Have you ever had so much trouble wrapping up a story that you kept adding sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph or even chapter after chapter in search of a conclusion? Maybe you have run out of steam halfway through a story and sat there wondering, “Where was I going with this?” If either of these scenarios sounds even remotely familiar to you, then you can probably appreciate the importance of planning ahead. If you’ve never formally outlined your plot then maybe it’s time to learn a new method.
Whether you need to stick to a deadline or page count, or simply keep track of all your characters and story lines, planning the shape of your story ahead of time can be an extremely helpful exercise. This doesn’t have to take up a lot of your actual writing time and can even be an important part of your research process. Trust us, pre-planning will save you many headaches and late-night cramming sessions in the long run.
Think in Acts
There is a good reason why the three-act structure has been unfailingly popular throughout literary history: It works. While you don’t have to strictly divide up your story as would a playwright, thinking in acts will help to make sure you set up and resolve all story lines in the appropriate time frame. Usually, your three-act story should fall into these divisions:
- Establish the facts of the world you are creating – the rules your characters live by need to be established so your audience can fully invest in the story
- Create conflict – whether there is one main conflict or a series of challenges, large and small, you should begin putting your characters in weightier situations now that we care about them
- Offer a conclusion – resolving your story does not necessarily mean wrapping up all conflicts with a tidy bow, but it does need to give your story meaning and a reason for having been told
Map Out the Timeframe
Dayplanners aren’t just for real-life plans! Use an old agenda to plan out your character’s plot lines in real time to help make sure the stories you’re telling keep on track. An easy mistake when delving into a long writing process is forgetting when and where certain events occurred, which can sometimes result in implausible time frames that will confuse your readers.
Or… Don’t Plan
The best (or most frustrating) part about a creative pursuit like writing is that there are no rules. What works for one person will not necessarily work for the next, so every piece of advice you receive should be taken with a grain of salt. Planning is helpful if you often have trouble sticking to deadlines or actually completing your ideas, but sometimes when you’re really “in the zone,” free-writing is the way to go! The important thing to remember is that there are alternatives, so if the method you’re currently using isn’t working any more there are lots of other writing exercises you can try.