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Fail To Plan, Plan To Fail

September 6th, 2019

When you make the scary decision to call yourself a writer, it is natural to glean as much as you can about writing, either through formal study, research or a combination of the two. Invariably, you will discover numerous ways to construct your story, how you’re supposed to plan and know exactly what the narrative will look like before you start writing. Then, there is the reality.

The Idea

Ideas manifest themselves in a variety of ways and can come from anywhere at any time. Personally, I am often blindsided by an idea when there is no immediate access to writing materials, like in the shower or whilst driving. When this happens I start ‘singing’ the idea out loud so I don’t forget it. The beginning of a new piece is an exciting stage, but it is rarely a fully formed idea. At this point you are likely to have a fragment or several fragments around a theme, a location, a piece of dialogue, a character, or a scene.

The Buzz

Once the idea starts to take root it is hard to resist the temptation to start writing, but I try to stay ahead of it. I always intend to get all the ideas roughly sketched on paper, build a structure, explore the character arcs, profiles, the inciting moment and how to resolve the conflict at the end, to name a few writing techniques I want to employ. Unfortunately the need for structure is at odds with the angel ‘gone rogue’ on my shoulder, coaxing at my ear. My head starts buzzing with all the insane ways I could shape my character. I imagine more scenarios, other characters start to appear, I get overwhelmed and convince myself I have more than enough material to start writing. I start writing and it is a mistake.

The Crash

The re-read reveals the story idea is not as ground breaking as it was in my imagination. The initial rush of excitement has passed and clarity crashes down. My idea looks patchy, various fragments do not fit neatly together or make much sense on their own. I am stuck. Now I have to do the work I should have done first, except now it is harder. I am forced to deconstruct everything, consider ‘killing my babies’ and see if anything can be salvaged. This is the most painful way to write anything and I have been burned several times trying to write this way. For any of you that identify with this madness methodology, there is hope.

The Inspired Relapse

My recent attempt to write better was inspired by my attendance at a Popular Fiction Summer school. I took part in a creative workshop – introducing character. Partly for my own satisfaction and for my personal blog, I edited the paragraph my group constructed in class and posted it. Seduced by encouraging comments, I attempted to weave a story from this opening paragraph. I was determined to stick to a three-part structure, but my exuberance resurfaced and I struggled. I was forced back to the drawing board and it hurt like a hangover.

The Return Journey

I banged my head at the problems in my story a few times before I relented and took to reading. The first book I chose was about how to get the best out of a personal story by Bobette Buster; she made interesting, good points, but not for this fictional story. The second book was more promising. I reintroduced myself to John Truby’s seven minimum key steps of story structure:

  1. Weakness and Need – one or more traits preventing the protagonist reaching their goal.
  2. Desire – what the protagonist wants.
  3. Opponent – wants to prevent the protagonist reaching their goal.
  4. Plan – how the protagonist defeats the opponent and achieves their goal.
  5. Battle – the conflict between the protagonist and the opponent.
  6. Self-Revelation – what the protagonist has learned.
  7. New Equilibrium – what now stands for normal.

The Re-birth

I plotted everything I had written onto Truby’s seven step structure. There were more credible ideas than I thought, but crucially I was missing a fully-fledged step 3 – the opponent. It should have been one of the most identifiable aspects in my story but I missed it. Furthermore, it was not the character I envisaged. According to Truby, a true opponent not only wants to prevent the protagonist from reaching his or her goal, but also wants to achieve the same goal for his or herself. I applied this principle to my story and miraculously things started to fall into place. I was also able to re-define other steps and come up with a better ending than I had originally. Winner, hooray! First though, I have to go through the pain of a massive rewrite.

The Lesson Learned

On the bright side, I think I have finally learned my lesson. For future endeavours I will plan, diligently. I know what is required to construct a good story, but I allowed creative chaos to reign unchecked. In the process I brushed aside the writing fundamentals, not to mention all the information, advice, guidance and personal notes available to assist me. There will be other writing challenges, but I am glad to be over this hurdle for now. I hope my cautionary tale will encourage you to make better forward planning decisions with your writing.

May your re-writes be few, happy planning and good luck.


Tracey discovered writing when she returned to full-time education studying a BA in Drama & Theatre. Charmed by university life and a desire to hone her writing skills, Tracey furthered her studies with an MA in Scriptwriting for Screen & Radio. She has completed The Writers Bureau Copywriting course and has embarked on a freelance copy, content and creative writing career. Tracey’s regular writing blog www.traceysays.com  is where she explores her creativity and shares her writing journey. To view her work or make contact about copywriting services please feel free to tweet @traceysays_ or visit her website.


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