This piece was originally published in the newsletter last year, but I wanted to repeat it as part of our series on plot.
How much planning do you do before you sit down to write?
Personally, I tend to have a reasonable idea of the overall plot for my novel with a beginning, a few points in the middle, and an idea of how it should all end. But when it comes to the details of individual scenes ... I'm a lot hazier.
In my non-fiction work, I find planning comes naturally. I plan my blog posts and newsletters so that I know all the key points and what's coming next.
But with fiction ... it can be very tempting to just launch straight into a scene without a clear idea of what's going to happen (or even of who's going to be involved in the scene).
When I step back and take a few minutes to plan out the scene in advance, though, I find my writing goes much more smoothly. It's easier to focus, I write more quickly, and I don't (so often!) end up meandering off in the wrong direction.
My fiction-writing time is limited (I expect your is too) ... so I'm often a bit reluctant to plan because it feels like a waste of valuable writing time. I've found that the key is to plan quickly – to spend just a few minutes getting the essentials of the scene down on paper.
If you want to give this a go, here are five different techniques to try:
#1: Visualise Your Scene
Close your eyes, and spend five minutes mentally running through the scene you're about to write. Picture your characters: where are they? What are they doing? How are they moving around? What are they saying to one another? What's happening around them? Is it noisy or quiet?
I often struggle with description, and I find this a really helpful technique for seeing what's happening in my scene – it lets me bring in more details.
#2: Write Several Key Points
This is the technique that comes most easily for me, possibly because it's very similar to the way in which I plan blog posts! Before writing your scene, jot down several key points – things that are going to happen.
You can just jot these down as quickly as you like. For instance:
- Knock at the door: it's John, ready for confrontation
- Susan argues with him on the doorstep before agreeing to let him in
- John sees the new keyboard and starts yelling about money
- Susan begins to defend herself but they're interrupted by a phone call
... and so on.
If you're stuck, think about where you want to begin the scene, where you want it to end up (remember, something should change in your story as a result of each scene), and how you're going to get from A to B.
#3: Jot Down Lines of Dialogue
I like writing dialogue and I'm quick at it, so sometimes my planning will consist of lines of dialogue and not much else. I won't write out everything I'll get my characters to say, just a few key sentences.
If you're working on a scene involving a fair amount of dialogue, this can be a good way to plan. There might be particular lines that you want to get in there (because they're significant in revealing character or furthering the plot, for instance).
Here's a quick example, based on the key points in #2:
- John: "You've been ignoring my texts."
- Susan says she's not going to respond when he's being so rude; they argue.
- John: "What's this? What the hell is this? So you're going out and spending my money on a sodding keyboard now, are you?"
- Susan: "It's my money. Mum left it to me."
- John: "I can't believe you. Everything we've been through and now you're going to bring up that stupid will..."
#4: Create a Mindmap
This isn't a technique that I tend to use for individual novel scenes, though it's one I've used for bigger-picture novel planning. Mindmaps can be a great way to brainstorm ideas, and they're also very helpful if you want to explore the connections between your ideas.
If you've got a complex or multi-layered scene going on, a mindmap could be a great step towards making sense of it all. For instance, if your scene involves a number of characters coming together, and several storylines moving forward, you might want to grab a big bit of paper and start roughing out your ideas, joining them together as appropriate – you may find that two particular storylines or characters could connect in a way that
you hadn't seen before.
#5: Draw a Storyboard
If you like to draw (or doodle!) then a storyboard could work for you. This is like a visual version of bullet points, where you draw little sketches of each key moment in your scene.
Even if you don't think you're at all artistic, you might want to give this one a try. My six-year-old draws better than me ... but I still find that storyboarding can be a useful technique for working through creative blocks.
Are you diving into scenes without pausing to think? Do you find yourself running out of steam part way through, or spending ages wondering where to go next? Or do you end up writing scenes that seem to lack any real impact?
Next time, try planning ahead and "roughing out" the scene before you begin. Feel free to drop me an email to let me know how it goes. :-)