Planning your story
Planning is a topic everyone addresses differently. Some might not plan their life at all and others fill dozens of notebooks to keep track of what they eat, how much they sleep and when they have to do something. Some people plan out their entire life, whereas others still don’t know what they will be doing next week.
The question is - can you write a story without planning anything out? Or better, will that story be a good one?
I personally like writing short stories. They mostly consist of about 2000 to 5000 words, the characters are all ones I’ve written about many years now. Those stories are stories I never plan out. I have an idea of what I want to happen, keep the main storyline in mind and start writing, finishing the story mostly the same day. That is, to me, the absolute minimum of planning that is needed to be done.
A story often doesn’t sound coherent and consistent if it’s written without the author knowing where the whole thing is going. It’s often lost in detail and in utterly unimportant conversations and scenarios before finally something relevant is happening. Sometimes, characters change without a reason or get forgotten about. This is especially the case when the story is a longer one or written with a lot of breaks in between. Focusing on longer and more complex stories, I’d like to share my advice on what amount of planning is useful.
The absolute minimum.
To me, the absolute minimum has two major aspects to it - a storyline and character drafts. To make the story sounding well put together, you should be aware of what you want to happen in that story, and you should note it down. This is especially important if you drop hints throughout your story on how it will end or what will happen. You need to know which mysteries are solved at which point, and you need to be aware of where your story is going at all times.
Your storyline can consist out of detailed bullet points, meaning, in list form, or you could write a short summary. Just keep in mind that such a summary is not to be confused with the summary you would print on the back of the book or give to your readers before they start reading, trying to grab their attention. The summary you should be writing has all major steps the story takes in it and leaves no holes for you to change the storyline whilst writing, as this can make your story highly inconsistent and hard to follow.
Focusing on characters, it might seem a little unnecessary to note many things down about the heroes of your story. You might know the main protagonist better than yourself, so why should you note down details?
Character drafts are not only for the main characters. They rather focus on the background crowd of characters you will create over time. Your protagonist probably has neighbours, friends and classmates or colleagues, perhaps a sibling you don’t want to focus on in the story. The neighbours might have a pet, the teacher could be allergic to your protagonist’s cat’s hair and the best friend might have a weird obsession with hummus. Those are most likely details you will forget about throughout the writing process, especially if your protagonist leaves their hometown and returns years later. The neighbours you mentioned in chapter 2 might turn out to be very different compared to the neighbours that return in chapter 11, even though both of them are supposed to have lived in the same house for ages.
That is why character drafts are important. They keep you from having to return to previous chapters to check on how you created them there and help you to keep detailing from changing too much. Also, your list of characters is not meant to be static. You can add to it on the way as you keep creating more and more characters you need for your storyline to work out.
When you write you often forget about details that aren’t important to you anymore. You might have let a character die early in the story, but all you actively remember is his name. Without a character draft it could happen that this character does, despite being dead, have an influence on the story in a very active and alive way.
Expanding the minimum.
Especially for longer and more complex projects I like to add a couple of things to the absolute minimum. I prefer to keep the character drafts more complex and I note down almost every detail I name throughout the story. I also leave sidenotes on how or why it is okay that a character changes and try to come back to those whilst writing the story. That way, I can explain to my future readers why a character who seems to be acting out of character is allowed to do so.
Another thing I like to create are detailed scene plans. Rather than just scripting out the whole storyline in one go, I like to break the story down into many different scenes and then create a more detailed story line for each and every scene, also always noting down which characters are involved and how background characters would behave based on their feelings and emotions. Scenes are basically the most important structure, chapters don’t really matter. A scene is finished when a certain part of the actions is finished, no matter where or when a chapter ends. Finishing scenes properly helps your readers to not be left with too many questions and it also helps you by allowing you to see which scenes aren’t ready for the manuscript yet. A scene is like a circle - it starts at some point, leads away but comes back, ending where it started, with little to no unanswered questions. Planning out scenes helps to not interrupt too many things throughout the story, however, it can be tricky, especially when you’re not a very experienced author. For the beginning, it’s often easier to plan out the chapters or the storyline as a whole.
The next step I take is trying to put my characters into some sort of test scenarios. I confront them with various situations and think about in which way they would react - basically I put them through a lot of unpleasant experiences and note down how they behave when stressed, afraid or angry. It’s a great way to learn more about your characters, and also helps you make them authentic if they don’t share any values with you. It gives your characters depth and makes them appear more realistic to the reader. The better you know you characters, the better you can bring them to life.
No matter which way you choose, planning ends when you start writing. But keep in mind, nothing has to be permanent. If you have another idea for a scene the story would benefit from, work it into your notes. Change scene plans and story lines - just try to keep it consistent. Every person needs their specific amount of planning, don’t overdo it. Sometimes all those plans can put quite some pressure on you.If you plan out more or other things than I do, please leave them in the comments down below! I’d love to improve my techniques!