To plan or not to plan?
When I wrote my first novel, I planned out the first half in advance. Then I got a bit stuck, so I decided to just start writing, because that was what I wanted to do. I wrote the first half, then simply…carried on. In short, the first half was plotted out carefully, the second half was not.
(I say half but, without a plan, the story meandered. It got lost, picked up again, and generally went to hell in a handbasket. I had no idea how to end the thing, so it ended up being more like the second two-thirds.)
All the feedback I received from agents and publishers was that the first half was brilliant, and the second half was terrible. Lesson learned. Henceforth I would be a proper planner. And, since then, I have sold eleven books to publishers, so I know the method works.
Not all writers are planners. Stephen King, Dean R Koontz and Steve Feasey are examples of writers who do not plan. Who simply make it up as they go along.
JK Rowling, me, Charles Dickens, we’re all planners!
The thing about making it up as you go along is that those who do it successfully enough to be published already know a lot about writing. Whether they’ve done creative writing courses, read and internalised enough literature to sink a ship, or read ‘how to’ books, they know instinctively where to put in narrative high points and where the story’s beats need to be. If you mentioned the hero’s journey to them, they would likely nod knowledgeably.
What I’m saying is: a good chef knows which ingredients go together before they start chucking ingredients in a pan without a recipe. And a good writer knows how to structure a story properly before chucking words on a page.
Say you left out one element of the hero’s journey. Leaving it out because it’s important to you that it is missing from your story – for whatever reason – is very different from leaving it out because you didn’t know it needed to be there in the first place.
The hero’s journey
The hero’s journey, or monomyth, is a great way to structure your story. It is the one I use, because I know it works. Since mankind first started telling stories, we have been structuring them (those with real longevity) according to the hero’s journey. From Gilgamesh to Star Wars, our stories have had a recognisable narrative arc. There are certain elements that readers (or viewers) now expect to find in their stories, and these satisfy us at a bone-deep level. You want your readers to be satisfied.
If you miss out the false dawn, for instance, the reader might not know the technical reason why they aren’t enjoying the story. They’ll just feel that something was missing. They’ll end up dissatisfied. A dissatisfied reader won’t buy your next book.
You may be like me and a complete ‘convert for life’ to careful planning. Or you may be viewing learning to structure a story like using stabilisers on a bike – something you’ll do until you can fly off down the road alone!
Either way, this method of planning will help you.
All of my books have been structured in this way.
Some of you may be thinking that this will make them feel formulaic. I promise you this accusation has never been levelled at my work! I write dark thrillers (The Girl on the Platform – which is out in a few weeks with Avon), horror (Savage Island and Cruel Castle – out later this year), urban fantasy (Raising Hell – also out later this year), dystopia (my Phoenix series), science fiction (Windrunner’s Daughter and Wavefunction) and supernatural (Angel’s Fury, The Weight of Souls). Every book in each genre has benefitted from careful planning.
Juggling multiple points of view?
More recently I’ve been writing novels from multiple points of view. Cruel Castle has four points of view, and my new yet-to-be-named adult thriller (out with Avon next spring) has three. Planning becomes all the more important when writing from more than one narrative point of view. When I write with more than one voice, I pre-plan not one hero’s journey, but one for every point-of-view character. This way, each character has their own satisfying heroic arc within the overall story. This should leave the reader equally invested in each voice.
Pros and cons
Of course, there are significant pros to planning your story in advance beyond ensuring a solid structure that will likely satisfy your reader. Planning saves time, as you will not need to reread what you have already written in order to get back in the groove before each writing session. It can also help to defeat writer’s block, because you will know what you need to write next and can get on and do it. Planning means you can add literary allusion, foreshadowing, and clues or hints because you know what is going to happen later in the story. Finally, planning is motivational – you will know when you are halfway through, or near the end, which is always nice.
Planning too strictly can be problematic as well, however.
Sometimes your characters demand to do something different when you get writing. This could be your writer’s instincts telling you that there is a better route for your story.
In Cruel Castle, one of the point-of-view characters wanted to go off on his own, when I had intended for him to remain with the others. It ended up improving the story immensely. In The Girl on the Platform, the final twist ended up being completely different from my original intention. Or you might do some research while writing that inspires you. (There is a whole chapter in Angel’s Fury that was written in late as a result of my fascinating research into the Milgram Experiment.)
Plan carefully, but do allow room for your creative genius!
If you have time now, why not use the story structure above as a diagnostic tool?
Try fitting your storyline, as it stands, into the structure as laid out. Are you missing a key element? Or more than one? Perhaps this is why your story isn’t quite working right now. If so, perhaps think of a way you can add this element into your story. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.
You can also find Bryony on Twitter.
Struggling with planning your novel? We’re here to help!
Why not book in for a batch of mentoring to work on your outline directly with a specialist editor? Get in touch with us via our Contact Us page and we’ll get back to you with our recommendations for next steps.