At some point in the creative process a writer of fiction comes face to face with theme. What are the deeper notes of humanity that the story sounds? What is the hidden ether that binds plot, setting and character all together?
Planning Versus Winging-it?
There are two opposite ways to write; structure a sturdy outline and theme and build upon it or wing the story as you write, discovering the theme as you go. Pantsers vs Plotters in the lingo of writing. Certainly its a spectrum and not necessarily an absolute choice of one over the other. I imagine there are others ways to write, but this, to me, is the main dichotomy.
I’m more the latter type of writer. As long as I know where a story begins and where it ends I feel I’m free to explore that grandiose middle where all the stuff happens. At times the characters surprise me and delight me and at other times they disappoint me and, to be blunt, I hate them. They are like real people in a sense; they don’t always conform to my expectations.
I get to experience the story as it unfolds, as it progresses, while I write it. It’s especially exciting when something pops off the page, surprising me, and I get into a writing rhythm. To be fair, I do loosely plan out three chapters ahead, but I find the way I write causes the characters to exert their own force and sometimes I have to re-plan the next three chapters. This has happened more times than I can count. A character will do something, I don’t know where the impetus for that act came from, but it forces me to change the next part of the story to conform. Or I’ll have to revisit the previous chapters to make sure it fits. It’s a give and take type of thing.
Cost of Writing by Winging It
The drawback for me is there is a significant amount of re-writing that is needed. And, as writing fiction is a hobby at this point and I have other obligations (being a father, spouse, son, friend, co-worker, mowing the lawn, getting groceries etc… etc… etc…) I am not able to put as much time as I would like into writing and I may, (read most certainly have), forget plot events entirely. Or kill off characters only to bring them back later on. Or suddenly change the spelling of a character’s name half way through the book. Or introduce something new to the whole story half way through.
As I read the completed first draft is completed I wonder about what the theme of the novel is. How have I unconsciously tied the characters together? Something brings it all together and all I need do is discover it. Whether the type of story I’m writing naturally lends itself to a certain theme, or the story predetermined the theme, I can’t say.
Another drawback is that I have to study my own work and make notes on what’s wrong, what’s missing, and work out how to flesh it out in a “show don’t tell” kind of way. When I start the second draft, of which I’ve only done one second draft of a novel, I can weave the theme throughout the work. I know where the story is going and how it meanders to the end scene so I can focus more on the theme, the characters and the description of the action.
I don’t even know if this way of writing is the best for me, but it seems to fit my personality a little.
I’d Like to Wing-it More Often in My Life
When my wife and I travelled to New Zealand back in 1999 I booked the flights and that was it. No hotel bookings and no pre-planned excursions. My wife did not appreciate that. She very much likes trips to be more scheduled with an itinerary so she knows what to expect. I loved the trip. We were free to go right or left as our whims dictated. Free to stay at one or another hostel. Free to go swimming or not as we decided right then and there. We were not beholden to a pre-trip idealized, and ignorant, view of our adventure. We lived it, real time. It was a fantastic trip. All the while knowing that we had to be back at the airport at a certain time on a certain day; the end scene of our travels.
Now that we have kids any travelling must be planned out a lot more and it is a drudgery for me. In fact, everything in life now with the kids has to be planned out much more than ever before. I understand that and accept it, but it’s still hard for me.
What works for you? Do you start with theme or let it develop later? Detailed story plans or flying by the seat of your pants? Let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading.