On Monday night, my fiancé and I went to see The Day of the Doctor, the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special, at a movie theater nearby. On our way home, we ended up talking about a question that’s come up several times before: How far ahead do the Doctor Who writers plan? When each new Doctor has been introduced, how precisely have the upcoming story lines been plotted out?
Mike has a hunch that the writers plan out most developments pretty far ahead of time, but I’m not so sure. Yes, the stories are complicated and “timey-wimey,” so it makes sense that some plans would certainly have to be laid out in advance. But my writing experience leads me to believe that the best-laid plans don’t always pan out. Plus, the kind of fun, creative storytelling that makes Doctor Who enjoyable seems to result from a balance of flexibility and structure that’s heavy on the flexibility.
I’m no Steven Moffat, but one of the biggest writing lessons I’ve learned over the past few years is that I can’t plan my stories too carefully. This has been a difficult lesson for me to accept, because I love to plan ahead. Uncertainty stresses me out. Slowly but surely, though, I am beginning to trust that uncertainty is a crucial part of the writing process.
I still think it’s helpful to have some idea of where I’m going. In both of the manuscripts I’ve worked on recently, I’ve spent some time early on figuring out a crossroads scene—a scene near the end of the book in which the external and internal story arcs cross and the main character must make an irrevocable choice—and that’s been hugely helpful. (Caroline Carlson, a talented writer, lovely person, and fellow VCFA alumna describes the crossroads scene in more detail in her post on how she plans a story, here.)
Then, to give myself what my VCFA advisor Shelley Tanaka called another “goalpost” to write toward, I’ve figured out one or two other pivotal scenes, too. In my YA manuscript Rebound, I found it helpful to think about the story in three acts, and I drew upon a section of Nancy Lamb’s The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children called “The Throughline as Lifeline” to plan a pivotal scene. Lamb explains, “Somewhere at the closing of the second act of a screenplay, or the end of the middle of the book, the character’s conscious desire breaks down. […] This breakdown exposes a deeper motivation that propels the character forward, a motivation he was originally unaware of” (63). In Rebound, I knew what would happen in this end-of-the-middle scene, in which my character would give up on her conscious desire. (Well, I basically knew. I had to change the location and circumstances when I substantially revised my first draft and rewrote most of the second half of the novel from scratch, but the basic event stayed the same.)
In the manuscript I’ve been plugging away at this fall, I couldn’t come up with an end-of-the-middle scene in which the protagonist’s conscious desire breaks down, so I drew upon one of Martha Alderson’s ideas from The Plot Whisperer and figured out a pivotal midpoint scene instead. Alderson posits that the midpoint of a novel should be the second major turning point, or the second energetic marker. At this point in the story, Alderson explains in this blog post, “Something happens to force the protagonist’s willing and conscious commitment to the successful completion of her goal.” This month, I made it to the midpoint scene, and now I’m going to give the book a little bit of room to breathe before I read back over the first half and come up with my next goalpost to aim for.
But as helpful as it is to have planned out a scene that I can write towards, I continue to be struck by how many details and plot lines I never could have come up with ahead of time. In Rebound, the two things that people who have read the book consistently seem most enthusiastic about are things that surprised me when I figured them out. In my new project, I wrote one seemingly unimportant line of narration, in which the main character compares a school year to a pregnancy because both last for nine months, and when I read that over, something clicked. I decided to see what would happen if I made the protagonist’s mom pregnant and let her write her whole story as an extended letter to the miracle baby, and suddenly the project felt a lot more exciting.
So how far ahead do the Doctor Who writers plan? I have no idea, and judging by the number of hardcore Whovians out there, I’m sure many other people can make a more educated guess about that question than I can. But in my own writing, I’m glad I’m gradually learning the lesson to plan strategically, but plan out less than I think I should.