The Trap of Overplanning Your Story
Updated: Jun 28, 2022
...yes, you can be too prepared.
How long are you going to stare at your notes until they materialize into a story?
In writing circles, there's a cutesy term for the (arguably oversimplified) dichotomy of writing types: planners vs. pantsers. A planner is exactly what it sounds like: one who plans their story to any significant extent before they begin writing. A pantser is one who simply writes and allows the plot to unfold through that writing--as in, writing by the seat of one's pants. Now, you could find a plethora of other blog posts or articles on this topic if you're so inclined to find out where you fit in. Personally, I don't put much stock in people's own writing processes. But I do see many writers, particularly younger writers, fall into a certain trap when they invest all their energy into the planning phase, and so I'd like to address the concept of overplanning. (Pantsers, you're off the hook for today. Go enjoy your life with the disorganized, reckless abandon you are so fond of.)
First, let me perfectly clear: planning is good. It can be great. I've used pages-long outlines to plot out a story, its foreshadowing, motifs, and details about the world, lest I forget or fail to connect my own dots. Planning and outlining can be nothing short of invaluable.
But herein lies the trap: when planning becomes the creative outlet through which someone invests their pride and energy, it tends to grow... and grow... and eventually, the planning phase itself becomes the story. And that's dangerous. Why? Well, if the outline feels increasingly like a fleshed out story or world, then properly writing it out may increasingly feel like a chore. After all, you've already completed the fun part of storytelling: creation. When there's little left to create or discover or experiment with, then writing becomes more a formality than an art form, and who wants to do that?
Here's a graphical representation of the trap of overplanning, as I see it:
Assuming you need some outlining and notes to get your story off the ground, then the initial planning phase is constructive. But at a certain point--once you theoretically have enough to get started--the planning phase will plateau in efficacy. And past that point, when your planning becomes extra information for fun, you risk falling into a canyon of story stagnation. (I put a little glimmer of hope in there on the way down, because I choose to believe there's a point at which some writers recognize this trap and summon the motivation to start writing; I am no cynic.)
Fantasy Writers, Beware
I won't mince words: I see this problem far more among young fantasy writers than I do among other genres or demographics (although historical fiction comes close). I imagine this is because fantasy worlds inherently require world-building, and it's why a lot of fantasy writers enjoy the genre in the first place. Of course, this raises the question of how much world-building is really needed to start writing the story, and it's all too easy to overestimate the answer.
Let's say you're writing a high fantasy story in which there are multiple kingdoms across multiple continents, replete with mythical beasts, magic, and millennia of history. Clearly you need some idea of these things in order to plot out a story that intertwines them. You might need to know how many continents there are, their general placement in the world, and the general topography therein. You might need to know the cultures of the predominant kingdoms and their relation to each other. You might need a rough understanding of how magic works in this world and how people have used it historically...
Keep in mind that all of these things, as potentially expansive as they are, could be answered succinctly. These could be bullet points, perhaps sub-bullet points and sub-sub-bullet points, but succinct notes nonetheless. However, once you've written a page on the history, lineage, and cuisine of one of your kingdoms, you've already entered overplanning territory. Your reasoning may be sound: You want to place your characters in a fleshed out world. You want immersion. But ask yourself this: Would these details not come out in the writing? Could you not figure them out as the story unfolds? And more importantly, is it not possible that these details might be even better if you decided them within the context of your writing?
Is it not possible that these details might be even better if you decided them within the context of your writing?
Hey, I get it: world-building is fun. Though if you have all your fun building a world, then you may get bored with it before you can turn it into a story. And I suppose that's alright if your goal is just to have fun and be creative. But it's not a story until.. well... you've stared writing a story.
So, What Now?
If you're in the planning phase, just keep a couple of questions in the back of your mind:
Could I confidently explain my main characters, setting, and conflict in a few sentences?
Could I write the first chapter?
If you can do these things, you could start writing. Additionally, consider asking yourself this dangerous question:
Am I eager to start this story?
If you're really planning for a story, you should be excited to start writing it. Once you begin feeling hesitation toward the writing stage, perhaps because you've transferred all your excitement to the planning or because the planning seems unending, I'm sorry to say you've overplanned.
Luckily, the cure is simple: put the notes and outline aside. Don't even look at them. At this point, you certainly know enough of your world by heart to begin writing. So, sit down and write.