In theory, there are two types of writers – the plotters and the pantsers, or in other words – the planners versus the non-planners.
In reality, writers exist across a spectrum. Some, like Jane Harper, write extensive and detailed plot plans before they write a single word of the book. Others, like Liane Moriarty plan very little at all. When Moriarty begins a book, she often has little idea of the complete cast for story, much less the ending. Tim Winton begins with a setting, and then decides on the type of characters that might inhabit that setting.
Other writers, such as myself, fall somewhere in between. Usually, I start with a setting and characters. I might have an idea for the first few scenes but that’s about it. Along the way, I may sit down and brainstorm upcoming plot points or character arcs, but it’s a fairly random, unstructured process.
That said, at some point all pantsers need to sit down and assess their plot to ensure it’s working. This may occur after the first draft is complete. Likewise, most plotters will make room for the unexpected. Ultimately, both types of writer end up at the same destination. The route they’ve taken to get there is unique to them. There is no single right or wrong way – there is just the way that works best for you, and you will need to o discover this for yourself.
Given that writers work in such a myriad of different ways, what, then do you absolutely need to know before you start writing? In my opinion, you need four things – a setting, a character, a tense and a point of view. Your story begins at the point where your character’s life changes forever. Or, it may be the point at which they lose control over their life. This is often referred to as the ‘inciting incident.’
Other things that may be helpful for you to know (but not necessarily essential) are your story concept and your story premise. These are two slightly different things. The concept is your very high level, broad brush stroke idea. It may be your ‘what-if’ question that I referred to in the last post on ideas. For example, the story concept for ‘After the Party’is – a little girl is abandoned at a child’s fifth birthday party. For ‘The Husband’s Secret’ the concept is – wife opens husband’s letter, meant only to be read in the event of his death.
The premise has a little more detail and may include some information about your main character, what they want and what stands in their way. Again, using ‘After the Party’ as an example, the premise is – an unexpected gift left at her daughter’s fifth birthday party in the form of a little girl pitches Sydney mum Lisa Wheeldon into events both hilarious and life-changing.
At this stage, theme is relatively unimportant. It’s something you may have already decided which is fine. Knowing your theme may help you in making plot decisions. But it’s important to remember – you’re writing a story. You’re not trying to preach. Story (or plot) must take precedence over theme.
At this stage, too, you may also have an idea of the story you want to tell – that is, you might know roughly the sequence of events. But that is different to a plot – a plot is a sequence of causally related events – that is – one thing happened because of another, which then triggered off another event. The key here is ‘causation’. In other words, you need to know exactly why your characters are behaving in the way they do. You need to understand them and their back story inside out. This is why some writers cannot plot their books in advance – they get to know their characters by writing them. Others write substantial character profiles in advance. again, there is no ‘right’ way. But the process of understanding ‘why’ things happen in the way they do will have to occur at some point.
The final two decisions you make before you write a single word are important but perhaps sometimes overlooked. They are – tense and point of view. In terms of tense, there are two choices – present (She goes to the shops. He climbs a tree.) and past (She went to the shops. He climbed a tree). The advantage in present tense is that it increases the immediacy of the action. The downside is that flashback or ellipses become extremely obvious and it is more difficult to manipulate time. Therefore, if your story does require back story, or does not unfold chronologically, it may be wise to use the past tense, which is the more traditional tense for story-telling. That said, there has been a definite trend towards present tense in recent years.
Last but not least, there’s point of view – a subject upon which there could be a whole book on its own. Again, there are basically two choices – first person ( I go to the shops. I drove my car) and third person (She goes to the shops. He drove his car) though within third person there are two further sub-categories – third person omniscient (where the narrator, sees, hears and understands everything from all characters’ points of view) and third person limited (where the narrator restricts their viewpoint to a handful of characters, or perhaps even one). I tend to write in third person limited because it gives me sufficient flexibility to present a range of characters experiences, while also getting inside their heads. The old wisdom was that first person tended to restrict your range of viewpoints and therefore the amount of information available to the reader. Again, that’s changing as I’ve now read several books with multiple points of view, but all written in the first person. Often, it comes down to personal preference and understanding your own natural writing style. However, the key here is that whatever decision you make, it must be consistent for the entire novel – that is – you can’t start in first person, present tense and then to switch to writing that same character in third person omniscient, midway through the book. However, you can be experimental. I recently read a book where the main character was written in first person, past tense, while the supporting characters (in alternating chapters) were written in the third person, past tense. It was unusual, but consistent, and therefore worked.
In summary, as you go to write your first scene, you do need to know:
1. Your character/s
2. Your setting
3. The tense
4. The point of view
Of course, these decisions can be changed at any time. You may finish your first draft and decide the story would be better told in third person rather than first. However, you will save yourself a lot of work if you think through your decisions in the first place.