing up, you might find your plan wasn’t quite so well structured as you thought it was. Don’t worry about it. You can hammer a lot of things into shape with a good rewrite. Just remember, the better the foundations at the start, the less you’ll have to fix up later.
Now go out and plan some stories, try using the process from Part 1 to write them up into complete pieces, then let me know how you did!
If this article was useful to you, then you might enjoy my book Two Cephalopods Walk Into a Bar. It’s a collection of sixteen short stories, written using the same methods I’ve discussed. It’s available on Amazon to read on the kindle, or the kindle app on your smartphone or tablet.