Because I haven’t said much for some time, here’s something.

I don’t plan.

Yes, really. I don’t plan when I write, not the tiniest bit. I don’t write outlines, I don’t draw maps. I have only a few nebulous ideas of what is going to happen next, like “Nodammo goes and does some stuff to undermine Company’s presence in Murkywood Elf Reservations”. When I start a chapter, I have no idea what’s going to happen in the next chapter—I just take the ball and run as far as possible, making new stuff up on the spot as and when necessary.

And amazingly enough, it works. Oh, the finished product might be a little rougher around the edges than someone with an outline (and I will put emphasis on the word might) but the first draft of anything is crap anyway, and there’s nothing a little reworking can’t fix.

The main benefit to this method of writing is its sheer adaptability to sudden changes, and it works well for the particular sub-genre I write in. I can change even important plot points at a whim to something better without needing to go through the whole outline and altering everything after the point I wish to change. The story isn’t, and should never, be fixed in stone when it’s demanding something better and someone is just ramming the predetermined sequence of events to fit how the workings have turned out just because the outline says so. The characters are allowed to behave naturally without fear of derailing the plot, because there are no rails at all. To extend the metaphor, the rails might need a little straightening out after the initial route from beginning to end has been drawn, but again, that’s an acceptable price for not having the rails pass through a tree, doing nothing about it, and hoping the passengers won’t notice.

But seriously. How many of those notes of yours are you going to use? When does housekeeping turn into vacuuming the cat? Of course, there’s no clear line, and in more serious fantasy the line tends towards more planning. Do I need to know the exact distance between Fairbanks and Murkywood Elf Reservations? Not really; it’s as long as is needed to get the events in. Same for Murkywood Gryphon Towers and Murkywood Elf Reservations. All I need to know is that there’s a day’s walk between them. I have no worldbuilding notes, no maps, no charts, and everything I need to know can be stored in my head. If I need to cross-refer, I have a copy of my own writing backed up in several different places.

That being said, it is important to keep consistency, as per the guideline of Magic A is Magic A—which is why I do cross-refer for events which have happened in the previous book. I’m not going to be forgetting in a hurry that Brommus has burn scars. But the sheer level of stuff I see sometimes in other people’s worldbuilding reminds me of people trying anything to get out of actual writing—are we going to get a blow-by-blow account of the Xx’ander What’chamacallit’s fighting style? Who cares, really? Are you going to record every punch, every kick in excruciating detail in the prose—or is it going to be reasonably vague?

An important difference in telling stories in prose and a more visual media—say, television—is that in a novel, the reader is allowed to use his or her imagination to visualise a personal version of what’s going on, while in television, everything is already defined for the recipient and all s/he has to do is receive (which is why I believe it’s called the idiot box). Why would you want to take that away?

I’m not against some sort of planning. The reason I’m posting this is that I’m reading someone else’s worldbuilding notes, and it really, really reeks to me that s/he’s gone far, far into cat vacuuming territory, using the need for more and more planning to excuse putting off the actual writing—which is the thing all that plotting is supposed to serve. It’s thoroughly puzzling. You have to stop at some time.


  1. Spanman on 2 August 2009, 00:45 said:

    I didn’t even begin putting my nebulous backstories onto paper until I’d already written nearly the entire first draft. And by then they had pretty much just written themselves. My problem is that I’m such a lazy writer that I can’t be bothered to really work out something that the reader is never going to see.

  2. sansafro187 on 2 August 2009, 04:17 said:

    I can’t completely agree with your stance. I don’t thin, there’s anything wrong with making it up as you go, but it requires you to be more careful not to write yourself into a corner. I think it really depends on what kind of story you are trying to tell, because if there are other major players in the plot operating off-screen, it’s probably a good idea to know what they are doing.

    I think you can use good old Eragon as a counterpoint against both making it up as you go and overly adhering to a predetermined plot. On the one hand, you’ve got characters acting stupidly because the plot needs them to. On the other hand, when you want to spring a reveal down the road(eldunari or whatever the hell) if you haven’t adequately set it up, it just reads like an asspull.

    JKR is a fairly good example of what I’d consider effective long-term planning. I thought HP was more enjoyable on the reread than the initial read just because you can see the groundwork being laid early for later reveals if you know what you’re looking for. Granted, some of the things in the last book came out of relative nowhere, but at least there were explanations that didn’t strain credibility.
    I’ll say I personally use an outline that’s roughly a single sentence fragment per chapter. I’ve been turning the whole thing over in my mind for a few years now, so I’m confident I won’t need to force my guys to stay on the rails, since the rails were made considering the characters.

    Anyway, I’m rambling. Bottom line, I think your approach is one valid way to do it. For others, various amounts of planning can work fine too. As for excessive worldbuilding to avoid writing, well, I wouldn’t really classify an elaborate excuse as an official writing method.

  3. LucyWannabe on 2 August 2009, 10:48 said:

    Dude…that’s my method exactly. It works especially well with forum roleplaying (which is free-form), as such active and dynamic characters can and WILL go off and do things that causes a plot to veer off in another direction. Massive planning for things like that wouldn’t work very well.

    Also—that’s close to how I write my regular prose. I may take tiny notes on certain things, but they’re mostly things that aren’t part of the plot so much as they’re part of the world (Camden Industries is located in LA, not San Diego!).

    On the rare occasions when I do write plot outlines, it’s almost always a vaguely-worded plot development: “Owen’s conflict with Geist escalates, and meanwhile Detective Branson comes closer to the truth about Camden Industries”. It’s a lot easier for me to fill in the blanks when I’m not being too specific.

    Er…I guess I’m saying you don’t have to take copious notes, but maybe sometimes writing a few things down is helpful, even if it’s not your regular style.

  4. NeuroticPlatypus on 2 August 2009, 12:27 said:

    This is a great article. I don’t really plan anything either. When I plan too much, I get bored with the plot before I get to write it.

    I do, however, have ideas for plot points down the line that just come to me, and then I think about them and look forward to writing them.

    I don’t think that planning is bad. It might work better for some people than making it up as you go does. I just don’t like when people think that you have to plan every little detail to write properly.

    Really good article.

  5. swenson on 2 August 2009, 22:37 said:

    Tolkien is famous for writing LotR with absolutely no clue what on Earth was going to happen. When he started writing, he didn’t know what the plot was, who the characters were, where they were going, not even who the villain was! And even once he really got going with it, he only ever had a very vague idea of “There’s this Ring from Sauron and Frodo has to go to Mordor and destroy it.” And of course we all know how well LotR turned out! So there’s an argument for little to no planning.

    On the other hand, Tolkien already had the entire backstory and setting laid out in excruciating detail. He knew Elrond’s history and Gandalf’s history and Sauron’s history and the distance between Mordor and Rivendell and all that, he just didn’t have the story laid out. So you could also argue that Tolkien was able to write without planning because he already had the backstory laid out.

    I suppose what I’m trying to get at here is that while writing without a plan may work for some people, having some sort of a world set up beforehand will probably make it easier, because you’re no longer making it all up as you go along- instead, you’re taking a pre-existing world and running with it.

    Personally, though, I can’t just sit down and write, I need to know more about the plot than that. And because I find history and little bits of trivia fascinating, I need to know that about the world first, too. So although I keep my plot outlines to very rough sketches, I, like many writers, do need an outline. Vacuuming the cat it may be, but I can’t do it any other way.

  6. Snow White Queen on 2 August 2009, 22:41 said:

    Mmm, maybe I’m a details person, or just not an improviser, but I need some measure of ‘knowing what’s going to happen’ before I write.

    I don’t really write it down in detailed outlines in order, although once I write it, I think I should keep some semblance of order just to keep continuity going. Mostly, I keep things in my head, so it’s easy to mess around with if I need to. My point is that I can’t just spew something without having prior knowledge of where I’m supposed to be going.

    Again, this is just me, and probably not applicable to everyone.

    Great to see writing articles back on the site.

  7. BrandonP on 3 August 2009, 19:42 said:

    Would doing research for your story’s setting count as planning?

  8. Juniper on 3 August 2009, 23:32 said:

    I’ve been turning the whole thing over in my mind for a few years now, so I’m confident I won’t need to force my guys to stay on the rails, since the rails were made considering the characters.

    This sums up my experience. It’s a little like taking a road trip. Sure, it can be fun to just drive with no idea where you are going, how you’ll get there or where you will stay along the way. But for the more srsbsns person (me) a map is vital, along with any brochures for local attractions and even an idea of the local restaurants. I hate getting to a little, Podunk town and discovering the only restaurant open at ten o clock is a greasy buffet and I am forced to either eat there (and suffer the lower quality food and any bad repercussions) or backtrack (to the last good restaurant I saw, fifty miles ago) or press on, hoping for something better down the road.

    …this metaphor is stretching thin.

    The tree metaphor is also good. I map the trees and plot the course of the train around them accordingly. I would find it much harder to avoid the trees if I was throwing them up as I careened along my way.

    All this is not to say that planning is the only, best way for every writer. I know that the author of Holes made (imho) a masterpiece without plotting anything, just plowing his way through draft after draft. This article also helps me to understand people like him (and you) better. :)

  9. Elanor on 5 August 2009, 19:06 said:

    If I recall correctly, Diana Wynne Jones has also said that she doesn’t plan out her stories, either—just lets them run wild.

    Then again, that’s probably why her stories end up being so fantastical. They’re brilliant stories, but her plots do tend toward the tangled.

  10. Steph the one who sucketh at lurking well. eth. on 6 August 2009, 06:47 said:

    I love DWJ for that. I always thought she planned her plots meticulously, because they are, IMO, so well-done. (Mostly Archer’s Goon, Howl’s Moving Castle and the Chrestomanci series—otherwise her work varies in quality!)

    This gives me hope.

  11. hmyd.windmere on 10 August 2009, 16:51 said:

    How can this be?

    How is that possible?

    I love DWJ for that. I always thought she planned her plots meticulously, because they are, IMO, so well-done. (Mostly Archer’s Goon, Howl’s Moving Castle and the Chrestomanci series—otherwise her work varies in quality!)

    I haven’t read too much of her work, but I received Howl’s Moving Castle as a present several years ago. I loved it.

  12. Steph the Phantasmagorical on 10 August 2009, 21:04 said:

    You have to read more of her work. I desperately want to know what happened as she wrote HMC. Like how the poem thing came up.

  13. The Tiler on 13 August 2009, 04:12 said:

    You can walk into a forest without having no clue as to where you’re going, but can get lost. You can also walk in with a map and know exactly where your destination is, and still get lost.
    Your article does prove valid points, but, as a poster said before me, it is only one way. I condone having fun while writing, and your way can certainly be entertaining, but I am the kind of person that likes to play cartographer of worlds, and to make the backstory and such to be written in stone during the novel, and to have exact mathematical measurements and topographical data on the world that I am creating. But, this is all just my personal preference.
    I appreciate you opening my eyes, though, which is what you have done. I used to plot- oh, plotting- about the story, instead of letting the words weave themselves. Even at the age of sixteen, I enjoy discovery as much as an eight-year-old boy wandering in the ruins of an ancient castle, and I like that you’ve given me something to discover: worlds of my own.

  14. SMARTALIENQT on 13 August 2009, 18:16 said:

    I do overplan – I freely admit it. Hopefully I will learn from you. Great article!