How much do you plan a story?

Recently Rolling Stone has inspired a couple of posts. Once again the current issue has something interesting, worth sharing, concerning how much planning goes into a story. As you might expect, this comes through an interview with an author, in this case George R. R. Martin. You might be familiar with his works on the “Tale of Fire and ice” series, recently turned into a little TV show “A Game of Thrones”. I might have covered it a few times in TV Vegetable.

It is a decent interview, especially his opinion on the use of sex in the series and how it relates to US culture. However in the part I am concerned about George was asked a question about how much he plans his stories. He starts by describing story writers as two types, either “architects” or “gardeners”. The architect knows what he will be building, has detailed plans, knows where the walls, will go, where the pipes will be laid and so on. The Gardener plants a seed and watches it grow. The gardener knows what is expected to grow i.e. the type of plant or flower, but not exactly when or how, there are plenty of surprises on the journey.

Obviously these are analogies of how someone plans a story. He explains how he is closer to a gardener (in the context of a game of thrones):

“I know the ultimate end to the series and I know the fates of all the principle characters, but there’s a lot of minor characters and other details that I find along the way… it’s about the journey not the ultimate destination”

If you have read any of this series of books, you will know how long they are, and how they have a lot of characters, and jump perspective a lot. This allows for a lot more with the minor characters, but still, you’ve got to love his approach. This is the approach I try to take, to have a basic spine of the story, and certain events which need to happen. But I also try to see also what happens as I write it. I’m still learning, and this approach seems to work for me. I would be happy to come up with something half as good.

Obviously either approach has it’s positives and negatives, and some approaches are better suited to different types of story, e.g. the architect approach to a murder mystery. However, generally speaking you may stick with one approach. Which approach do you take?

Lexicon word of the day: impecunious.


18 comments on “How much do you plan a story?

  1. DefInIfely a gardener. i like these analogies. Great post!

    • Elliot says:

      Thanks Lynn – I’m too scared to be gardener, I need to have a basic structure in place so I can feel the story and have an idea if I think it works.

  2. Jeannie says:

    Elliot, I think I’m more the gardener type. It seems to work best for me, and the creative juices flow easier. The other doesn’t feel natural, except for term papers.;)

    • Elliot says:

      I like planning some of the structure, I need the feel of whether it works or not. I would liken it to baking a cake. I need to know the basic cake first, but what goes on top of it, the icing, decoration, etc, will be determined during the process.

  3. crubin says:

    I was more a gardener with my first novel, and as a result, I had some major holes to fix (I should have known–I’ve never had a green thumb). With my current WIP, I am an architect, planning things out scene by scene, fixing holes before they happen. (By the way, software like Scrivener really helps organize the outlining process.) I still believe I’ll have creative freedom when I get to the actual writing part, but at least I shouldn’t have any major plot problems. Though I would prefer to just plant the seed and take off, I’m going to try it the planning way this time around. Then I can compare the two processes.

    • Elliot says:

      Thats pretty much why I plan the structure first. I have done a short story where I planned every single scene and when it came to write I actually dropped a few scenes. But I find it fun (aside from the obvious creative problems) planning the structure. Now I get the basic spine down and certain events that have to happen, and leave the rest to see what comes out. It is slightly tricky finding a balance but I find that is best for me.

      Funny that you mention Scrivener. I picked that up about a year and a half ago, and I’m always mentioning it to other bloggers. It is great isn’t it?

      • crubin says:

        I love it. I use Dropbox to back it up. I just hope when it’s time to compile my manuscript and export it to Word, that the formatting comes out okay. I’ve heard there can be problems with that (I have Scrivener for PC). But it’s really great to have everything right there, including your research.

      • Elliot says:

        I do the dropbox backup as well. It is set to make a copy when I exit the program. I have the Mac version, I was lucky enough to spot it literally a day or so after it initially upgraded to version 2 which was apparently quite a significant upgrade. It is pretty much this version that got ported to the PC.

  4. jmmcdowell says:

    Definitely a gardener, aka pantser, for the first drafts. But revisions require more planning because of the potential impacts to other parts of the story. So maybe once the plant has grown, my pruning and shaping are more architect-oriented….

    • Elliot says:

      I don’t think I could do it that way, I think for me there would be too much wastage. I even plan out some of the blog posts (what points to make, in what order), and use that as a basis to see what else comes out.

  5. I love that! Architects or gardeners….brilliant 🙂

    Hmmmmm, I’m a gardener, who dreams of being an architect lol


  6. DyingNote says:

    I don’t think there’s a pure-play ‘gardener’ author – or at least that’s a very rare breed. There’s always a certain frame, however loose. I suspect it may not be articulated very well but there’s a plan to every good story. Some bad ones have a plan too, a very disruptive one 🙂

    • Elliot says:

      I struggle to believe it too, but I have read of some authors who will take an idea and just run with it, and see what sort of story it turns into. It baffles me how they can do this but then I need a little bit of structure to get me going.

  7. rtd14 says:

    I lean more towards the gardener in some respects. I have not written an outline for Sons of the Edisto, yet I’ve compiled maps, used research, and created character profiles so detailed I made what I call a prescript. The gardener has a more free spirit.

    Great post! I enjoyed it!

    • Elliot says:

      I need a spine of some sort, it brings me some comfort and I can feel whether I think the story will work or not.

      You look different on your new icon picture!

      • rtd14 says:

        I put up one that was taken with my professional camera and not a cell phone. I understand the need for a spine. I had the jist of my book planned out. But, I wrote over five-and-a-half years, and my writing matured and changed. The overall vision stayed the same, but I was able to make it better at 25 vs. when I began the book at 21. Being a Mom also gave me another perspective and that played into my planning. I’m now in the editing stage, and that takes a different kind of planning.

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