Every writer I’ve met has a different take on planning. Some people use colour-coded charts, thick black markers with arrows, pie charts and venn diagrams to set out every scene with step by step precision. Others plunge gleefully into a blank page, swimming freely through their story to see where it will take them.
Personally, I prefer to take a middle path… I generally make sure I have an outline of the story: What does the main character want or need? What and/or who is going to stop them achieving that goal? Or, put another way, how many obstacles can I throw in their way?
I need to have a sense of about five or six places where the story will twist and turn – fictional events that will have an impact on the main character and to which they will need to react. Ideally these events will bring about conflict and drama and propel the main character powerfully on and through the story.
Before I start to write each scene I try to make sure that it has a single, clear action which adds to the reader’s understanding and that the main character is at the centre of that action. My aim is that every time anything happens it should be in some way unexpected yet also convincing. Well, that’s the intention – it isn’t always easy to achieve!
A lot of smaller plot twists pop into my head as I write. Sometimes the characters themselves seem to know what needs to happen next. I love that part of writing, when I’m caught up in and carried along by the momentum of the story.
I don’t spend a huge amount of time planning before I write. The fact that virtually all my books are set in the contemporary world makes this easier. Fantasy writers have to know the world they are depicting from the ground up before they can make it feel convincing to the reader. For historical novels, writers must do plenty of research to ensure the same. When I write about our own, real world I can reference places and events that are familiar to everyone. I don’t need to explain my settings, I can just describe a high street or a park or a train station and readers will be comfortably oriented in the book’s world.
Of course writing contemporary fiction has its drawbacks: the available ‘technology’ the characters would have access to, from smartphones to social media, must be incorporated – or else plausibly got rid of. (This is one reason why a large portion of my last book, All My Secrets, was set on a remote island with no phone signal or internet access!)
In the end though, whatever kind of fictitious world you’re creating and however fully you plan your story in advance, it’s important that the ending of the book gives the reader a proper pay off for reading all the way through. I rarely know precisely how my stories will finish – but my aim is always to make the ending as satisfying as possible.
Check out Sophie’s website here