Planning … Is It Really Necessary?

In the beginning of August, I attended a reunion weekend at Brønderslev Writer’s College where the program had been filled with presentations by published authors and other people in the writing industry. During that time, I had the pleasure of listening to four different authors talking about their writings and the techniques they use to make a book coherent and enjoyable. Three out of four explained that they use a lot of time planning their stories more or less from beginning to end, then simply sit down and write what they have planned. This made me consider the different ways of approaching a story that you want to write and in the end, I reached the conclusion that writers can – roughly, mind you – be divided into three categories when it comes to planning: The Impulsive Writer, The General Planner, and The Details Planner. The question, then, is whether planning really is necessary to write a great novel and if so, how much do you actually need to do?

First, let’s consider the three types of writers I just mentioned:

1. The Details Planner: S/he plans everything in details, which leads to her/him knowing exactly how the story is going to start, how it’s going to end, and how it’s going to get wherever it’s going. S/he knows the strengths, flaws, fears, looks, etc. of every character, not just the main ones. S/he often plans what’s going to happen in each chapter, and at least a couple of these chapters are a hundred percent detailed before s/he starts writing the novel.

2. The General Planner: S/he has a pretty good idea of what is going to happen throughout the novel, including the major turning points of the story. However, the plan is rarely detailed and may be subject to change as s/he goes along. S/he has a fairly good grasp on the characters, especially the main ones, but isn’t always sure how they are to turn out eventually. Also, s/he might add other characters later on who weren’t necessarily planned from the beginning.

3. The Impulsive Writer: S/he knows more or less what is going to happen at the point in the story that s/he is currently writing, but apart from that, s/he only has a vague idea of where the story is going and, maybe, how it’s going to end. S/he has a fairly good grasp on the personality of the main characters, but when it comes to other characters, they may be added and deleted as s/he goes along. The development of the main characters is also subject to change.

So which of the above approaches to writing a novel is the most effective? And can you say that there is a “right” way of writing?

To the last question, definitely no. Just like different students have different ways of approaching their school work, different writers have different ways of reaching their goal: a finished novel, ready for a read-through followed by some editing (yes, there will be editing no matter what kind of approach you choose, so don’t fool yourself – your novel is only going to be all the better for it). However, I will make an argument for why, when all comes down to it, I believe that The General Planner and The Detailed Planner may have an easier writing process than The Impulsive Writer.  To do this, I’m going to tell you how planning works for me.

First of all, I am definitely a General Planner. I do like planning; however, to me it feels as if some of the fun would go out of writing if I planned everything down to the last detail. I know all the major turning points and plot twists of the stories I write, but apart from that I like planning the story bit for bit as I go along. When it comes to characters, I’ve got a fairly good idea of their background story, their looks, and their personality, but I let them decide how they’re going to act when I place them in one impossible situation after another (I know some of you out there will understand what I’m talking about here, while the rest might find me a little crazy). My character list is mostly done from the start, but it sometimes happens that I add new people if I feel like I need to (in one of my novels, for instance, a character introduced on a whim ended up a main character all of a sudden).

So how much planning do I do and how does it help me?

Well, for one thing, I make sure I have my main characters straight. I need to know their basic personality and overall background story, along with their relations to the other characters of the story and the way they view the world around them. This is very important to me because the main pivotal point of my stories usually is my characters and how they evolve. I never start writing a story before the main character(s) is/are loud and clear in my mind.

Furthermore, I need to know the general storyline. Therefore, I find the major events and plot twists from the start so I have at least a basic idea of where I want my story to go. These do sometimes get changed as I get further into the story, but they provide me with a very much needed plot line that I can work my way through (also, knowing the general plot of the story will help you throw in hints to those big secrets you’re going to reveal later – just saying). When the general storyline is set, that’s when I can start writing. Sometimes, I plan my first chapter in detail. Other times, I don’t. It depends on my mood and the type of story I’m writing. A short story will typically be planned in more detail than a novel.

That being said, the most important thing about planning for me is that it gives my writing flow. Being a General Planner, I sometimes get stuck during the writing process because I don’t know what’s going to happen next to get to that big scene that I do know how will turn out. That’s when I sit down, pull out a piece of paper, and start brainstorming and mind-mapping my ideas, because for me, that’s the most effective way of getting an overview of the current plot lines in my story. As soon as I have that overview, I can make the loose ends meet and mostly, that will lead to ideas that can make the story continue. In other words, as soon as I have planned, quite generally, what is going to happen next, it’s a lot easier writing it.

When I’ve finished a story, I go through it at least twice before I consider it done. I read, I edit, and I usually find that my planning has helped me get a consistent story down already from my first take. Sure, there will always be some things that needs rewriting (I once heard three great authors agree that the writers who don’t think they need to rewrite at all are the ones who actually need it the most and I quite agree), but all in all, I’ve got a story line that generally works and some characters that are consistent in their beliefs and actions throughout the story. That’s why I believe that planning can really help you in the long run.

Conclusion: No, planning isn’t necessary. But you’re going to make things a lot easier on yourself if you do some anyway as that will eventually make your editing process easier and faster. Furthermore, if you’re anything like me, it will also help your writing to flow from your imagination and down onto the computer screen in a mostly coherent manner. I can strongly recommend a bit of planning, but stick with the amount you find necessary and don’t let anybody tell you that there is one right way of writing and planning. As I stated at the beginning of this post, all writers are different. The most important thing is that you find an amount of planning that works for you and helps to make your writing process as enjoyable as possible.

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On the Subject of Lying

Okay, so I want to start this blog with a post about a very basic thing that I think you should all know: writers lie.

There. I said it. That’s a very bold statement I was first told when I was attending a course at Brønderslev Writer’s College and it was made by author Bjørn Themsen. He said something that sounded much like this (except it was in Danish, of course):

 “The cool thing about being a writer is that you’re allowed to lie!”

To begin with, the statement that you more or less have to lie threw me off. I mean, I considered myself quite the honest person. So how was I supposed to start lying? But as soon as he explained the statement, I began to understand his meaning and the reasons behind it. He continued,

“You have to be loyal to the life, opinions, and peculiarities of your characters. So keep lying!”

I suspect you’re all catching on to it now, the meaning behind his words. What Bjørn was saying is that as a writer, you are required to lie – you have to lie because what you’re writing is not a biography (although biographies are definitely filled with their parts of lies as well, but let’s forget that for now). It’s fiction. And when all comes down to it, fiction is based upon lies. The stories that we read or watch, they’re not really happening. I’m sorry to break it to you, but there isn’t a young man running around London with a scar on his face whose name is Harry Potter and who defeated the evil wizard Voldemort (unless, of course, J. K. Rowling is in fact a witch who decided to tell the greatest tale of the top-secret magic society. I won’t rule it out); it’s a lie. But it’s a lie that we all know isn’t true and so, we revel in it. We enjoy it. And we don’t feel offended when we realize that it’s not true. So that’s why you can be quite an honest person else wise, yet when you sit down in front of your computer or with a piece of paper, you better start lying (if you’re writing fiction, mind you – it wouldn’t be such a good idea to lie in your self-assessment tax return).

However, that being said, I think something else should be taken into consideration as well. Because the stories might all be lies, but the emotions and the messages are real. I’ll go out on a limb here and claim that there isn’t a story in the world that aren’t filled with real emotions, and the reason we as readers or audience keep yearning for more stories are because they are filled with so many feelings that resonate with us. We recognize the feeling of loss when the main character loses his or her family. We know how angry your siblings can sometimes make you. It’s not alien to us when couples argue over the little things. We’ve seen it or we’ve felt it, and most likely both. We can relate. And when we can relate, that’s when we feel a certain attachment to the characters at hand. A story that fails to act upon real emotions wouldn’t have a lot of substance to it, if any at all.

Then there are the messages; the things that most teachers of literature are getting on your back for analyzing the crap out of. But even if you don’t feel like diving into the depth of the meaning behind red roses or a gleam of sunlight through the windows, I’m betting you will always be able to find one or more things that the book you just read or the movie you just watched can teach you. Sometimes, what writers want to tell you may be very explicit. Maybe the book is about this girl who got dumped, but learned that there are still bright sides of life. Or maybe the book is about a man coming of age and learning how to deal with the life of an adult, but that very simple fact may be hidden beneath tons of dragons and knights. Fact is, no matter how many layers that’s put upon the message, it’s still there and you can learn from it.

I guess when all comes down to it, I’m going to have to oppose Bjørn’s statement a little. Writers do lie. But the cool thing about being a writer is that you can use those lies to tell truths about life. Because in the end, the reason why we love stories is that at some point, each and every one of them is about life, and life is a subject that is forever relevant.

So keep lying, fellow writers – but use those lies well.