There are certain questions every fiction writer will ask themselves, sooner or later, about their craft. One such question will be a variation of, should you plan your story before writing it, or forgo the plan and just make up a story as go? It is a question I thought I had definitively answered for myself years ago. In fact, until last year, if you had asked me whether it is better to write to a plan or make it up as you go I wouldn’t have hesitated in stating unequivocally that planning is an indispensable part of writing a story. However, I’ve recently realised that maybe the answer isn’t quite so cut-and-dry as I once believed.
While I still favour planning over not planning, my answer to the question is a little more nuanced than it was previously. I recently completed my very first novel, that I began writing in earnest early last year, and the experience has had a significant impact on my formerly inflexible attitude. It was my first serious attempt to write a novel without a detailed outline to follow, so not only was it a risk, it was also an obvious departure for me. I had long ago abandoned making stories up as I go and last did so when I was a teenager; so imagine my surprise when after a year or so of writing, my novel was complete. It is a feat I’ve not yet accomplished while writing with the aid of a detailed plan; every previous effort ended in failure, with me abandoning the story for one reason or another.
Though it is true my debut novel-to-be was written without my usual fore planning, it’s certainly not the case that I was making the story up as I went. As the novel is based on a fan fiction short story I produced way back in 2007, I more or less knew from the get-go how I wanted the story to begin and how I wanted it to end. I also had a good idea of the necessary milestone events that had to occur between the two points. That being said, it’s fair to say this very general outline was a far cry from what I usually worked with, though unexpectedly this proved to be an advantage.
In the past, when outlining a story I always went into minute detail of every part of my narrative, from start to finish. I would plan every single chapter from beginning to end; every scene of each chapter; which character’s point-of-view each scene is told from; the location those scene take place in etc. I never left anything to chance. This level of planning tended to be very beneficial for writing shorter fiction because it helped to keep my narrative coherent by preventing me from going off on a tangent. Unfortunately, no matter how much time and effort I put into a plan for a novel it never resulted in a finished work; I invariably abandoned the story long before the end.
So what was it about using a detailed outline that stopped me from successfully writing a novel, whereas forgoing such a plan has recently allowed me to complete my first ever novel? Well, in hindsight the plans in themselves were never the problem; the primary issue I had was the amount of time spent producing an outline, and the detail I went into, made me unwilling to stray from the plan for any reason. The logic behind my reticence to alter my narrative was my certainty that even a single change to the story would require me to drastically revise every subsequent detail of the plot. My fear was that making changes to the story as I go would result in an incoherent mess.
The other problem I encountered when writing with the aid of a detailed outline was knowing ahead of time which events in the story were most exciting to me, and which were just mundane connective material. This had the unfortunate effect of killing my motivation to write through those parts of the story I found least interesting, and tempting me to skip ahead to the parts I most wanted to write. As I am not willing, or even capable of writing in a non-linear fashion this was never a viable option for me to attempt given my belief that the end result would be an incoherent train wreck.
While it has proven to be the case that detailed planning is more of a hindrance to me than a benefit when it comes to writing novel length fiction writing, that doesn’t mean I would ever attempt to write a novel without any kind of plan, whatsoever; that would be an even bigger disaster. What my recent experience of successfully writing a novel for the first time has taught me is the need to find a happy medium, because writing it was frequently an unenjoyable experience. The lack of a written outline to refer back to meant there were days where I wasn’t as productive as I would have liked, even though I had a starting point of knowing how my story begins, how it would end and what needed to occur in between. As a result, the process of finishing the story to my satisfaction took more than twice as long as it probably should. It’s fair to say I don’t wish to repeat the experience if I can help it; and if I heed the lessons I have taken from it, I won’t have to.
I believe the successful completion of my first novel has helped me to identify the happy medium between detailed planning and no planning that will work best for me in future. I will continue to produce written outlines before I begin writing novels, but less comprehensive ones that lack the specific details of the plans I used to favour. Rather than being roadmaps that are to be rigidly adhered to, my outlines will merely serve as rough guides of where I want my stories to go, allowing me the flexibility to change direction as and when I need to. With any luck it should make the writing of my next novel a little easier and a lot more enjoyable.
That concludes my thoughts on writing stories without a plan. So what is your position on this issue? Do you think it is better to plan your stories in advance before writing a novel, or is it better to fly by the seat of your pants? What are your own experiences? Feel free to let me know by leaving a comment below; I’d love to read other people’s opinions.