Planning By The Seat Of Your Pants

We all know the saying, “Fail to plan and you plan to fail”. But in writing, there are as many views on this as there are writers – successful or otherwise. Some claim that an outline hampers the flow of the writing and is tantamount to trying to turn a novel into a mathematical equation; while others are equally adamant that navigating the plot, character development and themes of a novel without a plan is like trying to cross a continent without a map.

Well, there’s a lot more to writing a novel than just planning out a few chapters, and Lewis & Clark (or since I’m in Canada, Sir Alexander Mackenzie) will tell you it’s perfectly possible to cross a continent without a map, so I fall somewhere in between the two extremes.

I’ve planned both my nano novels, but in both cases I found myself wandering off the plan at various points. And that’s when it gets interesting. Following the characters and events that arise in the story can provide some of the best material, but it can also take you down dead-ends and tiresome tangents. Personally, I believe in going with the flow – cutting out the chaff is for editing – and if it’s the way the characters want to behave, it’s probably a more reasonable storyline than the one you had planned anyway. If it turns out to be a dead-end, you have two choices: 1) Stop, go back to the turning and take a different path (then cut out the bit that went wrong later) or 2) follow the dead-end, then work your way back to the plot through a new and interesting connector.

For example, let’s say you’ve planned a simple love story. Girl meets Boy. Girl falls in love with Boy. Boy falls in Love with Girl. The End. That’s your plan. Then, somewhere in chapter 4, Girl meets Boy2. Boy2 wasn’t even in the plan, but here he is and now that you’ve started writing,he seems like exactly the sort of guy Girl would like. So, follow the path the characters choose. Girl and Boy2 fall in love. Then, if things work out, it’s fine, stick with it. If it turns out to be a dead-end, you can either cut everything since Chapter 4 and cut Boy2 out completely, or have Girl have a massive row with Boy2 and fall into Boy’s arms, bringing you neatly back onto your plan.

All of which is a tangent of my own, to say that having a plan doesn’t mean being a slave to it, but it does help to make sure the story is balanced (Spending 15 chapters on Girl and just having Boy wander in for the epilogue might upset your readers), has a plot at all (What if you just rambled about Girl and never mentioned Boy at all? Not much of a romance!), and helps to alleviate the dreaded writer’s block (Because you always know what’s coming next).

So having declared myself to be a fan of planning and then going with the flow, I’m going to run a series of posts on just that subject. They’ll be interspersed with other posts, but keep an eye out if you’re interested. Even if you’ve never planned before and prefer to be a pioneer, you might find something that works for you. Even Mackenzie followed a river!




Filed under Writing

14 responses to “Planning By The Seat Of Your Pants

  1. R. K. MacPherson

    I generally write by the seat of my pants, but I outlined my current novel. It helps, to a degree, but I can’t stick slavishly to the outline, so I’m equally perplexed when the villain does something brilliant…and leaves me no way to get the protagonist and antagonists together for a showdown. 😉 I look forward to seeing your perspectives!

  2. I never start writing with a detailed plan but I know where I want my story to end up, although even that can change at times. Knowing where you want to get to helps guide the process, even if you get distracted along the way or for that matter, find a better river to follow.

  3. I’ve decided that I need to plan more, but I always reserve the right to re-plan midway or even a few pages in.

  4. Planning is good! Following the flow is even better. But whatever the case is, take out good time to read through and edit, changing as you wish until you have what appeals most to you. Sticking to the plan helps you finish fast though. Some pieces take forever to write; that comes from following the flow without caution. A good piece would always be a good piece irrespective of the root you took. Some minds can plan while some will need a paper or a tab to assist. Lovely post!

    • Thanks for your comment, teecee. I’m a big fan of flexibility, as I hope I showed, and I also agree that different people work differently. The key is for each of us to find what works for us – and I hope everyone will find something to try out or consider in these posts!

  5. Dear Elmo,

    Plans are great but as Clausewitz said, all of them go out the window when the first shot is fired. Looking forward to your further posts on the subject. I do both (plan and plan for no plan:)



    • At the risk of furthering the battlefield analogy, I think most commanders would hope the high level plan (attack enemy, advance west, capture town X) survives a few gunshots, even if the detail disappears into the quagmire. Maybe the same can be said for writing!

  6. Ivan Lax

    I am not a writer, though I often think it might be nice to become one. However, this discussion fascinates me. Every time I hear a writer interviewed they seem to say that their characters take over and take control. I find this odd as these works of fiction are created by you writers and yet they control you? As I one time cat owner I can understand how easy it is to be controlled by a living thing, even though it is meant to have the lesser intelligence(!), but to be controlled by a figment of your own imagination and led down paths they create seems more like a suitable case for treatment. Am I missing an underlying trait of all writers? Keep up the stimulating discussion and someday I may try my own 100 words!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Ivan. I think a full reply will need an entire blog post (keep an eye out for that!) but suffice to say that it can and does happen (not so much in short stories, but definitely in longer ones), and is one of the best bits of the job, in my opinion. And if they want to lock me up in an institution with the likes of Stephen King and John Grisham, then go right ahead!

  7. Pingback: Planning 101 | elmowrites

  8. Pingback: Novel Planning #1 – Chapters | elmowrites

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