Story Beginnings, Middles and Ends: To Plan or Not To Plan?

I’ve had people ask me: ‘Do you plan before you write, or not?

The answer is: both. I’ve done both, I’ve experimented with both methods. Which do I prefer? Which is better?

When I write, I always start with something, an idea. This can be an elaborately constructed plot or a simple ‘what if?’ question. This can be a certain character (e.g. a boy with a neurodevelopmental disorder in ‘I See Flying Turtles‘) or an image (e.g. ‘The Girl by the Lake‘, ‘Octopus at a Bar‘, ‘The Arrangement (Reylia Slaby Photography)‘) or an object (e.g. Samuel Richardson’s massive tome Clarissa in ‘Clarissa‘, a Seiko golden-faced watch in ‘Seiko’s Minor God‘).


© Kimberly Butler

Neil Gaiman similarly says:

I don’t know any creators of fictions who start writing with nothing but a blank page. (They may exist. I just haven’t met any.) Mostly you have something. An image, or a character.

The amount of planning I do beforehand also depends on what form or style I’m writing. If I’m writing a short story, I like to have at least a beginning and an end, which makes sense considering you don’t have much space to manoeuvre until you’re forced to conclude. But I’ve realised you can afford not to have a middle because within the confines of a short story and a preconceived beginning and ending, you can have complete creative freedom as long as you land correctly.

When writing a novel, I think it’s important to have at least a beginning and a middle; the end will naturally conceive itself as the plot progresses. This summer I started a children’s fantasy novel with a premise I was confident about. I had my beginning and started off strongly, but that was all I had. It was my first time writing something this long without much of a plan and for the first 18,000 words, it went smoothly. I went with the flow, letting the story unfold as it liked, letting the characters speak and act for themselves without me intruding.

Then I hit a blank. I was stuck. My characters were stuck. We didn’t know where and how to proceed. Unfortunately, it currently remains untouched in my draft folder. This was precisely the risk and danger of beginning a story without a middle.

Gaiman comments about beginnings, middles, ends:

And mostly you also have either a beginning, a middle or an end. Middles are good to have, because by the time you reach the middle you have a pretty good head of steam up; and ends are great. If you know how it ends, you can just start somewhere, aim, and begin to write (and, if you’re lucky, it may even end where you were hoping to go).

For my next novel (aka my first completed début novel), I have a beginning and I have a rough end, but I’ll also like to have a solid middle so I don’t run into the same problem again. It’ll contain a vast cast list with many intersecting subplots so it’ll be especially important to figure out those threads before I dive into it.

american-godsGaiman relates the initial stages of writing his novel American Gods:

There may be writers who have beginnings, middles and ends before they sit down to write. I am rarely of their number.

So there I was, four years ago, with only a beginning. And you need more than a beginning if you’re going to start a book. If all you have is a beginning, then once you’ve written that beginning, you have nowhere to go.

Gaiman isn’t saying it’s impossible to write a book with only a beginning in mind. He did just that with American Gods. But what I think he’s saying is that if you begin writing with only a beginning in mind, it will possibly be difficult to reach the ending, whether one you subsequently come up with or allow your story to carry you towards. You’re at the mercy of your free-flowing story and hopefully, with a bit of luck, you’ll end up satisfied and on the same page.

Of course, if you do write a story with little or no planning, with only a beginning, and you run into a dead end, whether an idea blockade or a plot fallacy, you have two options: 1. you either make it work somehow, forcing your way through the barriers and barricades, hoping for light at the end of the tunnel, or; 2. you press delete.

That’s the wonderful thing with computers. It’s so easy (in fact, too easy to the point where often writers will never progress because they’re never satisfied with the little bit they have written and french kiss that delete button with their fingers) to erase something poorly written, or to return to a passage and make a slight change in order to match the past to the present. You can fundamentally do the same if you’re writing with pen and paper. I can only imagine how devastating it must have been for authors using typewriters when they found themselves in a similarly detrimental situation – it’s essentially the same as typing on a computer and the printer running continuously, inking the letters, words, phrases and printing off pages as they’re written with no way to turn it off.

Which makes me appreciate comics and TV series immensely, particularly Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and ABC’s LOST, because they didn’t have the luxury of being able to go back, delete, rewrite and move on. Once an issue was published or an episode was broadcast, they couldn’t change a thing. They had to work with what they had.

Lost-season1LOST (2004-2010) is my favourite TV series ever because of its depth and elaborate story involving a ton of characters, all with their individual stories told through flashbacks and flashforwards; and these all intertwine in such a clever manner transcending past, present, future. It’s astonishing how they managed to pull it off (although some people will argue that they didn’t pull it off – but that’s an argument for another time). I don’t know how true this is, but I remember reading about how the writers (mainly Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse) would actually interact with fans as the series progressed, considering the audience’s response in deciding which direction to move towards next.

Damon Lindelof said:

Sometimes we get frustrated ourselves and decide it’s time to download a big chunk of mythology. And then the audience says, ‘I find this confusing and alienating and too weird.’ So then we pull back, and they say, ‘You’re not giving us enough’.

This was revolutionary, experimental and highly risky. They were trying to please audiences while simultaneously carrying out their original vision. In another surprising move, they killed off 2 characters in the third season who were ‘universally despised’ by fans. Though many were ultimately dissatisfied with the ending, if you take into account their valiant attempts at balancing all the intricate storylines and characters, as well as trying to respond adequately to the reactions of its viewers, you have to give them credit for a job well done. A massive undertaking that thoroughly deserves applause and respect.

sandman-coversLikewise, Gaiman dealt with a plethora of characters and storylines in The Sandman, an ambitious 76-issue comic book series released monthly from 1989 to 1996. I can’t even begin to describe the scope and magnitude his work reaches through his brilliant handling of its complex, deeply-layered material.

Mikal Gilmore, in his introduction to Volume 10: ‘The Wake’ of The Sandman, wonders:

I can’t say for sure (and don’t plan to ask) whether Gaiman envisioned the whole intricate sweep of what he eventually accomplished with The Sandman (which stretched over 76 monthly issues, making for roughly 2000 pages of graphics and text), or if he ended up concocting a lot of it as he went along.

Gilmore further relates how Gaiman earlier on in the series told him he was envisioning 40 issues and knew how it was going to end, what its last panel will be. If that was the case, Gaiman certainly must have made it up as he went along (or came up quickly with an ingenious plot extension) for at least the last 36 issues.

Now that is impressive. If you’ve read The Sandman, you’ll know what I’m talking about, the way he brings together the multitude of characters he has introduced and concludes ever so cleverly. Gilmore likewise said:

Anyway, no matter the method. Gaiman has pulled off a coherent, rich and transfixing long-range narrative, and I imagine that anybody who has read the whole series is grateful that it took him nearly twice as long to accomplish as he first envisioned.

But ultimately, as I’ve found through personal experiences (aka trial and error), you can plan as much as you want, but the story will unravel the way it’s meant to unravel. If you force your original vision to play out when it’s clearly not meant to, you’ll end up with a wrecked story.

For me, planning is good for guiding me in a general direction. I need a beginning, a middle would be nice, and an end is a luxury. But that end must be flexible. For once the story begins, you follow.

I reiterate Gaiman: ‘If you know how it ends, you can just start somewhere, aim, and begin to write (and, if you’re lucky, it may even end where you were hoping to go).

Notice what he says in the brackets – in other words, most of the time, it won’t end up where you were hoping to go.

Going back to the initial question of whether I plan or not before I write, and my answer: both.

Yes, I’ve experimented with both ways, and it really depends on what you’re writing; but both is very likely to happen in the process of writing regardless of the extent of your initial planning.

Isn’t writing fun?


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