Planning a story can be a minefield of distraction. Large works, like novels and series, often benefit from setting structures for the story. Even small works, short stories and poems, show improvement when preparation is done for the content, tone, and message. To avoid endless preparation, remember structured planning is a tool, not a solution, for writing a draft.
Creative people have a strange relationship with tools. A carver takes pride in his variety of sharpened knives. A musician cultivates their collection of sheet music, or instruments. A chef values certain pans, a cabinet of exotic spices, or a garden of the freshest produce. What does a writer have?
Actual tools don’t change the act and art of writing. Some collect fountain pens, others mound up pretty notebooks, and a few even accumulate classic leather-bound volumes for their shelves. None of these actively change the thought-to-page process of creation. The most they can do is make the struggle a bit more appealing.
Exercises, templates, techniques, and programs are far more common collectibles among writers. They hold the same allure as tools in other disciplines. There’s always that one more that might solve this problem. If you could just find that right template, your characters will be powerful and memorable. With that template, your book will be unforgettable. With this program, your word counts will come effortlessly.
Knowing the major types of planning materials can focus your time and effort on challenges specific to your project.
Elements of Story: Some planners work piecemeal, working on the building blocks so they can assemble them with ease in the draft. These tools can include:
Conflict Maps (the link on this one can be reversed to become quite an effective checklist for planning potential conflicts)
Of course, these aren’t the limit. There’s an endless maze of more specific elements which demand attention before resting comfortably in full preparation.
Structural Preparation: Other planners invest their comfort in structural guides and ensuring they have the proper frame for their work. The frames and forms come in varying sizes and shapes, some modeled on highly successful works, others on classical tradition, and some cobbled together from attractive bits of others’ structures. Here are a few common ones:
To be clear, these are listed as specific forms for storytelling, demanding a conflict lift and fall at specific times. They also include variations within each structure. The appeal here is obvious; why fumble around when there are tried-and-true forms which have found consistent audiences through the ages? Nothing wrong with learning from those who came before.
Methods: Many of these sound like this: “How to Write a Novel” quickly followed by “according to (famous author)”, “in (single digit number) of steps”, or “while losing weight/raising toddlers/learning Spanish”. Most distinct methods offered out there are either a structured schedule or a system to generate ideas. Some even combine the other major styles of planning together to create a temptingly ready-made package.
Consider the popular Snowflake Method. Of the methods, this one is the most idea-centered, being a system for generating ideas and content for the book.
The Headlight Method is a production-based method that simply gives the author permission to not know all of what they’ll be writing next. It’s more of a method of thought and progression than of content production.
Other methods include the sticky-note method, scene counting, and white-board map. Each of these has their own benefits. When done thoroughly, the theory is that the draft with be a simple matter of sitting down and churning out the words according to the listed plan. It can be as comfortable as a fill-in-the-blank game, or a simple math problem just with a lot of steps.
Method planning can be combined with a structural plan, and fueled by the element production tools. They all can be combined, redefined, utilized, and revisited until the story is so real you can almost read it with your eyes shut! But if the draft isn’t there, the work still has to be done.
This isn’t intended as a discouragement against planning. Really, each of these types, and the tools each represents, is invaluable to someone. The point, instead, is to warn against spending so much time planning that the actual production of the book becomes an after-thought. Recall the purpose of the plan and make that amazing book happen!