How to create a story – without planning by Peter Dragon
Some authors swear by planning ahead. They want the story's skeleton ready, so once they start writing, they know what to do and what to add, so there are no sudden surprises. And that's just fine. But what if you're more like me and you have only a general idea of what happens in your story? How do you make sure the story remains true to itself? Imagine a book where your main character starts walking, and suddenly he finds himself on a horse he didn't bring along? Chances are you lose your reader. Fast. Because while your reader longs for surprises, they must make sense, right?
Maybe you now think that a planner has an advantage – but that isn't entirely true. In fact, my tip even works for him. Let's take a look at my own Young Adult Fantasy novel, Children of Little Might, about a boy (Monty) with autism who finds a book that grants his every wish if he succeeds in translating it. I knew the start: he broke a classmate's arm and sat in his high-school principal's office. I knew it had to end with festivities, but the things that happen in between were fluid, to say the least. In truth: I had no idea.
Now, most experts on the matter will tell you that's okay. You write the story, and if things don't make sense, then you correct those during the edit.
Fine. Everyone is happy. Except… I don't work like that.
Monty, his princess, and a wheelchair-bound friend are on the run. They discover someone follows them. It's just not clear whether the pursuers are friends or foes. It's important to identify the pursuers because Monty and his friends have an urgent message to bring to the princess's father. Therefore, Monty tells his friends to go into hiding while he tries to figure out which side the pursuers are on.
We all know that's not going to happen – unless he confronts them. But since it's safe to assume that their pursuers are soldiers, that's not a valid option. A second option is to shoot them – but for that, he needs a weapon. And he didn't bring one along. He might use a wish, but it also betrays his precise location to anyone who follows the wishes he makes. And it's a given their enemy does that.
I could wait until I continued the story, but I wanted it solved now because that choice decides what happens next. If the outcome of a scene bears no impact on what follows, the scene has no reason to exist.
Let's assume Monty solves it by shooting at the soldiers. It's easy, except Monty brought no gun along. So, how do I get around that when a wish is out of the question?
My solution is a fairly simple one. I don't wait until the end to solve this problem. I solved it immediately. If I decide Monty needs a gun, I return to an earlier paragraph in the story where he has access to a gun, and I make sure the reader knows. In Children of Little Might that opened another can of worms because you don't shoot a friend, so I settled it differently. Even so, I returned to an earlier moment in the story and solved it by adding a descriptive paragraph that made the final solution believable – and acceptable. Because of that, I immediately solved a second problem I created with the first. He and his friends get separated, and I needed them together in the next scene, where it was important his enemies knew their precise location. I made sure he had no other choice but to make a wish, heightening the tension once more.