This week’s post deals with how much we must know at the beginning in order to know a good story. This goes a little bit back to the popular debate of plotter vs pantser and again everyone differs. Take Adrian for example. He’s definitely someone who likes to plot his novels. He likes knowing details and having a clear outline. The masterplan needs to be there before he starts on a new project. Yet even Adrian has said in our last post that he mostly plans the beginning and the ending and doesn’t spend as much time on the middle.
Could we then argue that you don’t have to know as much as you think you need to know in order to start writing your story? Let’s hear the details from our writing superheroes!
How much direction do you need in order to start a story?
TIM: I am a planner, though not an extensive outliner. At most I’ll jot a few notes if the timeline is complex. I use the foggy mountains metaphor: I can see the mountaintops I’m trying to reach (major story moments), but the valleys in between are full of mist and mysteries. I make my way from one mountain to another, so I know where I’m going, but there’s room for discovery along the way. I do sometimes find myself writing a completely different ending than the one I anticipated, usually because I’ve learned more about the characters and decided whatever resolution I first had in mind isn’t true to their nature. Sometimes I’ll throw in a character for expository or plot reasons and they’ll interest me and interact fruitfully with other characters and I’ll keep them around as a supporting player. So, I plan, but I’m open to serendipity.
MARTHA: I don’t always know much about the story when I start. I want to explore the character I’ve come up with, and I have an image of the environment they’re in that I want to develop. I’ll usually have some idea of the first plot point, and a very vague idea of what the ending might be. Once I get to that first plot point, I’ll have a better idea where to go from there.
KAT: (editor’s perspective) When taking on a client to edit their manuscript I always ask for the elevator pitch first, then a one-page synopsis of the story with the major plot points laid out. I want to know the milestones of the story first so that I can gauge if the author is doing a good job getting to those milestones… or if they may have passed by the audience by unnoticed. I want to know here the author wants their story to end as well as begin so that the journey is as engaging as it can be.
ADRIAN: As noted, I plan extensively. However sometimes the plan doesn’t work, and that tends (to tie in with the above question) to be a matter of an increasing subconscious dissatisfaction with where things are going until I consciously overcome my reluctance to go back and rewrite, and admit things aren’t working. Sometimes I come up with a better way to do things and rework the plan for that reason. There’s also one part of the book I never plan out, which is the very end. I usually know what the climactic confrontation will be and who will be there for it, but the actual resolution is something I leave to the book’s own momentum to solve.
SUE: The more you know about a story, the easier it will be to write and the less likely you’ll get blocked at any point. I know people who write 100-page outlines for 400-page manuscripts, or who spend months working on the outline. I especially recommend knowing how the story will end — and make sure it’s a strong ending, because if you try to “pants” your way, you may be tempted to grab the first idea you get for an ending, which might be weak or hackneyed. Some genres like mysteries demand a pre-planned ending.
THORAIYA: In my early days [of writing I needed almost no direction to start]. Just a description of a place, or a feeling, or a person facing a dilemma. That can work well for short stories, but agents aren’t generally keen on a pitch that says, “I have this feeling and I want to write a novel about it!” I need a solid idea about the world, whether alien, alternate history or secondary, and I usually start from the ground up. You don’t know what a person will be like until you know their culture, and you don’t know what a society will be like unless you know the natural surroundings or technological situation. Everyone’s a product of their environment.
ANNA: Quite often this will depend on the length of the story. For instance I’m currently working on a short story that is entirely based on an image from a dream I had and the underlying feeling that came with it. That’ll probably be about 10,000 words, which is quite long for something based on a single image, but it’s clearly something I’ve wanted to focus on because the words are flowing really well. When I’m working on my Black Library commissions, they prefer much more thorough outlines and for me to stick quite closely to those plots, which is something that doesn’t always come easily to me, but I’m getting better at it.
For novels, I always start with character, with a voice in my head and a sense of a person. From there comes setting, and from there comes antagonists and a sense of what might happen. I’ll take a couple of weeks to brainstorm, jotting down things I might want to explore, and then crossing them out as others take precedence. I usually end up with a starting point, a main conflict, a couple of sub-plots and an end point. That’s usually it for me and I begin drafting from there. The start and end points usually end up remaining roughly the same, and everything else in the middle is up for grabs and will change and flow as I work out what I’m really trying to convey.
I quite enjoy not really knowing what’s coming next. There have been many occasions where I’ve genuinely been taken by surprise by a character’s decision or actions and that sends me off on a completely different path that wasn’t planned. And those paths always, always end up being better than where I thought I was going. A lot of writers scoff at the thought of their characters doing anything unplanned and say that it’s impossible, and that’s fine, that works for them. For me, there’s a real sense of joy and wonder when my characters make their own decisions, because I know I’m on the adventure with them then.
YOON: I need to have a very strong idea of the plot beats, which for me means a chapter outline. Then I work out characters for whom that plot makes sense, although this is subject to change during the process of writing.
I’m fairly loose when it comes to worldbuilding. I think of worldbuilding like choosing the key and time signature of a piece when you’re composing–the overall flavor of the piece. There’s still so much you can do within that flavor. I tend to make up world details as I go in the rough draft, based on the flavor, and then to fix continuity in revisions.
RICH: I am a control freak. Experience has taught me I get the best results from detailed planning and preparation. That might just mean thinking about something for a few days and letting it germinate, rather than making extensive notes, maps, writing histories, etc, but I still have to have most of the story already formulated before I begin.
Once you’ve got a handle on your characters and setting, a lot of the time the story will write itself. You’re just the one telling the tale. I imagine that’s how a lot of pantsers (though I prefer the term ‘Gardeners’) begin, but it is a spectrum. Every different author will have a different method, but the whole ‘plotters vs pantsers’ thing is just down to when you start putting pen to paper. Even the most ardent plotter (or Architect) will start off with the seed of an idea. They will just choose to start crafting the prose after they have a stack of notes to write from. So aren’t we all Gardeners really?
JOHN: It really varies. Some projects I know from the beginning how they’re going to begin and end and most of what’s going to happen in between. Others, I have an opening and a vague sense of what the story’s going to involve. A lot of times, I’ll have random elements in my head and all of a sudden something will cause them all to fall into alignment and I have the story. It can be terrifying to begin something with little to no sense of where it’s going, but I try to embrace that terror.
CAITLIN: [W]hen I’m actually putting words on paper, I sort of zone out, and the writing happens. I just have to provide the structure (outlines, notes, writing schedules, etc) to make sure things keep working.
EOWYN: In all of my books so far, I have had a core idea and a rough outline going into the process. But I also know that ideas and plot outlines are a dime a dozen. The surprising phrases, the unexpected development in a character or storyline, those things that jump to mind as I’m writing — that’s where my best work is, and I can never force or predict those moments. All I know is that I have to sit down and put in the time, and eventually it will happen, the layers will deepen and the metaphors will come. So for me, both elements — the logical, linear and the random sparks of creativity — are important to my writing process.
Although a lot of our writing superheroes like to make outlines (and I’ve heard of the occasional case where the outline is longer than the actual novel) before they start it does seem like many of them enjoy developing the story as they are writing it just as much. This can be from a single image or perhaps a character/scene/setting that they’ve had in mind for a while.
A lot of the points made make a lot of sense.
Your local stonemason needs an idea of what they’re trying to craft. Whether they start chipping away immediately or create careful outline of the statue in their mind they will usually want to mark the most important features of the object they’re trying to craft: Where does the head of the statue go? The arms? The torso? The feet? But even they might not be able to mark every piece of stone to the T. There will always be little details they haven’t thought of that come to them when they’re actually doing the work. The same applies to your work!
I can guarantee from our superheroes’ responses that you will have some kind of idea before you start. It might be only a sentence and it might be only a word. You may choose to develop it into an outline before you begin or you might just write merrily ahead. They are both fine ways to create a story! (Although perhaps listen to the superheroes: The more complex the story the more likely it is you’ll need more than just an image/character/setting/scene.)
That’s it for today! I hope you’ve learned something useful and this post will help you panic less when it’s time to start your next project!
Next week we’re going to be looking at: EDITING! Must you edit? Why is it so essential? And how much should you edit?