Saturday, September 8, 2012

Should You Plan Your Writing or Be Spontaneous?

The obvious answer to the above question is, “It depends on the writer and/or the story.”

But since obvious answers are as helpful as an umbrella in a flood, let’s see if we can be more specific.

Spontaneity can be defined as that quality of writing where you start out and don’t know where you’re going: making it up as you go along. 

Planning is exactly that: having a detailed outline or map of where your story is going, who’s in it, what they are doing and why, etc.

Most writers would probably say they use both spontaneity and planning to one degree or another. And both tools are valuable for writers. Spontaneity keeps your story fresh and exciting; planning keeps your story from going off track or trying to accomplish too much. 

Yet there's a downside to spontaneity. It can easily lead your story astray with characters, ideas, and plot lines that lead nowhere. Stories that rely too much on spontenaity read like dreams: one idea leads to another, and then another idea pops up, and, before long, you’ve lost sight of the original idea.

The downside of planning is that an overly detailed outline can leave your story with little room to grow in ways that surprise both you and your readers. Such stories often read like a response to an argument no one has made: the writer has determined what the “answer” will be, although no one’s asked that particular question.

Here are five tips for finding the right blend of spontenaity and planning that works best for your story:

1. Determine the ending of your story.  Some writers write the ending first or very shortly after they write the beginning.  Others keep the ending firmly in mind.  Whatever your approach, you will keep your story on track (and your interest level high) if you have a specific goal to shoot for.

2. Do not determine exactly how you get to that ending.  Have a general outline or map in mind, yes, but resist the impulse to make it so detailed that you are in effect telling your story before you actually write it. Instead, know where the story’s plot points will be: the inciting incident, the climax, the denouement, etc. 

3. While writing, check your Brilliant New Idea against the above structure.  Will this new character take your story toward its ending?  If not, do you really need him?  If there’s a strong possiblity he might move your story tward its conclusion, let him stay but keep him on a tight leash until you know you can trust him.

4. Write more than one draft.  This almost goes without saying. Yet its surprising how many writers think their first draft should be the final one. Multiple drafts give you time to experiment with new approaches.  They let you see what that Brilliant New Idea has to offer.

5. Be willing to accept the possibility that your story may go in a different direction than the one you planned. Of course, this means knowing what the “heart” of your story is and what you want (in the abstract sense) to accomplish. 

I recently put this idea to the test. In my Compostion I classes, I had students brainstorm ideas for a paper they will be writing. I knew generally what I wanted: a list of topics any student could write about.  (Sorry, Dr. Who fans.  Not everyone watches that show.)  We ended up with a list of 23 topics. I then asked a student to pick a number between 1 and 23, each number corresponding to a particular topic. Then, for whatever topic was selected, we brainstormed ideas and possible audiences and purposes for it.

Exercises such as this always carry risks. What if the topic selected doesn't interest most students? What if it doesn’t interest me? What if my students are shy and don’t want to participate?

Yet the exercise worked marvelously. It demonstrated my abstract goal of showing students how a writer can brainstorm ideas for any topic.

Likewise, the ending of your story may change, but knowing the heart of your story means you can still get there even if the route changes along the way.

Spontaneity and planning work together to create a story that is exciting both for yourself and for your readers. Although there is no formula for determining how much of either tool you should use, it helps to have a clear plan in mind with the caveat that it’s subject to change. 

Know where you are going, but let your muse do the driving.

How much spontaneity versus planning do you include in your writing?

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