Why would you ever start a story without knowing where it’s going to end? Isn’t that like getting in your car for a drive and just choosing turns that look interesting? It’s possible to get quite a long way and see many interesting things, but sooner or later you’re going to get stuck. Or lost. And you may well find yourself miles from home come nightfall. Perhaps you can just turn around and see if you can find your way back home. You’ve just gone basically nowhere.
If Frodo spent three books merely getting lost all over Middle Earth only to end up safely at home back in The Shire, it wouldn’t have been anywhere so interesting or memorable. Likewise Garion had to leave Faldor’s farm in Sendaria to grow up and into his inheritance. Eddings even lampshades the fact that he can’t go back there. There is a beautifully touching scene midway through the series where Garion goes back briefly with Polgara and uses the opportunity to say goodbye to a childhood girlfriend. But both stories promise a Dangerous Quest Requiring Actions That Will Change The World (one way or another). They have to deliver.
That’s not to say that starting with an idea, a scene, a possible conflict, and proceeding to fill an otherwise blank page or file with … well, something resembling fiction is not a bad way to start writing a story. What it gives you is experience at the coalface. You get to see if the scene can promise to be something bigger, to see if the characters you imagined can even work in a piece of narrative, to see if they are more than a name and an emotion. The few thousand words so written may never make it into the first draft, let alone the final work. But this step can be important to the way you write. There is a saying amongst experienced programmers: “Be prepared to throw the first one away.” And it oh so much applies to writing.
But however and wherever you start, you should have somewhere you hope to end up.
And this, sadly, brings me to one of the more popular criticisms I’ve heard of NaNoWriMo. Most advice to newcomers to NaNoWriMo is to “just write”. There is undoubtedly method to the madness, but by the middle of November, there are dozens of posts in the forums by writers who find their story is going off to an unexpected direction and characters are not behaving the way they’re supposed to. The usual advice is to sort that out when you edit. And apparantly that has to wait until you finished writing.
It’s a little too easy to blame the absence of planning. Ask any five authors how to plan a story and you’ll get at least eight answers. It is true that some approaches to writing need lots of writing to edit down. And some writers work better that way. But not all do.
I definitely need a goal even merely in mind for where my protagonist takes my narrative. It gives me something to aim for; whether I hit it or not is not the point. Without it, the story meanders and waffles. Character development is done just for the sake of character development and the setup for the final climax has to be retrofitted. But with an ending in mind and a scene or two written down, I can plan the intervening steps. I have a couple of short stories that don’t go anywhere because they were written without a goal in mind. I recall one early one was quite difficult to finish because I never figured a climax out until I really had to have one.
But a more recent story was done with a more deliberate piece of planning. I started with a scene and some possibilities about how it could develop. Then I built out what the protagonist was going to learn and change through the few thousand words. That led to how the secondary characters were going to act, and in some way when. And with that scaffolding in place, I’m much happier with how it turned out.
How do you map your stories?