Welcome back! This is Part 2 of a 2-part post. Part 1 looked at some of the various reasons why I personally find planning my stories out fully in advance to be enormously helpful, but in keeping myself on message, and in just keeping myself going at all!
Here in Part 2, we’ll be taking a look at the various methods – or steps, I suppose I should call them? – that make up my planning process.
Obviously, you may feel that I’m planning in a ridiculous amount of detail, but I swear that (for me) each step allows me to learn a different thing about the story I’m creating, and I couldn’t write without them.
If you are currently planning, or maybe you struggle with planning in a helpful and productive way, and you find any of these methods helpful: that’s great! Always very happy to possibly help!
You might have a totally different way of planning out a story, in which case please do let me know down in the comments!
Right, now that’s out of the way with, let’s go!
Step 1 – Argh! All The Wild Ideas!
Step 1 of planning out a story is to grab all of my relevant ideas, and at least three colours of post-its and start scribbling. Jot down each and every single thing that you currently know happens in your story. Every. Thing.
“Stan meets Cleo” – that gets a post-it. “They sneak into the castle” and “They get caught” should probably be two post-its. Heck, “Sinister cat appears” should absolutely be a post-it! In fact, make several of that one, you’re going to want to repeat a moment that inherently awesome!
Once you’ve got all the immediate ideas jotted down, get yourself a big flat surface, and start laying them all out, and shuffling them around. You’ll know going in that some things will happen before others, so stick those ones earlier, but some ideas will be a bit more nebulous, and you can play around with the order until you find something that you really like.
Also can you see, I have some smaller beige post-its? Those just have chapter numbers written on them, and as I start sticking ideas down, I tend to get a bit of a sense that this event, or that development will be a whole chapter in itself and doesn’t need anything added. Again, a lot of this will change a bit as you work on shaping your story, but that’s the beauty of post-its! They can just get pulled up and stuck down somewhere else!
Why do you need multiple colours of post-its, though? Well, if you have a Main Plot and a Sub-plot, you’re going to need to differentiate them nice and easily. Got a romantic sub-plot too? Definitely need to keep an eye on that. That way, you can see if a plot-thread has started to disappear out of your narrative, or if your sub-plot has basically become the main plot by taking up too much space!
As you get a better handle on your story, you’ll be able to fill in your blanks.
(Also, as you can see, I ran out of space on my table pretty quickly and the wardrobe was immediately sacrificed! Please don’t judge me for the stuff on the floor?)
Step 2 – Typing Up (Round 1)
As anyone who lives around post-its for long enough knows, post-its are only ever a temporary solution. They come unstuck and get everywhere really easily. Then they get hoovered up, played with by the kids or the cat and you will never see them again. And there went your plot.
So once you’ve managed to haul the plot points you’ve got into the general shape of a full story with a distinct beginning, middle and end, it’s time to start typing them up.
(For the sake of my own sanity, I tried to find colours in Excel that matched the post-its pretty closely, but you may be mentally-robust enough not to need to care about such things?)
Whether you just literally type up what’s on the post-its, or whether like me you use this opportunity to start fleshing out each point, it’s totally up to you. Basically, you’re preserving the post-it plot and giving yourself a usable, printable document to start playing around with a bit further.
As you can see, there will likely still be some gaps in that plot! I never worry about them too much yet, but I do make sure to mark in what idea I do have in that space, and make myself little notes to remind myself that there’s still something I need to work on. That way, when I get to later stages (or even, heaven forbid! writing up!) I won’t be suddenly and unexpectedly blind-sided by this massive gap that I don’t know what to do with.
I don’t have a photo of one, but I tend to keep a ‘To Do’ list of all of these little gaps separately, so that I can work through them and get them sorted out when I’m not at my desk staring at the document too.
Step 3 – Narrative Arcs and Plotting Tension
I fully confess that Stage 3 is the one I understand the theory behind the least. However, I do find it useful, and I recommend at least giving it a bit of a go. I promise that it will tell you something!
Basically, I sit down with my plot-points and try to measure the average tension of each chapter of the story. I tend to use a scale of 1-10, but that’s mostly because that’s the extent of my estimating-expertise. You may find that you are more comfortable in talking about ‘the tension’ of a chapter, and may have more nuance in your estimates.
The point here is largely to check that you have a steady over-all rise and fall of tension, but also to check that the tension does actually rise and fall in a sensible manner, and that the various plot threads do in fact intersect at some point! There’s nothing worse than a book with three plots, not one of which relates to any of the others, right?
When I planned this plot initially, I found that I’d built up nice and evenly to the climax, lots of good narrative tension going on, and then the story basically stopped! Clearly that’s not ideal, so I shifted some of the explanatory dialogue and some of the personal resolutions further towards the end so that there was more of a winding down of tension and the reader will (hopefully) not feel that the book just stopped and dropped them.
Everything will hopefully feel nicely resolved and wrapped up.
Step 4 – The Check List!
Finally we get to what I tend to call ‘The Final Stage’ of planning; the stage where everything I’ve learned and considered and decided comes together into a check-list of sorts that I can have next to me while I’m writing and just check off as I go.
This stage is really just about getting a clean copy of the planned out plot so I can start writing. It’s got as much detail in it as I possibly can think of, it’s got draft chapter titles, it’s got everything!
I very rarely get chance to just sit down for a full day and write uninterrupted. Between a full-time job, and friends, and family and keeping up with laundry and cleaning and all that other fun stuff, writing just has to be done in the snatches of time I have spare some weeks!
As a result, having the most detailed plan I possibly can means that I’m much more likely to end up with a first draft that is tonally consistent and doesn’t wander off into wild tangents because I had a blank space and a flight of fancy at the same time! As I said last time, having a plot all planned out also means I’m less likely to get discouraged because I can’t remember what was going to happen next and now I have no inspiration to think of something different. The less I leave to my poor over-worked brain while I type away into the dark of night, the better!
And there you have it! I’m sure that there are loads of other great ways to plan out a plot, and if you have a method that works, please do come and tell me about it in the comments! There’s never not something to be learned from a fellow-writer!
New to this blog? Check out some of the rest of this series – or indeed try out some of my original fiction! – down here: