I love it when a plan comes together
Last week, while I was wittering on about writer's block, I suggested having a plan to work from, and to refer to if you get stuck.
I realise, though, that "Have a plan" is possibly not the wonderful advice I thought it was, and that "How do you write a plan?" may be a question on par with the infamous "Where do you get your ideas?"
It might not be, of course: it seems pretty straightforward to me. But then I also know - or at least I think I know - where my ideas come from, and that's so touchy a subject that no one with any sense should dare ask it, these days, unless what one really wants is a deeply sarcastic soundbite.
I don't know why I say "these days" either: the great Agatha Christie had her literary stand-in, Ariadne Oliver, grumble about that very question back in the fifties (and suggested that she should just answer "Selfridges") and was probably vexed by it for decades before.
The no less great Neil Gaiman has observed that the most likely reason for all this sarcasm is that the writers don't know where their ideas come from either, but are afraid that if they admit that out loud, they might stop coming. It seems very probable. But I do know where my ideas come from: they come from my complete inability to stop thinking "But what if..." about the most stupid things, coupled with a tendency to chase even the most ridiculous idea to its not very logical conclusion. Which is more or less how I write a plan, too. So in case planning isn't intuitively obvious, and in case there's anyone out there who might be helped by this, here's one way to write a plan.
1. Have an idea. Wherever your ideas come from, go and get one. If you don't want to have to wait around for inspiration to hit, use an idea you already had, or outsource your idea-having to someone less invested in this whole thing than you are.
2. Think about it.
What's the story about? Who are your characters and what are they trying to achieve? Will they be successful? Why or why not? Get a general idea of the starting and ending points of the story. Write those two points down, with a gap in between them. If you know what's going to happen in the middle of the story then write that down in the middle of the gap, with plenty of space on either side.
Ideally you should do this bit on a computer, or in your phone's notes app, or in some other way that makes it easy to increase or decrease the size of the gap as you fill in the rest of your plan. If you're working in a notebook, leave more space than you think you'll need, and be prepared to cover the page with notes, arrows and scribblings as you flesh everything out and move the various parts of the story around. 3. Fill in the gaps. Once you know what your characters are trying to do, decide how they're going to attempt it, what is going to stand in their way, and how they are going get past this -if they are! Put all these things down and start moving them around until you think you've got them in the order you want. Now go back and fill in everything that needs to happen in your story in order for those things to occur.
This gives you the rough outline of your story. You can break this outline into chapters at this point, to make the next part easier, or leave it as it is. 4. Think some more. Do you have your characters in mind? What do you know about them? How do you want the reader to perceive them? How are you going to achieve this? What about the setting? Where is it? When is it? What is it like? How do you plan on showing this in the text?
Imagine someone is sitting a comprehension exam on your story and ask yourself how you want them to answer. You don't have to go into a huge amount of detail, but these answers should help you flesh out your plan and perhaps give you some useful notes or quotes when you come to write that part of your story.
Fill in these notes at the appropriate points in your plan. If you broke it into chapters you can just insert any relevant notes at the end of each chapter, but if not it's easiest just to stick them into the body of the plan enclosed in square brackets [like these] to make them stand out.
5. Go over the plan. Does it all hold together? Is anything missing? Does it sound like the story you wanted to tell?
If anything seems off, now is the time to fix it. If not, congratulations: you now have a plan. Alternatively you could use my preferred method, which is to think of something, keep thinking about it until I know where it's going, then scribble the whole thing down in a rush. I generally find this goes a lot more easily than writing the actual story, probably because there's a lot less at stake. It may or may not work that way for you.
Either way, you now have a plan. Once you have a plan you can refer to it as you go, check on it when you don't know what to write next, and generally use it to guide your writing. Or that's the idea. I don't actually tend to look at my plan again once I've written it, but having it written down and knowing the rough structure of the book I intend to write helps me to keep going when, without a plan, I could easily get stuck. It's like the way you never need a map if you have one, but if you leave it at home you're almost bound to get lost. Or you could just use Google Maps, I suppose: I'm told that's a thing now.
Of course once you have a plan you don't automatically have to follow it. If a scene doesn't work as written you can re-write it, or move it to another part of the story, or drop it altogether. If someone you'd meant to be a conniving villain turns out, when you write them, to be actually rather nice, you can adjust for that, or add a new villain, or do something new. The plan shouldn't stop you making changes: it should help, because it gives you the framework into which all your alterations should fit. And if all else fails, you can always re-write the plan.