Essential writing skills: planning, planning, planning

It’s coming up for a decade now since the reimagined Battlestar Galactica rid us of the imagery of that terrible 1970s Cowboys-and-Indians original. And one of my favourite parts was always the tagline – the Cylons had a plan. Not that we found out what that plan was until well down the track. But it gave a sense of purpose – and of drama – to the whole series.

Aha - now I can stop the Plorg Monsters from taking Earth's water!
Personally I like planning with a slide rule…

Plans are important for all sorts of things – and especially for writers. They show us where we’re going. They make it possible to get the structure right, first off, without floundering. Really, they’re an essential part of the whole process.

Now, I know some writers like to ‘seat-of-the-pants’ their way through what they’re doing. And that’s fine. But to me that’s writing for personal entertainment. Without some kind of idea of direction there’s a high risk of floundering – of losing structure. That leads either to massive re-writing, later, or to a written piece that isn’t going to work.

I’m aware of the argument for it, of course – the idea of spontaneous creativity. And that has its place too. But to my mind that needs to be done around the initial plan. Put it this way: a builder isn’t going to put up a building without a plan. Writers shouldn’t write without one, either.

So what is a plan? It doesn’t have to be exceptionally detailed – in fact, for that very reason of spontaneous creativity, it shouldn’t be. But it should show the broad structure of the intended work. If it’s a novel, it needs to lay out the broad plot – making sure that the plot and character arcs coincide correctly with the necessary dramatic structure. And it should show the end point. That way a writer knows where they’re going.

See what I’m getting at? A plan doesn’t have to be a prison to the imagination. But it is essential for writing because it makes sure the author has direction, has a broad idea of the necessary structure, and that the work overall is going to be in good shape when it’s finished.

If the proverbial ‘good idea’ comes in along the way – well, plans are there to be revised, aren’t they?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


3 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: planning, planning, planning

  1. The prolific Isaac Asimov said he wrote without making notes or things that would be ordinarily recognized as a plan. That could be a bad habit for writers, though; he also insisted that he could see the shape a story had to have, even if he didn’t write it down except as the story. Apparently his mental-plan only failed him on books twice (a Robots-and-Spacers novel in 1958 fell apart as he couldn’t make it work, and a Foundation novel in 1974 he put away for other things and when he returned to it in 1981 he couldn’t think where he had been going with it).

    1. I think he had a good blend of free-flow and planning – it’s something that comes with experience. I saw an interview he did with Marilyn vos Savant in which he explained that he always knew the ending, which meant he wasn’t directionless. I believe his last novel, ‘Foundation and Earth’ was meant to be a kick-off for a new series that melded his robot stories with his Foundation ones, but he couldn’t figure out what the theme might be.

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