I spend about 90% of my time with writers. It’s due mostly to the fact that writers seem to naturally gravitate toward each other. (Creativity, frustration, and tears–what writers are made of–develop bonds faster than anything else I know.) Interestingly enough, writers all have a different system for planning their stories. My girlfriend is the type that doesn’t plan anything. Every word is something of a surprise. I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum. I plan everything, every scene and world detail and character trait, before I ever write a word. Most writers aren’t as extreme as my girlfriend and me, falling somewhere in between.
So if you’re a writer, and you’re struggling to find what works best for you–to plan or not to plan–here’s a short guide to help you get started.
Step 1: Write a one-sentence summary
This step is meant to give you a central focus to your story. It gets you thinking about your premise and what’s most interesting about it. Also, you’ll be expected to make a one-sentence summary in a query letter to agents, so this step is really just good practice. If you’re not even sure what your premise is, see step 3.
Step 2: Write down all major characters and their most significant trait
If you don’t know your characters, it’s not going to be much of a story, but if you’re the type to just make up characters as you go, this might be a good exercise in getting to know your pre-existing characters better. If this step is not coming to you, see step 3.
Step 3: Write a scene
Why would I direct you here when steps 1 and 2 aren’t working? Because you’re probably not a planner, and you need to just write. So sit down and write a scene. Any scene. Whatever inspires you. When I asked my girlfriend about her writing process, she said, “I tend to start from words. Like, words and feelings/pictures associated with the words come to me before characters do. Once I’ve found the scene, the characters get to enter, and then it flows from there. I do little analysis of whether the characters are behaving according to their backstory, but instead, kind of just feel it.” So don’t worry about making perfect characters. Just write.
Step 4: Make a timeline
The timeline is perhaps the center of my planning system. I chart everything in chronological order with major plot points on a timeline, so that I have something to look at if I ever move my scenes out of order. For some writers, this step is impossible. Either because they don’t know where their story is going, or they don’t know enough of their story to make a timeline. That’s fine, too. In fact, many people will just repeat step 3 over and over again until they have a working story.
Step 5: Decide your ending
Perhaps the most crucial step, deciding your ending gives you and your story a place to go, no matter how much you stray from the path. Even if you’re not the planning type (especially if you’re not the planning type), make your ending. This helps to give you focus, and you’ll notice yourself adding elements to the plot as you write that contribute to the ending.
Step 6: Write
If you don’t write, you won’t even have a story. So no matter what system you have for making a story, just keep writing, and you’ll get there eventually.