This is a fascinating subject.
You’ve got your brilliant idea for a book (play, film). How do you then plan its execution? How do you work out the plot, imagine the characters, determine the twists, the conflicts, the climaxes?
Many writers cannot begin until they feel they know as much as possible about all these elements. They spend days, weeks, months thinking about them. They draw up lengthy plot charts, they list everything they think they need to know about the main characters – their family backgrounds, their personality traits, their likes and dislikes – they plan the beginning and end of each chapter. Only then, when they feel they are familiar with the whole scenario and all its participants, do they feel confident enough to put pen to paper or create that momentous new file on their computer. And indeed this is a great way of getting to grips with the vast amount of invention that will have to go into creating a full length novel or other work.
Me – I cannot work like that.
I like to let things unravel as I go along, as they do in real life. I like to allow for improvisation, for the unexpected. I need my characters and their situations to determine what comes next, not for them to be fitted into some preconceived plot.
I start with an idea for a subject. I think I know vaguely who the main protagonist(s) will be. I kind of know where I want to set it. I have a rough concept of the theme and what it is I wish to say. And I may even conceive a possible conclusion for the whole thing. But then I get bored with thinking about it, and can’t wait to get started.
When looking for that initial idea, I have in the past started simply with an interesting character and then worked out what to do with her/him. Or I have begun with a location, and then imagined how to set a plot within it. This applies especially with stage plays. My play, ‘Don’t Rock The Boat’, for instance grew from the initial idea of having a houseboat on the Thames as a more original setting than the usual living room or hotel suite. One of my most popular comedies, ‘Perfect Wedding’, developed out of frustration as to how to write a piece about a wedding day without having a cast of hundreds. The solution came from setting it in the actual honeymoon suite on the morning of the big event, when only those most closely involved were present, and everything else happened off-stage. That opening scenario determined the size of cast and suggested their basic personalities.
Once I have these essential elements dimly worked out, I then like to get started as quickly as possible. With a book, I begin with as dramatic or intriguing an opening paragraph as I can, and then build up the piece, sentence by sentence, brick by brick, as I go along. The big questions arise as I write. Where exactly is this? Who and what is this person? What do I need to explain about their background and personality? What happens next after the initial opening scenario? How soon do I need to bring in a crisis or a new development? The essential queries arise as I progress. No need to try and anticipate them all.
I have often compared the process, not so much to composing a piece of music, but rather to creating a sculpture out of clay. One starts with a big amorphous mass and a hazy concept. Gradually one moulds the whole thing into shape, adding a bit of material here, scraping away a bit there, inserting a detail here, defining a feature there. Until one can finally step back and see the whole thing as one single completed creation, which may in fact have turned out to be something quite different from what you initially conceived. It has taken on its own life and determined its future.
So there is no need to be intimidated by the idea of starting a new work. If the detailed planning method suits you, and is your way of getting to grips with the whole thing, then fine. But if not, don’t feel you’re doing the wrong thing by simply sitting down and starting to write. You never know what might emerge!