Ooooh, pretty! But does it have teeth?

“Writing should be organic. Planning just stifles the process.”

“If you don’t know where you’re headed, you’ll never get there. A plan is essential.”

So, which is it? Plans are a road block or a road map? The question, “do you plan your writing?” really has only two responses, though the phrasing and reasoning may differ. Most writers either feel that a) writing without a plan is like taking a road trip without a map – hazardous and rife with opportunities to get lost, OR b) plot outlines are, in reality, creativity sucking vampires and a colossal waste of time.

The truth is, and whether you realize it or not, you do plan your writing. Some people do it on paper, others in their head, but everyone plans. Wait, you in the back, I see you shaking your head. You are, apparently, the wunderkind I’ve heard of whose prose simply flows from him in golden rivers with nary a thought to guide it. Ok. Fair enough.

But let me ask you this: when you come up with a story idea, do you have some idea of how it might begin? Perhaps a notion of how it will end? Maybe one or two ideas for events which may or may not occur in the middle? You do? Aha! That, my friend, is a plan. It may all be in your head, but it’s still a plan. No one writes in a void. The idea, the “what if” question kicks it off, but we must have at least a vague notion of where we’re going (even if our route changes nine dozen times as we write) or we cannot take the first step, let alone arrive at our destination.  This is true for writers who begin in the middle and write towards both ends too, by the way.

So, we all plan. And by plan, I mean use a plot outline. Some keep it all in their head. Others, like author Angela Hunt, write it down. Ms. Hunt uses a cartoon skeleton graphic organizer. The spinal column represents the main plot line and the rib cage provides a scaffold for subplots and complications. She describes it as, “a hybrid between no outline and a fully developed outline.  It has the bare bones of a story that will keep you on track, but it’s spare enough that the writer can still experience the joy of discovery on the journey.” I have used a road map diagram and the classic story arc, as well as Angela’s skeleton G.O. All three have been helpful to one degree or another. In my current novel I actually wrote out the outline AFTER I was half way through the story, just to keep track of the various subplots and complications. The original plan existed only in my head.

Whichever answer to the planning question is yours, it is probably smart to ask yourself a couple of additional questions at the start of each project.

  1. How long/complex is my piece going to be? A single plot line with relatively few complications probably won’t need as detailed a plan as will a multilayered epic with a large cast of characters.
  1. What style of plan works best for me? An author who writes in a linear fashion is likely to choose a different planning style from one who writes in non-chronological chapters. Character driven novels might need a different type of plan than situation driven plots.

In all likelihood, no one method will work for every writer on every project. Switching it up is part of the fun. So tell me – which style do you use?


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