Plans in a Story

by Mike A. Wants

Plans in a Story

May 7, 2015 Writing 0

This will be a short post in regard to something I’ve been mulling over for some time now: The making of plans in novels. Planning is something you’ll do a lot when writing a story, but there’s another layer to it: Your characters will make plans to. This post goes into the two different kinds of planning and what they mean for both the author and the reader. As such, it hold interest not only for fledgeling writers, but for reader who want to understand a the structure of a story more intimately too.

Many stories, especially in the (military) fantasy genre, come to a point where the main characters are planning something. It doesn’t really matter what they plan, but it’s often (and most prominently) either something to do with war (strategy and tactics) or something to outsmart a bad buy.

Such plans come roughly in two forms:

  1. The plan is made and explained.
  2. The plan is hinted at, but never explained.

To give you an example:

Our heroes have to defeat an army.

1.) would go something along the lines of this: The hero explains to his staff, that they will outflank the enemy army through the surrounding hills while holding them in place with the main body.

2.) would be the hero telling the staff that he has a plan. Nothing more will be said, at least to the reader. The explanation for the battle will be done off screen and the reader might only get a few comments, often along the lines of “this will never work” without the reader knowing what “this” alludes to.

Now, let me tell you that plan 1. will not work, while plan 2. will, even though plan 1. might seem brilliant when explained and the reader knows nothing about plan 2. The question here is why will that hold true for nearly every time you’ll either construct such a story element or read it in a book.

Since I’ve heard about this “rule”, I’ve tested it again and again and it always held. Whenever the heroes of a story planned in detail, something would go wrong. If they don’t do it and you only get the sense that something unexpected will happen, it will most likely work perfectly.

That’s due to the fact that, if you explain a plan in detail, there would be no need to show its execution. That would be doing the same thing twice. Do you think that would be interesting? You read about the plan, every aspect of it, and later see it go right as planned, without any deviation. That would be boring. There would be no need to actually show the action, when it’s known what will happen from the strategic meeting beforehand. Much more interesting to have such a brilliant plan only to have it go bonkers right from the start.

The reverse is true for 2. Since you don’t know what the plan is (you only know it will be crazy and hopefully nothing like expected), you can go into the action unspoiled and watch everything unfold with clear eyes. Instead of listening to a plan, you’ll actually see the plan in full motion for the first time. You’ll also have no idea what the next step for the plan would be, so everything holds tension. Where in 1. you’ll know that the plan is to get captured and then have a droid throw you some hidden light sabers, in 2. you’d see the heroes get capture and ask yourself “what now?”.

Of course, there are always variations of this “rule”, but you should be very careful in breaking it. As I said, if you use 1. and the plan works, you might find yourself telling the same part of the story twice. It’ll also lack the tension you can create with option 2. In most stories, making plans will be down to these two options, with 1. being a failure the heroes have to work around, and 2. working brilliantly (for the most part).

If you read your next story (or write your own), pay heed to how the author handles planning, it might give you a deeper understanding of how stories are constructed. This might not be for everyone, but I’ve found the more I understand of the process, the more I can appreciate authors and their storytelling.

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