How I Plan a Story

(originally posted at Through the Tollbooth)

I spent the weekend reading Reflections, a collection of essays and talks on writing by the children’s fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones. Diana touches on all sorts of topics in her essays, but my favorite passages are the ones in which she describes her writing process: how she grabs ideas out of thin air, plans them out, and sets about turning them into full-fledged stories. I’ve always loved learning about other writers’ processes, which seem so magical and veiled in mystery even when you are a writer yourself, so with the hope that you also like to learn about other writers’ processes, I thought I’d tell you about how I plan my stories.

I don’t think anyone will ever be able to adequately explain where story ideas come from, but for me, they usually arrive when I’m standing at the kitchen counter eating crackers out of the box and letting my mind wander all over the place. As it wanders, it stumbles over a strange or silly thought, and I sort of laugh to myself and say (with a mouth full of crackers), “That would be a good idea for a story.”

Usually, it is not a good idea for a story. Usually it turns out that I’m just standing in the kitchen talking to myself like someone who really should not be left alone for long periods of time. But sometimes my brain starts to tingle in a particular way, and I abandon the crackers and run to my computer, where I open my file of story ideas. This is a Word document full of phrases and sentences and paragraphs describing every idea I’ve ever had that’s made my brain tingle in that particular way. Moving quickly, before the idea dies, I find a blank space in the document and write it down. I usually don’t write more than a sentence; for my book Magic Marks the Spot, I wrote, “A girl tries to enroll in Piracy but her application is forwarded to Young Ladies’ Finishing School.” (Actually, this is still more or less the elevator pitch I use when people ask me what my book is about.)

Then, once the idea is safely recorded, I forget about it for a very long time.

I think this is the most important part of my process. The idea needs time by itself to ripen, and if I hover over it and poke at it too much, it won’t develop properly. I let the idea sit in my subconscious mind, soaking up everything I read and learn about and experience in the meantime, and every so often I’ll realize that the idea has grown a new sort of tendril (“the pirate girl has an adorable sidekick… maybe a talking parrot? A talking rabbit? A talking… something else?”). I write that tendril down in my story idea file and go back to not thinking about it for a while. Though it’s not always possible, I prefer to let a good story idea ripen for at least a year while I write about something entirely different. I had the idea for Magic Marks the Spot about a year before I started writing the first draft. The idea for my second book was only allowed to ripen for eight months (I was on deadline), and it was still a little green around the edges. And I have another idea that’s going on two years of ripening now, though I haven’t yet started to write it.

An idea is ready to be written about when I know a few crucial things about it. First, I have to know what Diana Wynne Jones describes as “the taste, quality, character—there are no words for it—nature of the book itself, a sort of flavor” (Reflections, 117). This flavor could be the subject of its own blog post, but it usually arrives at the moment of inspiration and grows stronger during the ripening period. Next, I have to know how the story begins. I like to know exactly what happens for at least the first twenty pages, since once I’ve written that down I am firmly in the story, and I’ve given myself enough momentum to keep going. I also need to have some idea of what the story’s climactic scene will be, so I know what I’m aiming for. I will usually know two or three scenes that take place along the way, though that’s not absolutely crucial; they will have popped up during the ripening process, and they may be subject to change if the story takes twists and turns I don’t expect.

Finally, I need to plan out my protagonist’s emotional arc. I’m the sort of writer who gets so caught up in plot that I forget to let my characters feel things, so I plan this emotional arc very consciously and deliberately; if I don’t, I will utterly fail to include it in the story. At this point, I try to ensure that my protagonist’s plot arc and her emotional arc will intersect at the climax of the story—the place that my VCFA advisor Franny Billingsley called the crossroads. Creating this crossroads, where plot and emotion intersect at their peaks, can feel awfully academic, but I’ve found that taking the time to do this solidifies the story’s structure and gives me the freedom to play around with the story without fearing that it will all come toppling down around me.

After that, I start writing. I’m a planner by nature, and it terrifies me not to know what happens next, so I’m often tempted to plot out every scene in advance. To paraphrase Diana Wynne Jones, though, overplanning can kill a story. Since my work in progress is partially a mystery story, I had to plan it in a lot more detail than usual, and I think all that planning made the book much more difficult to write; it squashed some of the spontaneity and playfulness that I’ve come to believe makes for the best writing. I usually do make an outline about halfway through the first draft, when I have a pretty good idea of how the rest of the book will go, but I don’t require myself to stick to it. Not knowing what will happen next may be terrifying, but the scenes that come out of nowhere, unplanned, always turn out to be my favorites.

That, in exhausting detail, is how I’ve planned the stories I’ve written so far, though I can’t guarantee it’s how I’ll write the next one. I’d love to hear about your planning process, too—just accost me at a cocktail party or, failing that, drop a note in the comments.

3 Responses to “How I Plan a Story”

  1. Jody Casella

    I love hearing about how others writers work too. Your description of the “tingles” and the “tendrils” is spot-on. And I agree with you that the unplanned and unexpected moments in a story usually turn out to be the best. Something I’ve figured out is that when I don’t know where the story is going, I have a sense of urgency to write it and Get There. That urgency translates to a page-turner-y quality for the reader too. At least that’s the hope!

    • Caroline

      Jody, thanks for stopping by! And that’s such a good observation. I think we spend a lot of time figuring out how to get our readers flipping the pages, and it makes sense that a lot of that page-turning quality would stem from our own desire to turn the pages ourselves as we write. If I get bored while I’m writing, I have to stop for the day and reconsider my direction because I know the reader’s going to be bored, too.