The Minimum First Tier Things an Organic Writer Needs to Know About a Story Before It Will Work
The first installment of a two-part series.
Over the course of this debate about story planning versus organic, seat-of-the-pants story development, I’ve come to realize several things.
Most notably, that we are all in the same boat, planners and pantsers alike.
First, pantsers don’t want to hear about it.
For some reason the very notion of planning out major story points before you actually begin working on the manuscript is judged as either offensive or unworkable. At least for them.
This is, in my view, much like someone claiming they can’t fly in an airplane… because they’ve never set foot on one. And so they choose to drive.
The truer statement is that they won’t fly in an airplane. It’s a choice, a preference, rather than a statement of fact.
Great analogy, that. Multiply the time it takes to get there via air by a factor of ten, and that’s about the same ratio of completion efficiency in comparing story planning to beginning a story with no idea where it’s going.
And guess what – both vehicles get you there in one piece. It’s just that the long way might cause you to miss the very thing you came for.
Here’s the second thing I’ve learned.
Not about the issue – I’m very clear on that – but about what it means.
Everybody who writes a story engages in some form of story development. There’s no escaping that, no matter what you prefer to call it.
If you pants, if you just sit down and start writing with no clue what comes next, and then when you get to the end of a chapter you just keep writing and making stuff up from your gut, chapter by chapter… then that, too, is story planning. Even if you don’t like the term.
In that case pantsing, or organic storytelling is your chosen methodology. And we all must live with the consequences of our choices, in writing and in life.
Pantsing actually can work.
It’s like exploratory surgery versus a targeted operation. The exploratory surgeon doesn’t know what she’ll find inside, and when she gets in there she does what seems right, making precise and critical judgments in real time. The pre-planning surgeon, however, enters the O.R. with a stack of MRIs, blood tests and a certainty about what’s waiting for her, and she goes straight at it, with a minimum of time under anesthesia.
Good analogy, there, too. Because until we know what we’re doing and why, we’re unconscious and in jeopardy.
Even if the result is the same – the very same tumor in either case is located and extracted – the pantsing surgeon takes orders of magnitude more time, and at greater risk, than the planning surgeon.
In this case, both doctors know what they’re doing. So both procedures will work. But that’s not always the case with writing a story. Sometimes – often, in fact – the author has no real idea what they’re doing.
Here’s a fact, accept it or not:
The more you know about what makes a story work, about what goes into it, what goes where, and why, the more likely the writer will be – the more compelled the writer will be – to execute at least a minimum level of story planning before they begin the actual narrative process.
In other words, the less you know about story structure, the less likely you are to plan, because you don’t (for lack of a better way of saying it) even know what to plan.
And whether you plan it or pants it, if the requisite story milestones and the dramatic arc don’t unfold properly, the story will fail.
The key there is recognizing that there is, in fact, a proper unfolding to be had. And this very thing, the rejection of that notion, is the undoing of many pantsers.
Organic writers sometimes drop names of successful authors who swear by the pantsing process. But here’s the deal – those famous folks are in complete command of the principles of story architecture.
If you’re a pantser, here’s the $64,000 question for you: are you?
Again, the more you know about it, the more accepting you’ll be of the need to plan out at least a few elements of your story in advance.
Because you can’t, you won’t, write a successful draft until you know precisely how your story will end.
Let me say that again. If, for example, you’ve unleashed a story organically, and then at the 60th percentile finally come to realize how it should end, and at that point begin pointing your narrative toward that goal… your story won’t work.
Your only viable option at that point, now that you know the ending, is to start another draft. One that puts all of the moving parts and contextual elements into their proper place. Retrofitting rarely accomplishes the goal, and when it comes close, it’s usually less than clean and elegant. It’s compromised.
It’s impossible for story milestones to be in the proper place, revealing just the right things, until you know your ending.
There’s good news for writers that are scared to death of this truth:
You actually can do both.
You can continue to write your stories organically – which is another way of saying, to develop them organically – but with a wildly improved chance of success…
… if you’ll understand, plan and implement nine specific things ahead of time.
In the scheme of things, that’s not all that much. But they are the nine most important things you need to know about your story, whether you figure them out ahead of time or during the writing itself. They are essential, unavoidable (and if you do avoid them your story will fail), and they don’t discriminate between planners or pantsers.
I’m not suggesting you plan out all sixty to ninety scenes of your story. Some planners do just that – I’m one of them – but you can slash your writing time by more than half (by writing fewer drafts) and significantly boost your odds of success if you’ll just plan these nine key elements first.
Next up, Part Two of this series: The Nine Things You Should Know Before You Begin Writing.