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.