Planning versus freeform writing

Jenni Curry, ACTWC Blogger in Residence


I have always planned my stories. They often come to me, one scene at a time and I tease them out of my subconsciousness and try to develop the character until I know them as well as people. I’ve used Michael Hauge’s ‘Six Stage Plot Structure’ before starting to write the text, in an attempt to ensure the validity of the story, and make sure that the subplots were strong enough. However, I am yet to write a story of any length, including short stories, which actually follows the intended plot.

In my last manuscript, the protagonist starting having a heated relationship with someone who was completely wrong for her, because the chemistry was there—who am I to try and stop these things. It took me three days of staring at my screen before I figured out how to break them up. My YA work-in-progress involves the lead male somehow agreeing to go to a 1950’s bar night in a dress, instead of a clean-cut suit. How did that happen?

Perhaps this is because the details that come out whilst writing create the character. The details are what make them different to all other characters, just as the details in us make us different from all other people. We can plan a sequence of events, and have certain scenes mapped out, but we learn the character’s imperfections and nuances as we write them. Nothing short of several thousand words will tell us what sort of person they may be and how they would likely react in a certain situation.


So occasionally, it can be fun to step away from that and write feverishly on a whim for a short period of time. This is the basis of NaNoWriMo, the writing month which encourages people to complete a first draft in 30 days. It can be a great way to hold an entire story in your head. Instead of writing a first draft over a few months (or years) and having to go back constantly to check details, write it quickly and messily.

I had an idea a couple of months ago, and started writing it the next day. I had no idea where it was going, or how long it would be. But, I knew the two main characters enough to hold their image in my head. I started writing and made it as freeform as possible. I skipped over bits, often putting in author notes such as ‘ball scene’ or ‘describe castle, make it magical’. And, while not as intense as NaNoWriMo, I have to admit that it is easier to remember what has happened, as I am writing most days.

I still don’t have all the details, such as the names of the two main cities, or my character’s last names. There is the odd sentence like this, ‘He had lost all Blah since leaving the cell,’ because I still haven’t worked out exactly what I want to say, and I’m already using track changes to make comments when the POV changes for no apparent reason.

But, the story is flowing in a way I have rarely experienced. It’s less about getting a high word count each day and more about advancing the plot. I have a string of questions at the bottom of the last page which stare at me as I write and drive me forward. In this way, I am still planning, although even this is more fluid than the styles I have previously used.

While I doubt that such a style would work for me and all (or even most) stories, it has been an experience which has taught me a more creative and less analytical style of writing. And, how can we know if one is better than the other, or if one suits us personally, if we do not try both? So, to the freeform writers out there, try writing a plan and see if the direction makes you question the big picture more, before you start writing. And planners, here are the words of Shannon Hale; ‘I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.’

Jenni Curry
Jenni Curry
has a Masters in Creative Writing and is a 2014 HARDCOPY alumni. She writes fiction novels and short stories, many of which have been seen in Australian and UK anthologies including Time to Write and How Higher Education Feels. She finds fiction simpler than reality and continues to search for the perfect world to live in.

3 thoughts on “Planning versus freeform writing

  1. I’m definitely the type to plan out my stories before I write them, and I think this helps me stay focused and keep on track as I write. After all, it’s easier to reach a final destination if you know how to get there. However, I also think that writers should figure out what method (or hybrid of methods) works best for them/

  2. With my fiction work I tend not to plan. I have an idea and then see where it goes. Often this then means more extensive rewriting, but that’s okay. I rather enjoy the adventure and seeing how my characters develop. I do tend to plan my non-fiction work. Too much training in the APS!

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