Some writers outline and plan before they write. Others wing it. For those that plan, the question often arises: when is it enough? When can I actually start?
Some might say to simply dive in, start writing, and see how it goes. That may or may not work. Instead, I would develop a checklist revolving around what makes a good story and then test your outline, synopsis, plans, or whatever against the checklist.
A good checklist might include questions about character: do the characters have complex motivations born of passions, needs, and fears? Are the motivations clear? Do their goals conflict and create tension? Do they have backgrounds that adequately illuminate their passions, needs, and fears? Do they have complexity (i.e., layers of external and internal masks to reveal over time?)
When it comes to the plot, you might ask if there is a strong cause and effect relationship through the events and reactions of the story. Do the events of the story drive the characters along an arc and present them with an opportunity to change? Do the character's motivations push the story? Are the characters actively pursuing their goals and considering all of their options? (You don't want a character to skip what seems like an easy solution.) Does the beginning set up all the pieces on the chessboard? Does the ending surprise and satisfy?
This isn't a checklist to develop a story in the first place. It's a suggestion as to how a writer might evaluate the question of how ready they are to move forward and start writing, if they're in the planning stage. For those writers that wing it, the process isn't much different. The checklist just works as they go or during the revision process.
When it comes to planning vs. winging it (or seat of the pants, as it is often called), my only advice is for writers to be open to experiment and be willing to update their process.
My Work-in-progress, The Superhero Murders is at the tail end of the planning phase. I have all the pieces. I just need to fit them together. Unfortunately, a hectic work project is eating all my spare time and keeping me from doing much writing for the next few weeks, after which I plan to take a week off and get the story underway. I have my own checklist for that story and I'm feeling good about the answers.
Marvel's Agent's of S.H.I.E.L.D quickly fell into a trap I had hoped it would somehow avoid: technology is magic.
I can suspend my disbelief enough to accept that some entities have technology beyond the average citizen--that's barely even a suspension of belief; however, in the movies that led up to it, Shield's technology was somewhat tame unless it referenced an earlier film. We had some fancy vehicles, transparent computer screens and, of course, the physics-defying helicarrier that could become invisible, but the rest of Shield hovered somewhere near real-world limits.
I had hoped that with their command center based on a real airplane, that perhaps the show would be more grounded. Sure, we might see dazzling computer displays everywhere, maybe even a hologram or two, but I had hoped the producers would keep technology reasonable.
But no, it's magic. It can do anything, yet it continually fails to solve anything unless it does so conveniently and with techno-babble, and no regard for reason or established science. And other times it will be oddly unable to solve anything at all. Thus, technology-as-magic weakens many stories.
And the reason we call it "magic" is we don't know what technology can and cannot do. Now that a 1962 Corvette can fly, a Frisbee can let an agent see in some kind of x-ray mode, stolen alien technology is lying around in boxes, quad-copters have magic-laser-scanning trope-technology, and convenient serums can make a trained agent babble with total self-aware honesty, we have no sense of boundary. Technology can do anything. It has no cost and no limit. Any problem that presents itself loses impact. It is all too easy to fix with magic. Or not fix, conveniently.
How many times out of the next 23 episodes will we see a genius pull some last-second techno-solution out of their pocket to avert a crisis? I'll predict a conservative 10 at least, though as much as 15 wouldn't surprise me. I'd love to be wrong. Perhaps complex characters and good writing will prevail, but the too-convenient technology will always be a weakness
There two basic kinds of story arcs: external and internal. Call them what you will. The external arc is visible and fully on-camera. This can be the must-save-the-world stuff, or it can be a mother planning the perfect birthday party. The internal arc is what happens inside a character. It often involves change, but it can also involve a refusal to change. It's thought and emotion.
(Note that traditionally an arc is a plotline that spans multiple episodes of something. I understand the word came into being in the '80s. My usage is more general. I don't use "storyline" because some writers associate that with the external plot only.)
However, the two kinds of arcs must affect each other, not run parallel to each other. I remember old Star Trek: the Next Generation episodes had this trend of running parallel arcs. In one, the ship is in peril or someone is going to die. The stakes are high. In the other arc, Lt. Commander Data tries to bond with his new kitten (and risks losing his humanity forever, or something.)
If an arc feels thin, light, or weak, fill it up with struggles and "trying." I've been doing this with The Superhero Murders outline lately (when time permits.) Once I have a grasp on a character's needs, wants, passions, social role and key relationships, I list their resources: that which they can call upon to achieve their goals. This helps me with the next step. I list their options. What can they try to achieve their goal? But I don't have them try just one thing, I have them try everything--so far as it makes sense for the character. I do this for everyone in the story, and soon I have so much material I have to begin making decisions about what can happen "on camera" and what stuff only I know about.
And since the characters often have conflicting goals and passions, this should naturally lead to rising pressure on each character. The actions of other character threaten that which they value. The cauldron boils until it explodes over the rim in a frothy climax (sorry, got a little excited there.) If that isn't happening, I've made some critical mistakes in the character development area and I need to step back.
So, to me, the middle should be the best part. It sounds like too many writers think of it as filler.
By way of example, let's consider Samantha, my main character's loyal best friend, a cheerleader. Even though she is Kim's best friend, she is terrified about the dangerous stuff her headstrong, reckless friend is getting into, so her goal is to get Kim back to doing more normal stuff--like shopping and dating. At the same time, she's also worried about pushing Kim further away and ruining a good friendship.
So while Kim is engaging in the external arc (and thus her own internal arc) Samantha runs through a list of options. Talk to Kim; express concern. That doesn't work. Try reverse sarcasm? Reverse psychology? Maybe, but they're likely to backfire. Talk to Kim's mother. Doesn't work. Talk to Kim's other friends. Talk to an authority figure. A serious talk with Kim. Plan an intervention. Plead with Kim. Pregnancy scare? Threaten suicide? Call the police and tell them everything!
The deeper Kim wades into her fight with the enemy, the more desperate Sam becomes. (If I've done my job, I've already established exactly why Sam feels this desperation and will go to extremes here.)
Some of these come out in the novel. Some she skips for her own reasons. But what about Sam's fear of losing Kim as a best friend? That's part of character development. She has fear as well as passion. That leads to dilemma and choice--crunchy stuff when it comes to internal arcs. She has to choose if she's willing to risk (key concept there) losing Kim if it means maybe keeping her off that dangerous quest. Is it worth it? Will it work? Is it her only option?
We'll see :)
I was recently involved in a discussion about walk-on characters, those characters that only appear for a few lines or less. They're usually assumed to be important to the story, but they don't play so big a role that they are fleshed out with the detail of a main character.
The discussion raised the question of how much reality such a characterneeds. To what lengths should we go to avoid "cardboard" characters (i.e., characters that are flat, two-dimensional, or stereotypical.)
The real world, when seen through the eyes of a character, can often have some cardboard in it. If a writer is giving us the world through the eyes and mind of a character, then the writer should stay true to that perspective when it comes to walk-on characters.
Let's say my main character gets pulled over on the way to the airport. The cop, of course, is a real character. He has forty-two years of detailed back-story, all of which is influenced by other characters, each with equally complex and layered stories.
But my main character is trying to get to the airport. How will she make it before Jorge's plane takes off? How can she convince this idiot of her urgency? Should she tell him everything? No--maybe just make a run for it. She could shout out a warning about the bomb before this pig tackles her and slaps on the handcuffs.
She doesn't have time to learn about the cop's interest in My Little Pony, or his opinions on how the Korean War veterans were treated, or his thoughts on why Led Zeppelin really broke up. She's too preoccupied with the crisis at hand to notice that his uniform is wrinkled and mustard-stained.
So, in her eyes, he is starting out as a cardboard character. But since I only have twelve lines, that may not be bad. I think the trick with some walk-on characters is to allow a little cardboard, just not 100%.
So I have a lazy country-road cop walking up to her car. What's the usual line? "License and registration please?" To give this guy a little color and break away from the cardboard mold a little, I make him stand out in a way my MC can't help but notice.
"Well, little miss, what say we skip the license and registration bullshit and you just give me your phone number instead?"
Now that she's noticed him, I can go back to those details and add some more flavor. These actually reinforce the stereotype I began with. She sees the mustard stain and crinkled clothes because she has a reason to notice. I could also throw some variety in there to offset the cardboard--maybe one of those little pink breast-cancer ribbons, except maybe his is a little different.
Then, after a little arguing and resisting his advances--making it clear she will call his superior and press charges for harassment--he can refer to her as one of those "Damn hippies." Or say that she "probably voted for Obama."
I could do more, but do I need to?
The cardboard became a tool, not a thing to fear. It's not a polished example, but I tried to use the cardboard as a springboard into something more memorable. It also puts the character in a situation where she has to make some choices, which then reveals her character a little more.
Now, given more time I could do away with the cardboard and use more complex detail. But I think that given only a few lines, it's a valid way to make a character vivid without trying to force unnecessary details into the scene--details the character would never notice or care about, in many cases.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.