Updated: Nov 29, 2021
Every writer is different. It’s one of the mantras I hold very dear. There’s no right or wrong way of doing things. Your process might be completely different to that of your favourite writer, but that’s totally fine.
Every. Writer. Is. Different.
When I was younger, I got scared when a writer I admired said that diving straight into a story without planning was reckless and bound to end in failure. At the time, I didn’t know any other way of developing a story. I tried planning, but anything I started from a plan felt dry and boring. I panicked that maybe I wasn’t a good writer after all, I was just a wannabe who didn’t know what she was doing.
Here’s a secret: I still feel like that sometimes. I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t.
My process has changed since then. I’ve learned more about story structure and although I still do discover a lot of surprises about my story in the first draft, I am also better at planning and rely more on planning to help create the skeleton of my story.
But not every writer is like that. I attended a workshop with Jasper Fforde in 2019, and he, at the time, admitted that he didn’t create plans, just worked through a draft, hopping back and forth as his ideas developed. Stephen King famously never plans his stories, just gets to know his characters well enough that they pretty much tell the story for him.
But other writers plan meticulously and won’t start a draft until they’ve got every scene planned, every character profiled and every setting carefully charted.
None of these approaches is wrong. In fact, they’re ALL right. They’re right for the writers who use them.
My biggest problem, as a young writer, was not knowing what kind of writer I was, and not knowing the techniques that were out there for writers like me. So this blog post should help you break down some of the different approaches to creating a new story, and some techniques you can try to suit your particular process and style.
If you’re a teacher of creative writing, hopefully you’ll be able to take ideas from some of these techniques to teach and inspire your students.
Techniques for Architects
Architects are sometimes known as planners or plotters. If you’re an architect, you’re the kind of writer who likes to go into a story with a fully realised blueprint. Maybe this extends to other areas of your life, too, (like you study Google Maps a dozen times before you head off on an unfamiliar walk) but maybe you only ever use this technique for writing. That’s totally fine.
Techniques amongst Architects vary, too. Some Architects like to profile their characters thoroughly, but only roughly plan out their scenes. Some meticulously plan their scenes but prefer to get to know their characters in the writing. Whatever your interests as an Architect, the sharpest tool in your kit is a solid knowledge of the Structure of Story. (I’ll write a blog post on this later in the year to go into more detail).
For now, I can recommend two brilliant resources. The first is Into the Woods by John Yorke, which goes through the various beats of story and discusses why they are important. The second is Save the Cat! By Blake Snyder. Many writers swear by Blake Snyder’s story structure and others can’t stand it, but there are alternatives to Snyder’s structure, including The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell and The Heroine’s Journey by Gail Carriger. There’s also The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson, which is very good fun.
But the point is, all stories follow a kind of structure, and that structure generally includes:
Inciting incident (or the call to adventure)
Initial struggle (or enter new world)
Midpoint (or death and rebirth)
Low point (or long, dark night-time of the soul)
Climax (or facing the fatal flaw)
The truth is that, as an Architect writer, knowledge of structure will only get you so far if you don’t do solid work on your characters. The key to a good story:
Character drives plot. Always.
Alright, maybe not always. There’s no such thing as always when it comes to writing, but this is definitely mostly true. The vast majority of readers will feel engaged with a story if they feel drawn to the characters.
We’ve done some work on character creation in an earlier blog post, so the first thing I’d suggest for Architect writers is to go back to the character lesson and have a solid idea of your character’s wants, needs and fatal flaws.
There’s a brilliant free software called Beemgee that takes you through the stages of character creation with some pretty deep questions to answer. Beemgee also has a pro version, which is $10 per month, but you don’t need to pay this to use it and store your characters on your profile. It’s a great way of really getting a thorough character profile before you then think about how to structure your story.
Once you’ve got your main character (and hopefully a few secondary characters!) sorted, the next thing to do is use the WANTS, NEEDS and FATAL FLAWS of your main character to create your structure.
What could happen to your character that forces them to confront their fatal flaw?
What could happen to your character that makes them REALLY panic?
Short of death (or maybe it IS death!) what’s the worst thing that could happen to your character? How will they cope when threatened with it?
What does your character need to do to overcome their fatal flaw?
Once you know the deepest, darkest place you need to take your character too, you can start creating plot points for your story.
Again, Beemgee technology has a great plotting section and includes loads of different structures you could use, including Joseph Campbell’s and Blake Snyder’s.
Techniques for Explorers
Explorer writers are sometimes known as discovery writers or pantsers (as in, flying by the seat of your pants.) If you’re an explorer, you like spontaneity in your writing.
Maybe knowing the ending of your story bores you silly. Maybe you write for the thrill of what’s going to happen on the next page, and writing is about telling yourself the story as much as it is about telling the story for others.
Maybe you’re thinking that techniques for this one are easy. You just prepare a fresh page and go, right? Well, I guess some authors do that, and if it works for them (or for you) then great! But most authors may struggle to sustain writing 80,000 words or more with no idea of where the story is going. Nevertheless, those same authors might find themselves bored by a story where they already know exactly what’s happening before they write it.
So, what can you do?
Confession time: I used to consider myself an Explorer writer, but as I began to learn more about story structure, characterisation and how character drives plot, I started to incorporate more planning into my writing process. There are still lots of things that I discover and explore in the first draft and, sometimes, my carefully developed plans are abandoned towards the end and the novel just writes itself. (That happened with my novella, ‘Doorway to Nowhere’ which is available later this month!)
But for me, successful explorer writing is only possible if you:
Know. Your. Character.
That’s right, it all comes back to that magic word. Maybe you don’t want to spend ages creating character profiles and sticking plot points on a corkboard. I totally get that (although, personally, I love a corkboard). But knowing your character is still important.
So, try this: Write a scene from your character’s point of view where they first develop a terrible fear. Then write another scene from their point of view where they begin to keep a deep secret. Then write another scene where they show a strong relationship with someone they love. Then write another scene where they show us something they hate …
You get the picture. You’re writing a bunch of scenes with your character in which stuff happens to them. (But isn’t that just writing a story?)
Well, yes, that is the overall aim. But the scenes you’re writing right now won’t necessarily end up in your final draft. Maybe they happened years beforehand. What you’re doing now is exploring your character’s back story.
Essentially, you’re channelling their voice, listening to them tell you their truth, and ensuring you capture every detail.
Your notes might consist of a bunch of completely haphazard and unrelated scene, perhaps spanning years. At first, as you’re writing certain scenes, you might think ‘I don’t know why this is relevant. I’m writing a super dramatic sci fi crime thriller and in this scene my character is twelve years old and he’s just fallen out with his sister.’
But all these little things you discover about your character help to build a picture of them.
Once you have a solid picture of them (and this might take ten or more scenes) you can start your story.
Maybe you have absolutely no idea what you’re inciting incident or midpoint will be, but you have your character and they will tell you.
Famously, Stephen King is an explorer writer (otherwise known as a Pantser,) and his entire philosophy is based on getting to know your characters. Ensuring you know their fears, wants, needs and flaws will mean that, even if you come at a story with no idea what’s going to happen, a well-rounded character will tell the story for you.
In fact, you can do a lot worse that Stephen King’s brilliant book On Writing if you’re looking to get better at your craft.
What To Do if You’re a Bit of Both
I’ve already confessed that this is where I sit: somewhere between the two. I do plan meticulously before I start my writing process and my go to structure is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Although, I will be honest, this structure doesn’t work for every story and sometimes I might need to call on Joseph Campbell or use Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. But, before I even think about getting my plot in order, I do two things:
Invent my world (complete with mapping, maybe a few atlas entries and a bit of history. Map-making is SO much fun. I use Inkarnate technology, which is available online. You can use it for free, but there’s also a paid version with more assets and options available.)
Get to know my characters.
Yep, back to character again. If you want to write a good story, there’s no getting away from it.
Ok, but that sounds a lot like planning. That’s basically just planning, right? Well, kind of. There’s a little more to this process that allows for some inventive exploring and helps keep things a bit more spontaneous and exciting. Here are four things you can do to keep that explorer attitude alive.
THING ONE: rather than writing a character profile, which you might find a bit dry, write an interview for your character. A lot of writers do this, and some can come up with as many as a hundred questions for their character.
The trick is that when you answer the questions, you do so in your character’s voice.
This way, you get to know your character’s voice and will probably discover things about them that you didn’t expect.
THING TWO: If you do decide to come up with plot points, using any of the structures you choose, keep the plot points brief, vague and loose.
Give yourself space for discovery in the draft.
And when things happen in a story that isn’t in your plan, go with it and see where it leads. It’s ok if you have to go back later and change your plan.
THING THREE: This links to the previous point and is about trusting your instinct. Your draft might start to drift away from your plot points, or your character might make choices you haven’t accounted for. That’s ok. See where it goes.
If it hits a dead end, that’s also ok, you just go back to your plan and see where you can reuse ideas, or if you maybe need to back-track.
And that leads us onto the final thing.
THING FOUR: Remember that your plan is a working document. I use Campfire technology for my planning because I like how open and customisable it is. When I come up with my timeline, I know it’s likely to change and I’ll discover stuff in the writing, so I start to add notes to my timeline as I write, or rearrange the scenes.
I always have my timeline open, and I know that I’ll probably add a lot to it, or make a lot of notes, after a writing session.
As I start my redraft, I’ll also add more notes in different colours about things I need to rewrite or work on. My timeline won’t be finished until the book is finished.
Below, you can see a screenshot of my campfire notes for The Hive Child, book two in the Silent Skies trilogy, will be out next year. Hopefully, you’ll notice the notes I’ve added to various plot points with things I’ve discovered or decided when I’ve been writing. But you don’t need fancy technology to be able to do this. When I wrote The Last Beekeeper, I used a bare wall, some blue tac, a whole load of post-it notes and coloured string. That works just as well.
Have a Go
Whatever kind of writer you think you are, I’d suggest trying lots of these techniques. You might find that you’re an explorer writer who really likes creating character profiles, or an architect who loves writing character interviews. No two writers are the same, and the only way to find out what works for you is to try it all. You might also find that your preferences change as you grow, and as your writing grows. That’s ok, too.
Process is important, but there’s no right or wrong way to be as a writer. The only rule I’d lay down is that it’s far more important to be true to yourself than to try to be like another writer. So come to planning a story (or not planning one!) with an open mind. Try everything, and enjoy the experience of working out what kind of writer you are!
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