On ‘Losing the Plot: Plotting in advance VS writing as you go’

The Edge of ReasonNever Seen by Waking EyesBitter SeedsThe Android's DreamInside StraightThe Last ColonyDreaming Again: Thirty-Five New Stories Celebrating the Wild Side of Australian FictionMetatropolis

This article is based on a session at AussieCon 4.

Melinda Snodgrass started the panel discussion with an analogy that fiction writers who plan in advance of writing are like architects and that fiction writers who plan as they write are like gardeners, picking ideas that have grown without prior design by the fiction writer. The architect/gardener analogies are basically a version of the idea of ‘planned’ and ‘organic’ fiction writing – or, to put it another way, a distinction between fiction writing planned in detail ahead of starting to write the story and writing a story spontaneously, working it out as you go.

Plan in advance or write spontaneously

John Scalzi said:

He is ‘a gardener’ (adding “but gardening in real life is a lot of work and I’m not down for that”). He plots several points of the story and spontaneously writes ‘a path between those points’.

Editorial experience helps for writing spontaneously. He mentioned a saying about editing: “90% of submissions are crap and the other 10% is broken”. Whether you agree with those percentages or not, editorial experience is certainly useful for developing the ability to write well spontaneously. [Reading a lot of fiction is also useful; it allows you to pick up many subtle nuances which those who prefer to read about fiction writing often don’t have the hang of.]

You can change your story as you go along, for internal consistency, by rewriting earlier parts of a story where necessary to make sure it all makes sense yet still leaves you with the freedom to write spontaneously throughout the entire writing of the story.

Writing in sequential order avoids excessive work because you don’t have to continually keep track of past and future events in the story. Writing later scenes first can block out possibilities that may come up when you write the earlier scenes.

Each fiction writer should do what works for them. “You don’t need to put the process in a box.”

Lezli Robyn said:

She does similar to John, but never writes more than one draft and never re-reads that draft as she writes. “Your fiction is richer for the spontaneous moments that stand out.” Often, fiction writers will write something spontaneously which stands out as being particularly good and will enhance their story by building on that as they go, rather than cutting it because it doesn’t fit a previous plan. Fiction writers can spontaneously develop their characters as they go and then add character motivation for the way the character turns out by the end of the story to earlier parts of the story.

Ian Tregillis said:

He absolutely has to know the beginning and the end. He does a scene-by-scene outline. He likes to do outlines which leave room for spontaneous creativity but are detailed enough so he doesn’t have to rely on spontaneous creativity.

He used to use bullet points with different coloured ink for each character, then moved on to using a note card for each scene, still using different coloured ink for each character. Note cards can be moved around, which is useful when you’re adding, removing and changing the planned order of scenes or chapters. John Scalzi compared this to making a mix-tape; you have an idea of what you want to put in but you also want it in a certain order. When you arrange the scenes in such a way that an earlier scene almost seems to set up a later scene, you can think to yourself: “If I just change the earlier scene a little it will look like I planned it.”

You can start with an idea and ‘reverse engineer’ some appropriate characters. [Another variation is to start with one or more characters in conflict with one another and design a solution to overcome their conflict.]

Stephen Dedman said:

He writes outlines for his publisher. Outlines are helpful to him because they lay out a clear story plan and he can write a novel from one of his outlines in three months without hiccups.

He described his experience of writing a trilogy in which a character can see two books into the future, and how this involved “obsessive book keeping” as “details propagate throughout”. He vowed that he would never do something like that again.

Melinda Snodgrass said:

She is ‘an architect’. Each day, she likes to get up and know what has to be done for the day. She uses note cards and a whiteboard.

Tentpole scenes (several scenes, spaced apart throughout a story, which serve as high points of interest and excitement for a reader), provide solace while writing the “Kansas and Nebraska” chapters. [She has used the geography of the United States as an analogy for a story here, with the interest and excitement of the west coast as the beginning, the similar level but different kind of interest and excitement of the east coast as the ending, and a long stretch in the middle with a number of locations in between which break up the agricultural and desert landscapes of the long drive. A similar analogy could be made substituting Australian geography. This would make the long middle stretch (going along the southern coast) go from the Kalgoorlie and Esperance area along the Nullarbor Plain to Ceduna on to Adelaide and Mt Gambier – before reaching the big cities of the east coast. For a good example of this landscape-plot analogy in practice, you can watch the Australian movie Charlie and Boots, in which a father and son travel from Victoria to the northern tip of Queensland, and consider how the spaced out towns along the way provide regular high points in the plot.]


Melinda Snodgrass pointed out that some fiction writers write themself a letter as a character to help them develop the character. Stephen Dedman said his characters grow as they go along and that, in keeping with his background in acting, he ‘hears’ characters talking their parts in the story. John Scalzi clarified the sense in which Stephen could ‘hear’ his characters: “You can ‘hear’ them; they’re just not real.” As they discussed, it is a matter of setting rules for a character and then a fiction writer can role play in their mind within this context to develop the character. It is only in this context that a character ‘comes to life’ and ‘tells their own story’. Melinda added, “I’m ruthless. My characters do what they’re told.”

NEXT: On ‘Crowns and Swords: The intertwined worlds of fantasy and monarchy’

The Edge of ReasonNever Seen by Waking EyesBitter SeedsThe Android's DreamInside StraightThe Last ColonyDreaming Again: Thirty-Five New Stories Celebrating the Wild Side of Australian FictionMetatropolis

The Australian Literature Review

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3 Responses to On ‘Losing the Plot: Plotting in advance VS writing as you go’

  1. Wendy Cavenett says:

    Thanks for this and other literary craft features. The tips and insights are very valuable indeed.

  2. Pingback: On ‘Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey’ | The Australian Literature Review

  3. Pingback: How a Little Planning Can Help Focus Your Novel Manuscript | The Australian Literature Review

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