Planning Ahead

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?

13-FEMK-338_-DrWho_Theaterflyer-Alt1Mike 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 417097write 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.

No Responses to “Planning Ahead”

  1. L. Marie

    Great post, Laurie! I unfortunately missed the Doctor Who Anniversary show. I’ll have to catch it later. I think they plan their stories at least a season ahead. When Russell Davies was the head writer, some stories took two years to complete. And Steven Moffat had plans for River Song, judging by her introductory episodes in series 4. But things might have changed now that he’s head writer.

    I also struggle with how much to plan ahead. I wrote an outline for my current novel, trying to plan ahead. But I find that I’m too “plotty” this way. I stopped looking at what the characters would do and moved them around like chess pieces. I can’t say I’m happy with the result. So now I’m writing with character in mind. I agree about the breakdown of the character’s conscious desire. Her desire has broken down. But the way I did it feels very sketchy and plot-driven, instead of tied to her emotional arc.

    I love how the one line clicked for you. I need to go through my manuscript for lines that do that!

    • laurielmorrison

      Thanks, Linda! I think it’s such a tricky balance, outlining vs. letting the characters drive the story. Without a strict outline, it’s certainly true that sometimes when I look back at a draft, I see that several scenes don’t serve the story and have to go. Not easy stuff!

  2. sandranickel

    I love the idea of the crossroads scene. I’ll need to learn more about it. When it comes to the question of how much to plan ahead, I often end up thinking about the difference in how Beethoven and Mozart composed. Beethoven was a get things down on paper and then scribble and edit and try things a different way until you get things right sort of composer. Mozart, on the other hand, did most of the messiness in his head before even sitting down with pen in hand. Perhaps it isn’t the process that is so different, but rather the timing of putting evidence of that process on paper. I’m more of a Mozart type, where I work out so much in my head before even putting the first stroke on the page. And as for Doctor Who . . .

    • laurielmorrison

      I love that Beethoven and Mozart analogy, Sandra! And thanks for bringing up the point that different processes will work for different writers (or different musicians). It’s also good to keep in mind that some people really work out a lot of plans in their heads, before getting any words on the page. One of the great things about VCFA, I think, is that we could try out strategies that different advisors offered and then collect and combine the ones that worked best for us. Definitely not a one-size-fits-all process!