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To Plan or not to Plan? Advice for Writing and Life Itself

'Life is what happens while you're busy making plans.' John Lennon was probably quoting others when he famously said this, but the idea will resonate with anyone engaged in something creative. It's true of daily life as well and never more so than at this busy time of year.  

We are living through an extraordinary time in history, in which our ability to plan for the future is curtailed by the uncertainties of the pandemic. What will we be able to do in six month's time? It's natural to want to feel some sense of control over our future. 

The choice between making plans and going with the flow has been with us for as long as humans have tried to make sense of our world. For some it's a simple binary: we are either the type of person who has a plan, or the sort who breezes through life, taking it as it comes.

Take a look at the planning type: typically organised, with clear objectives, far sighted, prepared, in control. The planner has a map and intends to use it. No tangents or winding country lanes for them, they stay on the straight road to their destination.

If that sounds constricting, boring even, you may be a 'pantser', someone who flies by the seat of their pants, making it up as they go along. Pantsers may have a destination in mind, but they follow their nose. If they get lost, the chaos is all part of the adventure.

Sounds risky? A bit disorganised? You are probably a planner.

There are benefits and drawbacks to both. Let's consider the benefits of the pantsing style. You have an idea, it's inspiring, and you start to write. You feel the thrill. It's all new, rough and ready, and it's exciting to find out what happens to your protagonist.

Anything is possible. As the pantsing writer you get caught up in the thrill of discovery. You invent scenes and dramatic events until... 

You get stuck. What's the point? Where is it all going? Momentum slows, characters lose their purpose, and the plot resembles spaghetti. Frustrated, the pantser grinds to a halt. It's time to plan.

The planner, on the other hand, is like a driver heading from Land's End to John O'Groats, the entire journey mapped out. But their meticulous route map of plot points becomes formulaic. The pace is flagging... then they spot an intriguing turning, not on their route.

Perhaps the protagonist has seized the wheel and is steering them in a different direction. The writer-planner longs to explore it, but fears they will lose sight of the destination. They, too, grind to halt.  

Author Susan Hill famously plans out every part of a novel before writing, and the actual writing then takes a matter of weeks. But that process isn't for everyone. Few novels are written in a straight line. 

The moving elements of long fiction include: characters who must have a clear purpose in the story; settings that convey atmosphere; a consistent point of view; action in the present; a relevant backstory; a degree of mystery or foreshadowing, and of course narrative shape.

It's a lot to manage. The planner who shoehorns the parts into a rigid structure risks losing the creative spark of their original idea. The pantser who wades in without a sense of direction, or even how the story ends, gets stuck in the mire. 

We need a hybrid word, because just as in our actual lives, a balance between forward planning and flexibility is most likely to get you to the finishing post. Plantser? It could work.

It doesn't have to be complex. The design of a story can be as simple as this three-stage causal design:

  1. X happened, then Y happened
  2. It happened because
  3. As a result Z happened 

Or the Freytag's pyramid approach to five act structure:

  1. Exposition leading to inciting incident
  2. Rising action
  3. Climax
  4. Falling action
  5. Denouement

Such schemes provide a holding pattern while you work out the rest. J K Rowling has described how she works from a first rough outline, then refers back to the plan as the draft grows. The outline provides a sense of direction, but is not overly detailed. That comes in the drafting.

If you like having a formula to follow, try the most popular narrative structure of all, the 12 steps of the hero's journey. This comes handily accompanied by a cast of archetypal characters who each have their own role and purpose in the story: mentor, friend, shadow, threshold guardian and the rest;  8 types of character in total. 

Another aspect of mapping is knowing what sort of story you are telling: tragedy, quest, voyage and return, or something else. If you agree with Christopher Booker that we only ever tell variations of the same 7 plots, you'll find that idea helpful in nailing yours down.

If only we could see what lies ahead for our lives post-pandemic - but at least we can enjoy the certainties of fiction, one place where we can take control of the wheel, check the map, and enjoy the journey.

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