How Much of the Story Do You Know?


Most of the time a story just appears right in front of me. It can take some effort to craft it into something that someone would actually want to read . . but the idea is there. More often than not, the tagline somehow starts with the set-up "Wouldn't it be funny if . . ."

Wouldn't it be funny if someone drew pictures in his sleep instead of talking in his sleep?

Wouldn't it be funny if someone could escape his own dreams and infiltrate the dreams of others?

And so on.

My question to you writers out there is this: how much of the story do you have to know before you start actually writing?

Stephen King (love 'im or hate 'im, he's a hell of a storyteller) has said many things about the writing process. For one, he has said that he has rarely started writing a story with anything but the vaguest idea of how it was going to end. Part of the fun, he reasons, is that he can explore the story and characters while letting them experience the plot. Maybe the characters can find out a way past the conflict that the author himself hasn't even figured out.

More recently, the author mentioned that a story was like a mug . . . one part cup and one part handle.

Lee Child, famous for his Jack Reacher series of books, takes it to the next level. He is known for not plotting at all. He might have the vague sense of the setting of a story or, possibly, the idea for a character or discussion. The plot, however, is a mystery to him. You see, he reasons that, as a writer, he would be cheating himself if he noted out or planned every event, every plot point, every fight. He wants to experience the story as it unfolds … like a reader does.

No way, dude.

I might not plan every little detail, but I go in with a fair sense of the resolution or the main conflict. Sure, it might change (the main conflict of Objekt 221 didn't become clear until I was a third of the way through the first draft), but the nugget of the idea remains.

I think the notion of "story planning" is fascinating. I've had lengthy discussions with two of the Event contributors (DTE Madden and JC Skala) on the subject. Even in that small sample size, there is great variation. DTE does lengthy "storyboards," notes about every chapter that contain the different events that occur, notes about the dialogue, notes about character motivations. JC, on the other hand, is more like Child. He has the notion of what's going to happen, but allows his characters to discover the story along with him. He, admittedly, will often write himself into a corner and have to backtrack. But, this is the method he prefers.

I'm somewhere in the middle. I'll have an idea of the ending (sometimes, it's very clear as in "Beast of Trash Island," and sometimes it's a bit foggier as in "Hidden Riches of Lord Granite") and then I'll make notes about the stuff that has to happen. Just the main stuff. This character is introduced here. This guy gets shot there. They find the missing Volkswagen here. And so on. Two of my stories have required the most pre-planning … "INK" from the Iron Bay collection and "Phoenix Hill." In INK, I was struggling with the hallucination versus reality question and meticulously planned certain events so I was giving the reader just the right amount of detail so they could figure stuff out on their own. PH, on the other hand, well, it just has a lot going on. It's certainly my most ambitious novel and I'm excited to see how it turns out. But, honestly, I have no idea when that sucker's going to be done!

How about you? What method do you prefer? What method does your preferred writer prefer? It's a fun conversation with endless variations. I tried to write a story blindly like Lee Child. I got about 20 pages into a first-person POV murder mystery called "Matanza" and gave up in defeat. I might go back to it as an experiment … but, maybe not.

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