For some of us, writing is a constant study in planning, in looking far down the road of a half-formed story arc or into a set of possibilities and defining what it’s going to be. For others, we work through the journey one step at a time… but we may still want to sneak a glimpse ahead or get a little help making a decision. And I’ve found there’s a way to plan any part of a story in simple terms, taking the organizing just as far as I want: dividing the plan by two, or more.
(The Unified Writing Field Theory — searchings and findings on what makes stories work)
It may be the simplest way to plan that there is, just taking whatever you’re working on and adding one wrinkle to it–though it could as easily be more if that’s what comes to you–then moving on to add other layers below that for as long as you want to keep going. It’s using “one thing at a time” to dodge the crazy-making of juggling too many issues, applied to defining the larger picture that going step by step can lose.
What does “dividing” mean? Well:
What do you divide? Anything you want.
- You can divide the story into stages, whether it’s books of a trilogy or one moment’s description into several sensations.
- You can divide the concept of a story into types–goals and obstacles, heroes and villains, triumphs and tragedies–and then decide how many of each you need.
- You can break down a need for particular plot elements–again and again we find places where we need several examples of a thing to make a point, from naming the last few galactic wars to which bits of decor in a room to mention.
How many do you divide by? That’s the fun part: just see if “two” works. Turning one need into two contrasting types or stages or whatever is as simple as planning gets, but as often as not we come up with three or four right there.
Either way works. So many small things only need to be taken past a single point to reach a whole new level of life (“a tall man” is a rough image, but “a tall man with a loud voice” gains a lot more completeness from that second thought, even without making that thought much different from the first), or a more complex plan might start with picking two parts and then splitting each of them another time or two. And there will be plenty of times the mind goes straight to three or four or more examples that are more or less equal, or that all need to be there to interact… though if goes past five or six, it’s probably a sign that you’re already seeing some of the sub-parts that these should be split into next.
Just picking combinations like this can teach a lot about writing. Sometimes a thing just has two main sides that matter, and the rest are subparts within those. Or it might call for three steps, one thing that changes what went before and then how it’s resolved afterward (the famous “thesis, antithesis, synthesis,” or situation, problem, solution)–of course the mind loves thinking in threes just to appreciate that it’s more than just two things, and we writers certainly learn to think that way. Or some kind of reaction or buildup might be just as important, and “he said, she said, they agreed” doesn’t work as well as “he said, she said, he said, she said” or maybe “chitchat, he said…” Then again, it may not be the interactions that matter as much as nature of the thing; you might just know the hero’s going to deal with Doubt that he’ll win, Greed of the people in his way, and Guilt over what he does to do it.
A couple examples:
In planning my contemporary fantasy The High Road, I realized:
- its first part would be my heroes Mark and Angie facing their most immediate challenge (a street gang with a vendetta tends to get your attention),
- so that the second part would be a deeper understanding of the problem and how many other secrets the family magic is tied into.
That first part then had two main stages:
- their first discovery of the magic and their enemies,
- and then trying to deal with them.
And that beginning stage would be
- the Blades’ threat,
- then clashing against them with the magic,
- then what else breaks loose during the immediate aftermath
–and I have my first three chapters.
Or, if I’m looking for possible images for someone leaving a building, it’s natural to think of the basic Sight Plus Hearing division. But if I’m looking for more detail I know there are five senses to consider.
Sights are easy to split up by direction:
- above everything, the moon, but there’s little other light out,
- in front, the empty parking lot and the pathway beyond it,
- on the side, the streets heading off that he won’t take,
- and behind him the town hall he’s left
–then I might further break down those directions by adding clouds against that moon, trees alongside the path, and so on.
To think of sounds I might run through the same directional check, or I might consider classes of things that make sounds:
- people (back in that town hall, driving on the streets, etc.),
- objects (does he pass the building’s whirring air conditioner?),
- animals (birdcalls, rustlings in the brush),
- and maybe the weather and so on.
Touch can also be a few position types: anything about the ground he walks on or the things he brushes past, and if the wind or cold or anything touches him, and anything about his clothes or any injuries or such he’s carrying with him. And suddenly I’ve got a sceneful of possible descriptions, just waiting to be put in place.
In fact, dividing by two-plus can lay out a whole book:
- maybe four plot stages (or two halves with two to three substages each), each with
- four-ish chapters (maybe two events of two chapters each), that might contain
- two to four (or more) scenes.
Or a scene itself could have a certain number of points: steps people take in what they’re doing, places they move past, or subjects of a dialog. And dialog subjects can be made up of just how many lines people say, and so on.
Planning–or just glimpsing ahead–can be as simple as you want, just by taking it a step at a time and deciding how far to go before you have enough to move on.
Simple as one-two.