Every writer has a Way. Seemingly no writer uses the exact same methodology. The only advice I’ve kept intact is to write the entire book before going back to edit. I find in most cases, to go back leads to a loop of never finishing. However, there are numerous other suggestions given, which writers eschew or cling to as they see fit.
Planning is required to some extent, or the story can so easily go off in any direction, causing the author to lose sight. Characters without enough background can become erratic, without that behavior being part of the character. A location will have details start to shift, when it’s supposed to be fairly static. The plot will become disjointed, a handful of random events. But even so, the story is a living thing, and it does require some flexibility. I’ve had characters participate in events they weren’t meant to get involved in. Just last night, I killed a character I never intended to kill. However, as the events flowed, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the death made sense. I’ve had cities which were to be central to a story suddenly become backdrops, or a settlement which was to be little more than a farming community, form into a good sized town. While each writer has a style, and this won’t help everyone, I use anchors for my plot line to keep the story true(ish) to my vision. I create a series of events and flesh them out enough that they are real in my head, and the point of my core characters is to reach those focal points.
These focal points can and will change. Often times a writer will reach a point, thinking they know how the events will play out, only to have the story shift on them. This isn’t bad as long as it stays consistent with the direction of the story. Let the moments shape how the anchor plays out, as long as you have an idea where the story is going. There was a large event which I never intended my main character to participate in. Through blood relations, as the event drew near, it just made sense she would go (and I needed to introduce her to a boy she would otherwise never meet).
I have at least three anchors. The first is the beginning of the novel. As with real life, the story doesn’t begin when the writer starts writing. Conflicts have happened, characters have histories with each other, and everyone is bringing along their own baggage. With the flashback often used to reveal background story, it’s important to know what that background is and how it led your characters to where they are, how it aided your city in becoming what it is today, or in what way the plots are already taking formation before that first word hits the page. Lord of the Rings didn’t start with Frodo, or even Bilbo. It started centuries earlier with greedy races and the One Ring. Frodo already had a life going, Gandolf had enough adventure for the entire race of Hobbits, and racial tensions from long ago created schisms in what to do with the ring. In the same sense, your story does not exist within the vacuum of when you start and stop writing. By having the beginning well thought out, taking into account my background, I have my first anchor. Mind you, this often times doesn’t make it any easier to write that first page. Generally I sit there, staring, and at some point the words come to me (rarely while I’m in front of the computer), and I rush to let it flow.
The second anchor is a midpoint. Some huge event which changes the way the story flows. Most stories make a reader comfortable, bringing them into the way things should be. Then the conflict snaps the reader out of that, showing the world isn’t all roses. In longer novels, there will be numerous mid story conflicts which alter the shape of the world and story, but I usually try to really focus on one midpoint, or at least one at time. Then I try to think of how the the characters might get there, and the ultimate outcome of the interaction.
Just last night I reached my midpoint for my current story. While I had an anchor, and most of it went as planned, the lead in was nothing I expected. Character dynamics had changed, placing the family in a different situation than I had expected. The bad guy was given some honor that took him far from the original location, so his arrival had to be manipulated compared to the “he was always there” I had imagined it. Plans go awry for numerous reasons, but it is better to let the story take hold, altering your plans. When the story, characters, and locations take shape, let them and flow it them. Sometimes your anchor never sees the light of day, or you realize it’s a side story which the protagonist never gets involved in. Let it flow.
My final anchor is the climax. Denouement will come on its own, though with how poorly I make conclusions, this may be a good idea to plan out more in the future. Either way, I have a fairly clear idea of how everything ends. I have a general idea of what skills and trials are needed to reach the conclusion, and those will be slowly woven in as I approach end game, but all that matters is my main character, Melna, has become everything I need for the climax of the story. Once I know what will happen, I have different places and people she visits, I just need to make sure they teach her what she needs to know.
This isn’t to say I don’t plan aside from the anchors. For those of you who have read my writings or have spoken to me about my worlds, I do a great deal of planning. There are numerous characters already with their own agendas, often interfering or aiding along my major scenes. Countries and cities have their own histories. Having all of this planned out ahead of time makes it easier for me to fill in between the anchors, and to know the appropriate place and time for the anchors to happen.
However, this path may not work for you. As I’ve found with all the advice out there, pick and choose what works, and often times you’ll adapt what you learned to your liking.