To plan or not to plan, that is the question.
It’s a decision faced by all writers before they put pen to paper: whether to plan their entire story or work it out as you go and see where it takes you. I’ve experimented with both approaches and one is not superior to the other, but both methods have their pros and cons.
Going with the Flow
I started my writing journey with a brief outline, a general direction and no compass. I knew where I wanted the story to end but I didn’t know (or care) how I got there. There was something exciting about that approach: that even I didn’t know what would happen to my characters, what relationships they would form, and what injuries they would endure on their journey.
As many authors have pointed out, not knowing yourself whether your characters will live, die and change their perspectives is a great way to keep it surprising for the reader. Unfortunately, this technique only works worthwhile for some, and sometimes successful results just come down to luck.
The danger of planning as you go, especially in a book series, or larger novel, is that we can easily lose the whole plot and purpose of the story in the process. When you’re writing the story with such rawness, unable to see the perspective from a distance, the story might feel coherent and clever, but that might not be the case at all. Rather, the story might be tedious, far-fetched and confusing, with no clear path. There’s a fine line between keeping the reader interested in suspense and bewildering them with unnecessary action that can only be refined with careful planning.
For me personally, this method was my downfall. With my desire to simply finish a novel and not write one without a planned outline, my first few drafts were laborious and baffling stories that ultimately needed to be replanned and organised.
Crossing the T’s
So, as outlined above, there are some clear benefits from planning out your novel. But there also plenty of drawbacks.
They say planning is the killer of creativity. If you control the story and know exactly where the action will end, and how the characters will get there, then you are not allowing your creativity to unfurl and reveal rare gems of inspiration that can be refined. The danger of over-planning is that you can subconsciously reveal the character’s conclusion through your writing during the story before they can get there, themselves. Or you can get so obsessed with staying within your structured outline that you can lose your soul of writing entirely. Nobody enjoys reading a boring book where they can predict how the story will finish.
Ultimately, you can plan forever, each minuscule moment in the story realised. But at the end of the day, you’re being judged on your writing, and the power of your words rather than your ability to create a story alone. Sometimes you need that ambiguity and uncertainty to actually start writing and awaken your creativity. After all, a book doesn’t write itself…
In short, unlike blanket mantra’s in writing such as the necessity of reading and editing, there isn’t a sweeping method that you can use when it comes to planning. You have to discover a formula, a ratio of planning to uncertainty, that works best for you, that unearths your creative potential with enough structure to produce an engaging piece of work that will be publishable.
And sometimes you can only discover that ratio by experimenting and allowing yourself to fail. So, just do it!