Fiction – planned or unplanned?

What strange, unprecedented times we are now living through. How will this real life human plot end? Following my last blog about plots and loose ends, it occurs to me that stories do not always have a planned ending. For some lucky writers, their characters write the plot themselves as it moves along. In this real life drama, the ending is up to us. We are the characters. If we all do as we are told and isolate accordingly, we can anticipate a happy, or at least a positive ending to this human drama with its cast of millions.

Back to the fiction. I like to think that my characters are becoming strong enough to do that. Each day as I log on and begin to write – I do tend to read through what I have written previously and think what my characters would do next. I try to place the story in their hands, and thoughts, to make the plot theirs. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes I write what I know is rubbish just to cover my blank page. But what do they always say about writing? We cannot edit a blank page. A few blogs ago I recall writing something about this process of layering drafts. We cannot avoid that first attempt, whether it goes somewhere or nowhere. We have to start with something and be prepared to dump our first efforts.

Is your fiction plot-led, or character-led? This is an essential question for all writers, as the answer helps to define HOW we will write our books. If character led, do we need to know everything about our main characters before we start to write? Or can we just begin and find out about them as we go along? This is a curious question. Some authors write reams of notes about their characters before the first word of their story – where they went to school, what they eat, how they dress, talk, parents, friends, hobbies, jobs and so on. Such characters become real before their stories are begun. I am not one of these writers.

Other writers compose a detailed plot with scenes in sequence, into which the characters are made to fit. I suppose it depends on what type of story is being told. If the event or setting is of major importance (such as Follett’s 2nd World War epic mentioned in my last blog), then the plot does indeed lead the storyline, with the characters fitting in accordingly. I am not one of these detailed plot-led writers either.

So what am I – if neither of these? Given that I am new to fiction writing, having evolved from being an educational non-fiction writer, I tend to know enough about my characters to start their story – and hope to find out more as I go along: getting to know more about them. I hope that the more they (metaphorically) speak to me the more options for my developing plot zoom into my brain. This works surprisingly well sometimes. At other times, it’s like wading through treacle, as the cliche goes. This strategy for fiction has evolved partly from my non-fiction habits, as I would previously list my chapter headings, then divide into sub-headings – and write loose notes for each sub section. Often I would use a spider diagram as the starting point and fan out the details from the centre.

Back to the fiction. I am neither plot-led nor fully character led. Could this be why I often struggle to fill in my blank pages? Perhaps I need to think about my own question and come up with an answer. Planned, unplanned – or partly planned? Which is best? It depends on the type of text, as well as the writer. Which are you?

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