Planning as Sketching

You should figure out (ideas) as you’re writing them, just as painters and architects do. We need (a medium) that lets us scribble and smudge and smear.” Paul Graham, programmer and artist

thomas moorePlanning has two parts. First you identify a goal, and then you figure out how to reach it.

If the goal is to write a short story and publish it in a magazine, the means to reach it might include selecting a subgenre, reading stories that have been well received by the target audience, picking a length, and identifying an interesting theme to write about.

Paul Graham, an artist as well as a programmer, describes sketching as a way to record and work through ideas.

The concept of sketching is used in a number of fields, drawing and painting of course, but also in architecture, musical composition, computer programming, and writing.

thomas moore 2.pngBefore doing a painting on canvas, an artist typically makes a sketch to rough out the major features that will be in the painting. Sketches are used to explore ideas, and the artist often draws the same thing several different ways, one on top of the other.

The artist might make a number of different sketches, since paper is cheap compared to canvas and oil, and sketching is fast. The artist will create a lot of ideas that don’t get used, but that’s okay; it’s the process. The important thing is to try things out and see how they work.

A Malleable Media

Planning is done in a malleable media, while the activity being planned is not. An architect designs a building using paper and drafting tools, but the building itself will be built from brick and concrete. If you want to move a wall, it’s less expensive to do it early when the wall is a line on a piece of paper, rather than waiting until after it’s been built.

Also, things don’t have to be planned in any particular order. You can plan a trip backwards, even though you can only take a trip forward.

Fractal Decomposition

People who like to outline often begin their plots as a high level overview and from there, flesh out the details.

They might begin their stories from a single thought, like “lost dog tries to go home” or “two cousins fall for the same girl”.

From there, their planning process might look something like this:

  • Write a one sentence storyline or short synopsis
  • Write an outline
  • Identify the plot points of the three act play
  • Write a treatment or beat sheet
  • Write a scene list

Until recently, I thought of plot development as adding more levels of indentation to the outline. But then it occurred to me, it’s like fractal decomposition. Fractals are common mathematical technique for generating patterns. To create texture, the main pattern is repeated, but on a smaller scale, in each successive iteration.

Stories are like fractals in that they have repeating patterns, too. A subplot can be a metaphor for the main plot, for example, a family quarrel that mirrors a civil war. A scene within a story might be a story that can stand alone by itself, because it has a beginning, middle, and end. Even a clip, a few paragraphs on the same subject, can be a story in miniature: a flashback, or someone telling a joke or relating a dream.

I felt so brilliant for thinking of it. Then I learned that Randy Ingermanson invented fractal decomposition for stories ten years before I did, and furthermore, had done a better job of it than I had. So after traveling to Sweden to collect my Leibniz award for originality, I will refer you to Randy Ingermanson’s excellent blog for the full description of the fractal decomposition method, and just touch on some of the highlights.

The principle is to start high-level and abstract, and to build onto the structure with each additional cycle. Begin with a single sentence, for example, “It’s about a sea captain obsessed with a giant fish” (with apologies to Herman Melville.)


Start with a high-level thought and expand it, one layer at a time, into the first draft of your story.These levels aren’t necessarily arranged in order, for example, you might find an outline to be a larger document than a treatment. You might also want to do fractal decomposition using layers of your own choosing, like concept maps, beat sheets, timelines, and long synopses.



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