Home » Writing Advice » Planning, Plotting, Pre-writing, Oh my!

Planning, Plotting, Pre-writing, Oh my!

There’s been a lot of talk about story ideas here at SM lately, from generating story ideas to developing and organizing them. It’s a given that we aren’t going to expand or use every idea we come up with. But what happens to those ideas that are worth keeping? Time to start the plotting process.

I seem to treat my story ideas the same way I do deadlines: I keep everything in my head. At the very least, it’s an exercise in remembering things (except when I forget and remember after the fact — or don’t remember at all — but we’ll pretend that doesn’t usually happen). My process is something like this:

Idea strikes. Character hits me over the head with a sledgehammer. Write down what he or she is saying (or nothing at all) in a notebook. Go through various scenarios in my mind. Headache ensues. Go to computer. Stare blankly at screen. Check Twitter. Do dishes. Ask myself a few questions about the story. Start drinking. Write a few cryptic notes: “What’s the point of this story?” “What’s the meaning of life?” Don’t bother answering those questions. Ask Robyn to write the story for me. She refuses. Run simulations of possible scenarios in my head. Talk to Robyn about my ideas. She advises that I pre-write. Ignore her. Chris threatens me with violence. Think of and do other non-writing things. Wait (6 months, 2 weeks, a year) until the plot connects with a ding (microwave friendly ideas are best).

Planning, Plotting, Pre-writing, oh My!My story planning isn’t really planning at all. It’s more like solving a Rubik’s Cube. I shift things around in my head until something clicks. I hang out with the characters every so often, flip through the plot channels, and then I let my subconscious work out the kinks. Much to the dismay of the Muses, I’m slow to start writing, and even slower to finish. I take a lot of breaks-that-aren’t-really-breaks in order to get some distance, even after I’ve started drafting. But that’s okay. Because for me, distance is key. Distance means I see the whole thing laid out before me. Distance means that once I start to close it, I’m going to swoop in quickly. I’m always thinking, even when I’m not.

But if my way of plotting sounds totally ridiculous, here are a few other suggestions:

  • You can outline. There are numerous programs to help you organize. Scrivener comes to mind. MS Word suffices, too.
  • If you like note cards, use those.
  • You can run with ideas for a while to see where they take you. Run as fast and as far as you can. (Don’t run away, though, as that’s counterproductive.)
  • I know Robyn asks her characters questions or asks them to write a letter, and they answer back. (It’s okay, she’s not crazy — we had her tested.)
  • Do some research on the setting to help generate possibilities for conflict or characterization.
  • The snowflake method may work if you like logical things.
  • For the more visually inclined, mind mapping is a good way to collect and organize concepts. (Warning: excessive use of arrows, circles, and notes may cause brain malfunctioning in the less capable.)
  • Discuss it out loud with someone willing to listen. Auditory types can make quick connections between what they’re saying and what they’re thinking.

If you get stuck, create some space between you and the plot. Work on other projects. Read a book. Go for a walk. Your brain will do a lot of the work for you when you aren’t trying to make it think.

Lastly, trust your process. There’s no right or wrong way. It’s easy to get discouraged when you sink into a plot hole or hit a bump where things aren’t fitting together. But a little patience can go a long way. The answers will probably find you when you quit looking for them.


Any other suggestions? How do you plot your stories? Is it the same each time? Is there anyone out there with a process like mine? (The answering silence echoes, echoes, echoes . . .)

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2 thoughts on “Planning, Plotting, Pre-writing, Oh my!

  1. My recovery from perfectionism always seems to slow down when I begin a story, even though it is only one of a thousand characters or so. There are not hundreds of pages to write, and yet I struggle with the same conundrum that novelists do. My desire is to have a nice bullet list of major plot pieces before beginning to draft, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

    It’s in giving myself the flexibility to be imperfect, to either begin writing before everything is flushed out or take a step away that usually helps me to stumble upon (or so it seems) the exact missing piece of the puzzle I have been looking for.

    There is no single way for everyone to be sure. And I don’t even know that the same process works for me every single time. I think I rely most on intuition to know whether I need to bear down and focus a little more when I know what I need is right there, within my grasp but just barely out of sight; or, if I need to step away, do something physical with the left brain and give the creative side a chance to chew on the ideas already on the plate.

    It’s a fine balance, as with everything in life it seems. But, when you turn that Rubik’s cube a final time and everything lines up, it is simply a feeling that cannot be expressed in words 🙂

  2. You’re right about the fine balance, Dave. I’d much rather be pulled by a story than have to push it onto paper, and sometimes that means stepping away, letting my head have more time with it. If I’m struggling with conflict, plot, or character, I do often just ask the character and start writing their answer. though I don’t formally outline, I pre-write a lot, sometimes up to half the word count of the final piece.

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