By Laura Laakso
My first reader (or my brutal beta, as he sometimes refers to himself) recently shared with me an idea for a crime novel and asked what I thought about the outline. I said I loved it and that he should write it. But he, ever the voice of reason, said he didn’t want the project to become a victim of his self-doubt and that instead of plunging straight into the writing, he would plan the story first. As planning a novel is an area he is new to, he asked me to blog about the benefits of planning in helping to tackle self-doubt.
By a way of background, I used to be the biggest pantser of them all. When I wrote my first novel, I knew where the story was going and just figured the characters would get me there somehow. Which they did, and I had fun along the way. At the time, I thought planning would take away the enjoyment of the journey because I would have everything figured out before I had written a word of the book. That turned out to be incorrect, but I’ll get back to you on that. The second novel I wrote was science fiction, and I again had an idea how the book would end, but little clue how the characters were going to achieve that. Because the majority of the story took place in a different solar system, I drew up an extensive plan of the planets and peoples part of the way through writing the book, and that resolved the issues I’d had with the plot. At that point, it occurred to me that maybe planning wasn’t so bad after all.
When I got the idea for Fallible Justice, I knew I needed a detailed plan. The timeline for the crime was tight, there were red herrings and confusing evidence to keep track of, and people lie.
Since the early days of Fallible Justice, I have developed and refined my planning style to a point where I can say that I now plan obsessively. I do most of it by hand on large sheets of paper. Below are the elements that make up the plan for my current WIP in the Wilde Investigations series:
I start my planning by setting out the main plotlines of the book, as well as all the subplots. Given that this is the third book in a series, I have various long-term side plots running alongside the main story that I need to keep track of.
Timeline usually goes that the bottom of the main outline. It is as detailed or general as I need it to be. For Fallible Justice, I worked everything down to 5-minute increments. For Echo Murder and my current WIP, I’ve not needed quite that much detail.
The rest of the main outline page is dedicated to anything else I need to make a note of. Often I come up with a concept specific to the plot and make a few notes on it.
“The very act of drawing up a plan already helps you eliminate plot holes because you’re asking yourself many of the questions your reader is going to raise.”
The next part is all about the victims. Each gets a column, and I make notes about who they are, how they live, why they died, next of kin, habits relevant to the story and anything else that seems important. The amount of information varies. If one of the victims is providing a major red herring for the investigation, they’re likely to get a lot more text at this stage. Connections between the victims or other common elements are clearly marked on the plan.
With the victims outlined, I turn to the crime scenes. Again, each location gets a column, or a part of one, depending on the amount of detail I need. I make a note about any decor details that are relevant to the victim, and the rest of the space is dedicated to the evidence found at the crime scene. This includes items that point towards the real killer and items that are there for misdirection.
If anything the characters discover at a crime scene requires further research, I outline here the outcome of that research. Same with all witness statements, CCTV footage and anything else relevant to the nuts and bolts of solving the case. This part of the plan varies a great deal depending on what kind of crime my characters are trying to solve.
Structure of the story
I won’t call this a chapter outline because not all the points I include make up a chapter and vice versa. Rather, I use this part of the plan to outline the steps the characters need to take to get from A to Z and through everything in between. With each crime scene/conversation/interview, I number the salient points the characters will take away. These are what will lead to the conclusion of the case.
The downside of doing this on paper rather than on computer is that it’s less flexible. For instance, I’ve got to step 9 in my current WIP, but the characters have already completed step 10 and have not yet quite finished step 8. That’s because something came up during the writing – step 7.5, if you will – and meant that the timeline for the first day of the investigation changed. This happens a fair bit. As much as I like having a detailed plan, I know that things will always crop up and cause me to adjust my plan.
“Plans do and should change. That’s the nature of writing.”
Finally, I maintain a separate sheet for all my main and supporting characters. I’ve been adding to it as I’ve gone along, as often a character that turns up briefly in one of the books will have greater relevance later on.
Why I love to plan
Some writers find a blank page intimidating. I love sitting down with a large sheet of paper and letting my imagination run wild. Often I do extensive research first, and this is my chance to draw upon everything I’ve learned. For me, planning is a source of great enjoyment, and I love being able to transfer my enthusiasm for a new WIP onto the page. In capturing all of my ideas on paper, I can tap into my excitement whenever I go back to the plan.
On a more practical note, my memory is like a sieve. Not only do I struggle to recall all the details during the months it takes me to write a novel, but sometimes I even forget to refer to my plan. The only remedy for that is repeated face-palms.
“The plan is there to support rather than restrict you.”
So, how does this help with self-doubt? From my experience, in many ways.
Whenever I’m writing crime, one of my main concerns is that my plots are too linear and predictable. With a proper plan in place, it’s easy to step back and look at the elements of the story. To prove to myself that I have enough red herrings in the current WIP, I even drew an outline of the plot. Each time the clues directed the characters away from the real killer, the outline branched. And what do you know, my plot ended up looking like a tree rather than a line.
One of the typical worries for a writer is the ever-present fear of missing something. This could be plot holes or it could be details not being quite right. With a plan in place, you can focus on writing rather than worrying about remembering every clue for every crime scene, as well as the eye colour of the MC’s mother and what the antagonist likes to have for breakfast.
Want more ideas on how to structure a story?
Click here: Why Three Act Structure Should Be A Blueprint For Your Next Masterpiece
The very act of drawing up a plan already helps you eliminate plot holes because you’re asking yourself many of the questions your reader is going to raise. You’re never going to catch everything at this stage, but every plot hole fixed is one less for later. In addition to outright plot holes, a plan also highlights areas where you’re being too vague. When I was planning Fallible Justice, I realized there were two points in the story where the MC needed a smoking gun, but I had no idea what they were. One dog walk later, I’d solved both problems.
Finally, I believe that having a detailed plan in place will help you focus when you come to do the writing. You’re less likely to write yourself into a complete dead end, and it’s easier to stay on track because you can follow your progress on the story outline.
But none of this is meant to imply that the plan is an ironclad prison that is there to restrict your writing and force you to stick to what you’ve written on the plan. Plans do and should change. That’s the nature of writing; characters surprise us, we discover more plot holes along the way, and some of the things you planned may simply not work. That’s what makes writing so exciting, and having a plan is not going to change that. The plan is there to support rather than restrict you.
I hope the above has given you some ideas about how planning could work for you. It helps me focus on the writing rather than worrying about lots things around the writing. While there are plenty of people out there, who are sworn pantsers and make it work for them, I think everyone ought to give planning a try. If you don’t find it helpful, don’t do it, but if you do, then you have one more tool to aid your writing craft. And we could all use more of those.
Laura Laakso is a Finn living in the UK with a flatmate who knows too much and their dogs. When she is not writing or competing with her two dogs, she works as an accountant. Her debut novel, Fallible Justice, will be published by Louise Walters Books in November 2018, and the sequel, Echo Murder, in June 2019.