Five Things: Creative Planning Techniques for Writers

CJ Skuse portrait and The Deviants book cover
Category: Writing

Embarking on a new project and struggling to get stuck in? Here are five creative writing planning techniques that have always worked for me.


Actors playing the part

I often find that beginning a story with a collection of ‘actors who would play the parts if the film got made’ is a very useful tool

In ‘The Roald Dahl Treasury,’ Dahl talks about collecting notes and clippings to assist him with his writing. “I collect pictures of people because I find them helpful when I’m trying to describe characters in my books,” he says. “When you are creating characters you’ve got to see the eyes, the nose, the teeth and then the whole expression of the face. Every little detail is important.” I totally agree with this and it’s something I’ve always done for my own books. I often find that beginning a story with a collection of ‘actors who would play the parts if the film got made’ is a very useful tool in pinning a character down – their mannerisms, the sound of their voices, the way they interact with others. It is merely a helpful shortcut though and every character I’ve written has always begun as that actor/actress, but by the time I’ve finished the book, they no longer resemble that actor/actress in my head – they are themselves.


Three-Act Structure

This, in my opinion, is a very helpful shortcut to framing the structure of your story if you’re having trouble corralling it inside a given word count or if you know it’s just too unwieldly for what it is. Roughly plotting my intended story arc down on a three-act structure template allows me to incorporate a growing sense of tension into my book, while also making sure I don’t forget to include all those things readers like – obstacles, high stakes, a midpoint twist etc. Whenever I’ve written the first draft of a book without framing it first inside a three-act structure, it’s always been far too long and with various subplots which have no bearing on the overall story.


30-Point Planning

The writer Steve Voake, who was also one of my tutors on the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, first introduced me to this technique whereby ideas for scenes in a novel can be plotted on an A4 sheet of paper with the numbers 1-30 written down the side to denote key scenes. I see the list of numbers as a sort of spine, with the scenes coming off it like ribs. I did about 50 of these for my last YA novel, The Deviants, as it helped me to unfurl the story piecemeal, to see which scenes were integral to the story and which weren’t, to see which of my important themes were pulling the story along and which weren’t and to establish the order of the scenes in the build to the climax. I find this such a useful tool in the planning process.


The Core Image or ‘Propeller’ for Your Ship

When I was struggling with my third novel, Dead Romantic, my editor advised me to buy a very large piece of card and “get your brain onto the page” so I could see at a glance what my story was about. And in the middle of that page I put my core image – the image which I felt neatly summed up what the whole book was about. The image for Dead Romantic was a stitched heart. The heart denoted the central idea: two girls – one heartbroken and yearning for love, one grief-stricken but expert in science and surgery – join forces to create the perfect boyfriend using dead body parts. And this heart, though I didn’t know it at the time, was my novel’s propeller too – the propeller of my little ship. One girl is desperate to fall in love, the other is desperate to bring her father’s brain back to life and both of these elements combine to form a stitched heart. I advise my students to find their story’s core image or ‘propeller’ at the earliest opportunity as I think it helps them to keep focus.


Plot ‘Pegs’

A chapter breakdown helps an author see where pace is flagging

This is linked somewhat with the 30-Point Plan. If an author is still struggling with the order of their scenes when a first draft is written, I advise them to do a chapter breakdown – a short blurb for each chapter, denoting what happens in each scene. At a glance, an author may then be able to track their themes, their characters and their ‘plot pegs’ – the main point of each chapter. They can also see where pace is flagging. If an author is struggling to see the peg in any given chapter/scene, it may be that it is an extraneous one and, as such, not important to the progression of the novel. I’m a firm fan of Kurt Vonnegut’s creative writing tips and I constantly bore my students to death with them. My favourite of his is this “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance action.” I believe this is also true of chapters/scenes and I constantly ask my students to question the necessity of each and every one of their characters, their scenes and also, in the later stages of their drafts, their sentences.

Looking for more tips to get your writing on track? Check out our series of Five Things posts.

C.J. Skuse

C.J. Skuse, author of the YA novels Pretty Bad Things, Rockoholic, Dead Romantic, Monster and The Deviants (which is out now, MIRA Ink), was born in 1980 in Weston-super-Mare, England. She has first class degrees in Creative Writing and Writing for Young People and, aside from writing novels, works as a freelance children’s fiction consultant while also lecturing on the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. CJ’s first adult title, Sweetpea will be published by HQ/HarperCollins in April 2017.