Once upon a time there were three climbers. Each had a different approach to their craft, though none had successfully climbed a mountain quite this high before.
On this day each climber stood before the mountain they were about to climb alone (even if we have a critique group, we are very much alone with our stories) to ponder their chances. It was known as Mt. Story, and it promised a rich experience, both along the way and once you reach the summit.
This is a story about three different ways to get there.
And one of the climbers almost dies.
One was a Planner
She studied maps of the mountain, spent half her savings on equipment and took classes on how to use it all. She understood the principles and the rules of climbing, and understood that to ignore them was to risk your life.
She’d climbed this mountain many times in her mind before she set foot on the actual slope. She was well aware of the route taken by those before her, and she was also aware that she might pass a few frozen bodies along the way.
Those poor souls, she reasoned, hadn’t come prepared for the hazards the mountain always throws at you. They thought this was easy, a linear process that would be compromised by too many rules.
And ignoring those rules got them killed.
Her climber friends who weren’t planners told her she was missing the best part of the experience. How do you know where to go, they asked, before you get there?
I’m going to the top, she answered, and I want to avoid bad weather – that cloudy stuff that will get you killed – along the way.
One Was An Organic Climber
She showed up at base camp with her tennis shoes and a sandwich, and she’d read Into Thin Air, so she was ready. She’d tried a few ascents before, but had to stop because her water bottle was always empty before she lost sight of the tent.
This climber was all about creativity and the experience of discovering what awaited behind every snowy cliff. Heck, if one fell on her head she’d just go back to base camp and start over. Or maybe travel laterally for a while until something vertical opened up.
Heading out on what she hoped was the path, she didn’t even see the lingering clouds. The ones that shroud the mountain daily. In fact, today she couldn’t even see the summit at all, but hey, it was up there somewhere.
Planning? That was fine for others, but she just couldn’t go there. What’s the fun and adventure in that? Let’s just start walking and see what happens.
The Other was a Hybrid Climber
This guy had the right equipment and a little climbing experience that told him what those clouds meant. He understood where the first milestone rest camp was located, and how to get there. At least, sort of.
From there, he reasoned, he’d access the weather and decide on one of several routes, each of which made perfect sense. It all depended on his mood, and the clouds, at the time.
Most critical of all, he knew precisely where the summit was. If he stopped for a little picnic along the way, hey, this wasn’t a timed event. The summit would be there when he was ready to go for it.
And if bad weather confronted him, well, he knew how to handle that, too. Because he, like The Planner, understood the principles of climbing, and he would never stray too far from the path.
So Off They Went
The Planner knew where she was going and how to get there. She was safe and warm the entire way, and therefore able to savor each moment of the climb without wondering where she was, where she was going and if she would make it off the mountain alive.
The Organic Climber took off from base camp in the same general direction – up – under the assumption that the optimal route would announce itself. And if it didn’t, what the hell, she’ll just make something up that sounded good in the moment.
There were no rules anyhow. At least in her view.
Those bodies she had to step over along the way? That’s what they thought, too.
The Hybrid Climber plodded along, taking each step as it came, but with an awareness of where he was.
Without it, he knew, he’d quickly become lost. Just like that lady he saw roaming around the mountain in her tennis shoes.
Here’s What Happened
The Planner reached the summit first. She’d encountered a few surprises along the way – some of them quite pleasant – and because her big picture plan was in place, she had time to explore options and even adjust her route to better enjoy the views.
But she never lost sight of the goal. Everything about the climb was in context to knowing where the summit was, and how to get there.
The Hybrid Climber got there, too, and not all that long after the planner.
He’d taken a few wrong turns , but because he at least knew which direction led to the summit, and where the major crevices and icefalls were hidden, he was able to return to the course – even change course on occasion – all with great success.
As for the Organic Climber, well, she reached a summit, too. Eventually. But only after trying many things in many ways before discovering what worked for her.
And even then, it wasn’t what she’d hoped for.
The Planner and the Hybrid Climber passed her as they descended, asking if she needed any help. No, she said, she’d be fine as soon as she figured out where this crazy climb was taking her, and in the short term, when those dang clouds were going to burn off.
Meanwhile, she said, she was having a blast. She was only temporarily lost.
She somehow made it to the top the next day, exhausted and confused. Trouble is, it wasn’t the crest of the mountain at all.
She’d taken a wrong turn without even knowing, ending up on top of a big mound of volcanic ash, all the while swearing that this little peak was good enough.
After all this, starting over would be just too much work.
Secretly, though she’d admit this to no one in her climbing group, she wished she’d brought a map.
The Moral of the Story
All of us, planners and organic writers alike, set out to achieve the very same thing: the creation of the best story we have in us. The writing process is nothing other than a search for that story.
The story planner conducts the bulk of that search before they begin, something that can’t be done successfully until one grasps the core principles of solid storytelling. And in doing so, they consider and then discard alternatives that will get them killed.
The organic writer conducts that search in the form of multiple drafts. During the journey they face harrowing choices, because each new idea means they need to either start over or try to somehow jam it into the narrative flow.
If they don’t start over – because that’s too much work – if they try to retrofit it into an existing structure… well, this is the great killer of organically written stories.
What we need to keep in mind is that our readers want to reach that summit as much as we do. But they don’t want to take a random walk in the park with us, they want a steady, exciting ascent, dodging a few avalanches along the way.
Every draft an organic writer generates prior to the final one is nothing other than a process of story planning.
That’s no different, and no more or less creative and rewarding, than what the story planner does before they start to write it.
The Hybrid Writer’s Tool Chest
If you use a hybrid process successfully, you know where the story will end before you begin it, or shortly thereafter.
And because you understand the core principles of storytelling, especially structure, you know where the major story points go and how they serve the story.
Even if you aren’t yet sure what will happen between those story points. You’ll take that on when you get there.
This is what allows your inner organic self to linger and play along the way.
Survive the Creative Journey
Story planning is always a matter of degree.
A little or a lot is up to you, as long as it is in context to the principles of solid storytelling.
While it’s okay to make up your story as you go, it’s never okay – at least in terms of likelihood of success – to make up your own principles.
The mountain doesn’t care how you climb it. But it’ll kill you in a heartbeat if you do it wrong.
Either way, a successful final draft always depends on knowing what that ending will be.
Whether you find it on a map or looking through fog along the trail is up to you.