This is how I plan my stories, and how you can too

Last year I touched on the importance of planning for writers, and I thought I’d revisit that with a look at how I personally like to plan out my stuff. Keep in mind that, like I said before, there is no “right” or “proper” way to plan. Do whatever works for you!

First we start with the idea, the seed from which the story grows. My ideas spring from a number of distinct sources. I’m a cross-genre writer – meaning I like to blend together different genres while still keeping to the conventions. So I will look at genre work that only occupies one genre, and then think about what would happen if I mixed in another one. Take something like the archetypical sword-and-sorcery series, Conan the Barbarian. What would happen if I made it part Western? Part space opera? That can often provide interesting ideas to work with, or inspiration for further developments.

Besides genre experimentation, I also draw on ideas that are character-oriented (creating a character, and then building a story around them), setting-oriented (creating a setting with a problem, and then building a cast of characters to resolve that problem), or re-interpretations of myths, legends, and stock plotlines. The boom of popular fiction in the early 20th century provided a lot of stock plotlines that were re-used frequently, and with a little updating (to remove the old-timey racism present in so many) and a little work (to make them less formulaic) they can provide interesting results.

Once I have an idea down, it’s time to start the plan properly. First I split the idea into two pieces: the backstory and the outline. The backstory is all the events that are relevant to the story but won’t actually appear in it, except perhaps through flashbacks, and will otherwise only be hinted at through dialogue or action. It is incredibly important to write down these events in a clear and concise manner, so you know exactly what happened and when. Then, as you’re writing the story, you can refer to the backstory to make sure it’s coherent.

The outline is everything that happens in the story. Don’t try and write it as a story, though. When I write an outline, it’s short sentences that sum up the basics of what will happen. For example:

Red Riding Hood’s grandmother is ill. Hood goes to deliver a basket of food. Hood meets a wolf on the way. The wolf tricks her and goes to grandmother’s house first. The wolf eats the grandmother and dresses in her clothes. Hood arrives and does not see through the trick. Hood also gets eaten. A nearby woodcutter arrives and saves the day. The moral of the story is “chew your food”.

It can be as complex as it needs to be, but it must get across all the major points succinctly. Every plot point, no matter how minor or major, must be within the outline. As a writer, I need to know exactly what happens in my story. It doesn’t matter if it’s very matter-of-fact about the plot twists and reveals, because the only person who is going to see it is myself. Save the mystery for the story itself.

Once I have my outline, next I create a chapter overview, which tells me how to structure the story. Count out the number of major plot points in your outline. In the Red Riding Hood one, we have four: Hood must go to grandmother’s house, Hood meets a wolf on the way, Hood believes a wolf in a nightdress is her grandmother, and Hood gets eaten.

I could say that each event there is worth a chapter by itself, so I write it up like this:

Chapter 1: Hood finds out her grandmother is ill and sets off for a visit
Chapter 2: Hood meets the wolf
Chapter 3: The wolf eats grandmother
Chapter 4: The wolf eats Hood

However, when I play out how that would go, I realise that the pacing is all wrong. Going to grandmother’s house is a “set-up” point, it establishes the story. But meeting the wolf is what drives the story, so it needs to be a dramatic reveal. So I change the overview.

Chapter 1: Hood finds out her grandmother is ill and sets off for a visit, ending with meeting the wolf
Chapter 2: Hood gets tricked by the wolf, who goes off to grandmother’s house
Chapter 3: The wolf eats grandmother and awaits for Hood’s arrival
Chapter 4: Hood gets tricked, then eaten, and the woodcutter saves the day just in time

This way feels better to me, because each chapter ends on a dramatic note. Chapter one ends with the wolf’s appearance, and the conversation between the two occurs in chapter two, which ends with the wolf arriving at grandmother’s house. Chapter three has the wolf eating the grandmother and laying the trap for Hood, and it ends with her arrival. Chapter four peaks with Hood getting eaten, and ends with the woodcutter resolving the story happily for all non-wolves.

This is the importance of pacing. A chapter needs to end on a note that sets up the next chapter. Not necessarily a cliffhanger, but resolving everything within a chapter should only be done when you immediately set up a new problem in the next chapter.

There can sometimes be chapters which do not contain any major plot points, to act as a sort of bridge between them. This can be where minor plot points can be established or, failing that, characterisation. We could have chapter one establish the existence of the woodcutter, bumping Hood’s encounter with the wolf to the end of chapter two, and extending the whole story to five chapters instead. That would make the woodcutter’s sudden appearance less out-of-nowhere and build on the story.

Eventually I will have a chapter overview that I am happy with, and combined with the backstory and the outline, that forms the “bible” that I work from. Because I have a list of what happens in each chapter, I can work on any chapter out of sequence, although inevitably it will need to be connected up smoothly in editing to make sure the story all fits together properly.

Editing is very important, and the first stage of editing (besides checking for typos) is to compare what I have written to the plan. Is it the same? If it isn’t, is it better? Sometimes you can produce something which steps outside the plan and is all the better for it. After I’ve reviewed what I’ve written myself, I hand it over to my editor.

Always have at least one other person look over your work, and make sure they’re kind enough to give their honest opinion, even if it means questioning everything you’ve written. Remember that you need to be able to take the criticism, too. It’s not a good idea to just say “very good, thumbs up” after reading something, so keep that in mind if you’re ever going to edit something for a friend. Even if you like all of it, make notes. Ask why things have to be a certain way, even if they sound fine to you. The writer needs that sort of feedback. I know I do, for sure.

After the editor is finished, the draft returns to me, and I make all the changes. Sometimes I will go with my editor’s suggestions, which are frequently correct, and other times I will use my own words. If I do the latter, I run them past my editor again. Once we’re both happy, the story goes through formatting, a cover is commissioned, and the finished product ends up for sale. Then I get started on making another plan, and the whole business begins all over again.

So that’s how I plan, and I hope that writing the method down will help some of you as much as it helps me.