Probably the most daunting problem you face when writing a story is what details to include. Often your notes and initial inspiration will yield hundreds of little details that you want somewhere in the story but aren’t not sure exactly where they fit. There are a couple ways to solve this problem.
Understand that it’s not only an organizational problem. Even if you had all the story details well organized into scenes, sequences or acts, there is also the creative choice to decide the weight of a particular detail in relation to the story. Stories are all the more emotionally punchy when you make economical creative choices.
And of course sometimes you don’t care. For instance, the gag that you really want in because its too good to cut even if it doesn’t move the plot forward, contributes to exposition or presents a choice. This is typical of the many creative choices you make when writing a story and the objective is always the same: what to include?
The objective of planning in writing is to find that out. Knowing this is not only important to keep you from turning into a Doc Emmet pouring over bubbling test tubes like a mad scientist. It also decides what the final rendition of the story will look like to the audience. In that way, the decision to include or exclude a particular story detail contributes to quality of the emotional machine that your story is.
Planning then is one way to solve the problem but when you’ve got an idea that’s nagging you, the temperance to wait through the planning process you may not have. So other writers solve this problem using the drafting process in which they feel their way to the same end.
And sometimes you do get lucky in drafting. The story sorta comes together on its own as you play with it. A good edit later, you have a pretty decent story ready to polished.
The problem with drafting however is that you’re writing blind. You never know when you story luck runs out, that usually being the gasp you find yourself making when you realize you’ve written yourself into a corner. You could backtrack, but some of the writing is too good to chuck away. Your mind conjures up some cleverness to jump the story thread to life again but, well, the initial magic is lost. Now you have half a story and a full story problem.
Many a story can get pushed into the drawer for this reason. You just can’t figure it out and hope that it’ll come to you. But the longer it sits the further you’ve moved on. That’s the inherent risk of drafting.
It takes long and bears the risk of not yielding results because it’s very hard to diagnose where the story problem lies when you’re 30 000 words in. All those lovely twists and turns are now winding you up too. Inspiration doesn’t always solve the problem too since you need continuation.
Zoom In, Zoom Out
Story Planning then is a shift to managing those sort of risks up-front while keeping the room for creativity. It basically involves seeing your at different levels of details, zooming in or out so to speak.
At the very top is the concept of your story. It’s basically your story in the shortest amount of words. The opposite of that is the scene as a basic unit of action. That is the most amount of detail because, if you read all those scenes together, you’re actually reading the story in a form very near to the final presentation.
And I think it’s valuable to separate story outlining from presentation as it focuses your creativity on how something will play out. That’s a hallmark of quality.
Making the shift to story planning though can get difficult because you also have to see your story through the eyes of the characters, the theme, setting and so on before you start writing. Those are the levels of detail that break-down from concept all the way down to outline.
But imagining the whole thing before putting down a word is a healthy exercise to solving what to include and where it goes to be most effective. That means drafting, testing and refining all the story facts into a comprehensive outline before writing a single word.
It’s not as exciting as following the mermaid of inspiration deep into the story ocean but you have to solve the problem of what to write where. Drafting is the scenic route to deciding what goes into your story whereas planning is a detective approach to breathing life into your stories.