Let’s Build a House! (Why Planning will Make Your Writing Life Better)

Fair warning: if you are committed to the spontaneous pantsing version of writing, please don’t read this. You won’t benefit, I won’t benefit. If you’re open to having assumptions challenged, read on. To the end. Don’t read the first 80% and quit or you won’t get the point.

What is a House?

Though wildly different around the world, all houses share certain characteristics. Let’s explore the ins and outs.

  1. Roof — Without a covering, it’s a yard, not a house.
  2. Floor — It may be dirt, but it’s not water or air. If your residents are standing in a pool up to their waist, or swinging in hammocks 30′ aboveground, you’ve built something other than a house.
  3. Privacy — Roof but no walls = carport or equivalent.
  4. Toilet — Yes, in some parts of the world this is not inside the house. If you live in one of those places, you may dispute this requirement.
  5. Services — Electricity. Running water. Drains. See above note for quibbles.
  6. Egress — Without a door suitable for us humans to enter through, it’s not a house, it’s something else.
  7. Lighting — Even if it’s windows and skylights, there’s a way for light to come in.

You may dispute any of these if you choose to live in the house yourself.

If you plan to sell the house, or even sell time using the house (called “renting”) I defy you to leave any of these out and still succeed.


Construction Process

Here’s how a house is built. Some steps might be in slightly different places. Doesn’t affect the analogy. (Yes, this is an analogy for writing. You saw that coming, yes?)

  1. Plans drawn
  2. Foundation laid
  3. Wall structure built
  4. Roof structure built
  5. Services installed
  6. Walls and roof finished (weatherproofing and decorative surfaces)
  7. Interior finished (flooring, fixtures)
  8. Landscaping

Let’s see how things work without Step #1, shall we? That is, after all, the very essence of pantsing: build the house without planning it.

Before you throw this post against the wall in a huff: I’m not going to skew this, set up some strawman to knock down. I promise, I’m going to slant this against planning any way I can. When we’re through, I want the determined but curious pantsers to see that I’ve been more than fair.

Building Without Planning

  1. Build the house
  2. Discover that the front door isn’t where you wanted it.
  3. Move the door.
  4. Patch the hole where it used to be.
  5. Move the concrete sidewalk so it goes to the new location.
  6. Discover that the fixtures don’t fit in the bathroom.
  7. Look for different fixtures.
  8. None will fit; the room is just too small. Move the walls.
  9. Discover that the back door is now in the bathroom. Or perhaps that the master bedroom or some other room has been impacted by moving the bathroom wall. Enlarge said room.
  10. Discover that rain is coming into said room creating a muddy mess because
    1. there is no roof
    2. and there is no floor
  11. Add roof and floor to the new area

This is, I assure you, a wildly simplified version of the gyrations, work, and cost you’d go through. In reality, you would spend years of time and tens of thousands of dollars, perhaps hundreds of thousands, fixing all the things wrong with an unplanned house.

No One Would Ever Do That, Would They? (aka “It’s Not the Same Thing!”)

Correct. No one would ever just slap up a modern home in a nice suburban neighborhood this way.

But wait. They used to, right? I mean, guys with axes built cabins without a clue until, what, 150 years ago? So how come they don’t do it that way now?

Because there’s a better way, and anyone who builds houses knows it.

And if a builder said “Some people can’t work from plans, they need the freedom to create as they go” you wouldn’t live in a house they built, trust me.

Houses Aren’t Art!

Absolutely right: houses are not art.

But stories have structure, just like houses do. Check every successful novel, every successful movie or television show. Focus on the ones you love, the wildly original stuff you think breaks all the rules.

What it does, instead, is follow all the rules in strikingly new ways.

There will be a hook right off the bat.

A quest will be launched +/-25% of the way in.

There will be a scary visit by the villain +/-37.5% of the way in. (“Villain” = antagonist; this doesn’t only apply to certain genres, it applies to all genres except the intentionally surreal and avant garde.)

A turnaround at the midpoint.

And so on.

Go check. It’s there. Every single time.

Writing draft after draft is not a way to avoid structure. It is simply another way to find it.

I am not writing this to convince you that art must be built using any particular method.

I am writing this to convince you that writing multiple drafts to discover your story’s structure is lots and lots of hard work you don’t have to do.

Lots and lots of hard work which diminishes your creativity rather than fostering, boosting, amping, elevating it.

That’s right: planning leads to greater creativity. This is for one of two reasons. Either the end result is more intrinsically creative, or the end result is equally creative, but happens faster, leaving more time for more creative works.

Here’s one way planning leads to greater creativity: when you know about a critical scene, you can experiment with multiple ways to write it. Anyone who thinks their first idea is their best idea is kidding themselves. Sure, you could do this with pantsing. But you won’t. Once you write an idea during the flow of storytelling, it becomes fixed in your mind, and changing it is so painful it’s likely to be left undone. Not impossible. Far less likely.

Here’s another way planning leads to greater creativity: you discover all the flaws and holes while your outline is 12 sentences or 64 scene cards instead of when it’s 42,000 words. Less to change = more willing to experiment.

Good planning allows you to introduce supporting subplots, escalating complications, character depth, interesting backstory, and modulated pacing. Yes, you can do all those while pantsing. Can you do them better? Maybe. Can you do them with less effort? No. Every one is another bathroom wreaking havoc with your floor plan because it wasn’t planned.

What planning does not do, ever, under any circumstances, is reduce creativity which would have otherwise existed. Note that phrase. A hack might see structure, assume writing is a mechanical process, and go to town, creating bland nonsense. A real writer won’t suddenly be struck dumb (or stupid) because they planned before writing.

I Can’t Write That Way

First, you don’t know what “that way” is because you have eleven preconceived ideas about planning which aren’t real.

“Planning” does not necessarily mean a 40-page outline for a 200-page novel. I’ve worked from a 12-sentence outline. (These days I do a lot more, but 12 sentences is a good start.)

Tell me truly: are you, is anyone, in fact, incapable of writing down what their story is about before they start writing the words?

I understand that some people use the flow of words from their fingers as a process of discovery.

Is it the only process they can use? I take a lot of grief when folks think I’m talking about “the only way” to write, yet they’ll fire right back with “the only way” that works for them.

Is this because they have put extensive effort into other methods, and after much experimentation and practice have determined that those processes don’t work for them?

I haven’t met that person yet.

What happens, instead, is that planning is hard and foreign and not as much fun as pantsing, so who needs it? And they go back to what’s easy.

What’s easy now.

Not what’s easy overall.

Because that’s what pantsing is: the easy way to get started, followed by an excruciatingly hard way to get it finished.

Planning? It’s an excruciatingly hard way to get your story started, followed by an easy way to get it finished.

Knowing Whereof

I am a pantser. Did you get that from what I wrote above? I doubt it. I have finely tuned intuition. I make huge life decisions based on what appears to others to be a complete lack of information. I am a master of winging it. (A musician acquaintance once said, in fear, not respect, “I find your level of confidence disturbing.”)

After hearing every single writer I’ve ever stumbled across say two things (“I wish I could write faster” and “Rewrites are the worst”) I thought maybe there was a better way.

One thing I’d already learned as a musician: understanding some music theory greatly expanded my songwriting and performance skills.

I went looking for writing theory and discovered that just as a garage-band musician who learns music theory expands his abilities, a writer who learns story structure will create greater art.

I found Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. I embarked on a 3-year study of story structure, followed by planning my last two books.

I will never go back.

I hate rewrites. These days, “rewriting” means amping up my theme by carefully nudging word choice here or there. It means adding a tiny element here and there for the theater of the mind. It means polishing foreshadowing, clarifying motives, tightening timelines.

It’s fun, not ugly painful drudgery.

That’s what I’m offering you: a way to do the hard work first, while you’re in love with your story, burning to tell it, followed by an easy way to finish it when the bloom is off the rose.

Here’s the question: do you want that enough to give planning a try?

7 thoughts on “Let’s Build a House! (Why Planning will Make Your Writing Life Better)

  1. I’m thinking you’re so right, Joel. One time we lived in a village where a ‘do-it-yourself’ non-carpenter put together his own house. There wasn’t a door or window that sat square. Then he wanted to sell it. Ha!

    I’ve plotted stories out in my head, scene by scene, from beginning to end. Once I have, then I can sit down and flesh it out. But recently, while responding to a writing exercise, a brilliant opening scene with a clear voice and a great hook popped into my head. Others said it was great — now I should go on and write the rest of the story. Sure! But I have no idea where it goes from here. Unless I sit down and plan the route first, I really can’t go anywhere. Hats off to people who can actually arrive somewhere without a map.

  2. I would never have imagined anyone building that house and trying to sell it in real life. I thought it was a pretty far-fetched example I made up as an analogy.

  3. Yep. Tried pantsing and ended up with massive, repeated rewrites. I ONLY pants if I’m completely stuck and am OK knowing that the pantsed part will very likely get slashed during editing. Often it’s just one scene that I pull out my rear that’s enough to get unstuck, and I’ll delete it if it doesn’t fit the bigger plan.

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