Making Plans

The eternal question (well, one of them, anyway): how much planning should you do before you begin to write?

Plan of the old railnetwork

Obviously, this depends a lot on a) what kind of writer you are; and b) what kind of thing you are writing.

Some writers can’t start ‘actually writing’ until they’ve exhaustively planned every last detail and diagrammed it all out, with every detail of their characters’ lives already known. (This can result in gratuitous prequels – I am looking at you, George Lucas.) If you dream of index cards and colour-coding, you may be this kind of writer.

Weapons for work

Others just let it all bubble away in their heads until the time is right. Isabel Allende, for example, always starts writing her books on the same day of the year – an approach that would drive me batty. If you take this approach – well, you have a better memory than I do.

Others just leap in there and figure it out as they go. This tends to result in a very… catholic first draft, in which both beginning and end can seem to belong to different works from the middle.

A Year's Work

I’ve just realised that I hate (strong word – perhaps feel very uncomfortable with) not knowing where I’m going – or at least where I’m up to. With no plan, there is little to measure progress against. Which is depressing. Call me a feedback-hound, but without encouragement of some sort my motivation to keep going rapidly dwindles.

On the other hand, if I plan too completely (or concretely) I lose all motivation to write the blessed thing – there is no element of discovery, no reading the tale as it unfolds.

Now, as previously mentioned, this is also affected by what kind of thing you are writing.

Prose, I find can be happily wallowed through until you get to the other end and find out what it’s turned into. Then the rewriting begins.

Scripts – particularly for the screen – need a lot more structure. (Unless you are an avant-garde script-writer, in which case you get to make up your own rules but largely have to pay for them yourself.) There is the oft-mentioned board (ideally pinned, but more often floored), on which is plotted out the course of the story, in varying levels of detail.

Nanowrimo Story Board

Poetry, I suspect, requires a balance of the two. Or it might be that this form is the most dependent on the person writing. I usually just went for it in the beginning, with whatever inspiration came to hand, and then shaped the rest around that, although I don’t know that I’d recommend it as a poetic approach. (Thoughts?)

At the moment, my Works In Progress include mostly scripts (stage and screen) and one novel, which is the WIP I’m actually W’ing on.

I tend to try planning everything out ahead of time with the scripts, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

One of my stage scripts can be redrafted mostly from the first draft (plus new material); the other will want new plans drawn up. It’s like the difference between building an addition and doing a complete rebuild with recycled material from the original structure.

The film script is still very much in the early planning stages – more blueprints than actual building at this point.

With the novel, I have a rough structure in mind – a sketch map, in fact – but I don’t actually know exactly what I’m doing with it, or how long it’s going to take. I am, in fact, making it up as I go along.

Fairy tale map

Entirely new characters show up and demand to be included. Simple places turn out to be complicated little worlds of their own.
It feels like it’s taking forever, but at least when I reach the end everything will be in there. Although I may need to do quite a bit of retrofitting.

But here’s the hard part: I am a structure junkie.

Vladimir Propp did not appear on this blog by happenstance. Three act structure, five act structure, the Hero’s Journey – if there’s a pattern, I want to know about it.

But I think sometimes (all right, often) I use it as a means of procrastination – of abdicating responsibility. The structure will tell me what ought to happen next, and which roles need to be filled, and then I won’t have to work it out the hard way, by actually writing the thing, and finishing it, and then going back and thinking no – that shouldn’t be there, and this should be over here, and why are so many people doing this and no-one doing that?

So there is my struggle. Bit by bit I must bring this thing into existence, and not know til the end (if then) how malformed and lifeless it may be, how much of my work, how many dark mornings and weary evenings, must be cut away and cast off like excess clay from a sculptor’s model.

The pen is mightier than the sword....

“We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Henry James

Propping up Plot with a Bukkit

No, that isn’t a typo.

I refer to the late great Vladimir Propp, who had the fascinating idea of classifying plot elements in the same way Linnaeus classified plant life.

His work focussed on the Russian folktale, which he boiled down into 31 plot elements or ‘narratemes’ – not necessarily all present in any one tale, but generally occurring in the same order.

To see what I mean, and have a bit of fun, try this Russian Folktale Generator – you select the narratemes you’d like to include, and the programme comes up with a (varyingly) specific example, forming your very own folktale.

"Nature lends such evil dreams"

This leads me to my next point, because (as you will know once you’ve tried it) the programme may have some great plot ideas – I particularly liked the trail of blood – but great storyteller it ain’t.

So much of writing isn’t the story, after all – it’s how you tell the story. There are a limited number of plots in the world, so we have a fairly good idea what’s going to happen, but we want to know how. Or, in the case of writers like Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, we may even have an inkling howdunnit (or whodunnit), but we go along for the ride anyway because of the telling. Because of the voice.

Take Back To Beat – Gomma Vulcanizzata

Like fingerprints, no two voice prints are the same.

And this is why it is important for a writer to have their own voice (even if it includes myriad subordinate clauses and sentences that start with the word ‘and’). Which leads us neatly around to the subject of Chapter Two in the Artist’s Way – recovering a sense of identity.

To be sure, Julia Cameron is thinking more along the lines of recovering your identity as a writer, but there is also the element of recovering your identity as this writer.


Like the Walrus and his Bukkit, I am happy to have my writer’s voice back – it’s been away and I missed it.

But to return to Propp, leaving Chapter Two for another post:
as well as the 31 narratemes, such as LACK (They took my bukkit!) and BEGINNING COUNTER-ACTION (have you seen my bukkit?) Propp classified 8 character types found in these tales.

These include the hero (our friend the lolrus), the villain (obviously, whoever took the bukkit) and the princess and her father, who, Propp notes, are functionally the same – the sought-after one. (They are the bukkit.)

Now, while I don’t suggest that all stories could or should fit the Russian Folktale structure (bukkits aside), it can be very helpful in sparking new ideas for a saggy plot.

Of course! you cry. Where are the helpers who aid the search for the bukkit?

1765 G takes blue bucket

What – or who – sends my hero off on their journey? Where’s the showdown with the villain? The pursuit with the prize? What false hero tries to purloin the hard-earned reward? What’s a walrus got to do to get his bukkit back? And so on and so forth.

And if all else fails in your attempt to dig yourself out of a plot bog, follow a blood trail – see where it leads.