Clueless Writing – Is it bad if you have no plan?

Proof that you don't need a plan to be happy

I’ve decided to veer away from villains and protagonists and all that fun stuff for now and talk about the writing process in general.  It is my opinion that there are two types of writers: the planners and the poor saps who never learned how to write a friggin’ outline.  Guess which category I fall into? It seems like some people can carefully plot out their whole storyline, occasionally jotting down particular scenes that they see in their head during their planning stages, giving little notes about the different characters along the way, and generally being annoying with their tightly plotted stories and ridiculous organizational skills.  Clearly, I am very envious of these people.

Then there are the other people, like me, who just start writing without a plan.  Sure, I start off with a vague idea, or really more of an impression, but I usually have no idea where I want my story to go, or what’s going to happen along the way.  I just write and try really hard not to think about what I’m writing, because as soon as I start thinking, I realize I don’t have a clue what I’m writing about and I freeze, panicked, the whole process crashing down around my ears.  While this doesn’t seem like the best system, there are definitely pros to it as well.  For instance, since I have no idea where my story is going, it feels more spontaneous to me, and I’m never really bored while working on it.  In fact, writing without a plan is like reading, only at the end of a couple of hours you’ve gone through much less story and you’re exhausted.

I was thinking about this today, while working on my current WIP.  I call unplanned writing “intuitive writing,” and it’s actually pretty neat how it works.  Usually, the first draft has gaping plot holes the size of Kansas all over it, but in between these sad, terrible pieces of writing, there are some really good things that just come together.  Even without a plan, my subconscious seems to know what it’s doing, at least a little, and if I’m in the flow and I listen, occasionally I’ll get little nudges, like, “you need to bring back this character in the next scene,” or “here’s where she needs to find out x information.”  Little hints like that.  Which makes me wonder occasionally who’s really writing these stories…I heard that Robert Louis Stevenson had little people in his dreams that he molded into a story factory, and they are the ones who gave him the idea for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and wow that last sentence sounds really crazy written out like that.  I’ll go into that idea more in a later, crazier post…

Anyways, I’ve decided not to be envious of people who can actually plan out a story ahead of time, because I think both styles of writing will get you where you need to go in the end.  The key is really trusting yourself enough to complete the story, whether you’re using an outline or are just throwing yourself into it NaNoWriMo style.  But, as an experiment, I’m going to try to outline my next story before I start.  I’ll let you know if it turns out to be an abysmal failure…

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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m glad to see your thoughts on this, because I’ve thought about this too! I’ve written comics in a workshop class where we had to plan everything out in great detail (comics really require this, unless you’re going to be doing your own art — which I hope to! — but most of my classmates were not in that position), and there was a lot of satisfaction in knowing where things were going, knowing how many pages I had to get there, and having a very solid roadmap to work from when it came to the actual writing.

    On the other hand, when it comes to just writing for myself, I tend to only start with an idea and a vague sense of what I want the finished thing to look like. And then I always wonder if I’m “doing it wrong.” But, like you, I’ve decided that as long as I’m writing, it’s going to be okay.

    Oh, and as to your subconscious knowing what it’s doing, I totally believe that. 🙂 Whenever I give mine a problem and enough space, it always figures things out for me eventually! It’s much smarter than I am! 🙂

    • Thanks, Satsumaart! It’s nice to know I’m not the only one worried about my lack of a plan when I write. : )

  2. I think the good thing about unplanned writing is that it leaves room for those wonderful lines and scenes that just pop into your head and are sometimes so brilliant they make you realise that the rest of the work around it needs a serious overhaul. Going through my drafts, the best lines and scenes are always the unplanned ones.

    • I agree with you Cassandra. Some of the better stuff I have written has been when I have gone off on a tangent and not stuck to the plan. But then life is like that isn’t it!

    • I definitely agree–I can look at my writing and see where I was mentally grinding out the words, versus the parts that just spontaneously flowed through me. I wonder if I would lose that if I tried to force myself to an outline…

  3. I can’t plan a story at all, even if I write a synopsis I never stick to it. I usually have a loose idea of the storyline with the characters formed and then I write the story chapter by chapter. I used to get really hung up about it but now I just accept that it’s my (and your) style of writing. I still get the story down on paper and that’s the most important thing.

    • I’ve found that when I write out a synopsis ahead of time, I actually seem to lose interest in the story and I don’t end up writing it. Maybe because I think the story has already been written (albeit badly, with no detail). I still think I might try outlining again, just to see if I can make myself do it, but these comments have made me feel a lot better about my intuitive writing style. Thanks!

  4. I don’t “plan” ahead. I have an idea, or a concept, and go from there. I find my protagonist develops better this way. The truth is, we can have an idea, a plot, and outline, but when our hero takes control, and really develops, everything changes. I’ve been in the meat of writing, and found myself cringing, thinking, “this isn’t what I want!” but when is it really about what we want? I think creating a strong protagonist, is enough to keep me going. She knows the story, and sometimes she reminds me—“hey, I wouldn’t do that!”
    Now I sound crazy, lol, but it’s the truth. My hardest moment was in my current completed novel, I cried having to write the scene, it was a hard moment where I, the reader, wanted her to take another path, but I knew, as the writer, she wouldn’t. Her choice was inevitable. I believe you can create an amazing story that way. Also, anything is possible!
    I do envy those that can outline perfectly and follow it. I’m not that person though.

    Love this post!

    • Thanks, Angela! I had a professor a couple years back who said it’s a bad idea to think about your story too much because then you’re forcing your characters into a mold instead of letting them take charge and tell the real story, and I always liked that image. Your comment about letting your protagonist take charge reminded me of that. On the other hand, it’s scary when you know you’re not really in control of your story, especially when you have an idea of where it should go and suddenly it’s taken a sharp turn to the left.

      • I agree with that. It is scary. I think the difference is, even if they go off course, it shouldn’t be that much. It shouldn’t change everything entirely and be so sharp. Certain decisions will lead them down a certain path, but the goal should stay constant, at least, I would think so.

  5. […] I wrote about Robert Louis Stevenson and his whole little people thing in this post here, so apparently it does happen.  Just usually not to […]


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