Storyteller: Plan or Write from the Gut?

What sparks a storyteller

What sparks a storyteller?

As a storyteller and teacher I come across two types of writers – those who work from a meticulously rendered synopsis or treatment, and those who write from the gut.

There is much to commend both approaches, depending on the personality and mood of the writer, and the medium the writer is writing in.

Screenplays require a more planned approach – the precise placement of the inciting incident, turning points, the climax and resolution. This particular framework typically plays out in a two hour film that does not allow for non-essential embellishments. After all, each additional scene ultimately costs thousands to shoot and edit. A lot of unnecessary writing in search of a purpose, even at the draft stage, is an unprofitable use of time.

A novel is somewhat different. Although this form has also felt the impact of the modern screenplay, with some novelists choosing to eliminate lengthy character rumination and plot diversions, the form does allow the freedom to dig deeper in ways that the screenplay simply can not afford.

A novelist may start with a seed idea, a genre, and a character with an aching need to fix some present or past wrong, achieve some insatiable dream, and take it from there. Some novelists believe that providing they have such markers tucked away in their minds, they can confidently unearth their stories as they go along – that they can write from the gut.

Of course, there are exceptions. Ken Follett writes draft after draft of detailed and accurate treatments of a story, prior to his commencing the writing of the novel itself. It is a method that has clearly worked for this best-selling author.

My own view is that for some of us, dwelling too long on a treatment once we have a version of it, may blunt the writing when we finally do sit down to deliver the tale. So much of the magic, especially in a novel, happens spontaneously at the level of imagery and expression – in bits of plot and image that combine in serendipitous ways to create roads and highways that advance the plot in ways that we can not predict. This, at any rate, has been my experience.

Which approach do you favour, and why? Write in and let me know.


One storyteller may meticulously preplan her stories before commencing the actual writing of her tale. Another may launch right away, using a number of markers to guide her hand.

2 thoughts on “Storyteller: Plan or Write from the Gut?

  1. Stephen Marcus Finn

    Thank you for this posting, Stavros, especially with its comparison of novelists and screenplay writers. I’ve also read what Syd Field has written about character development. However, there is something that he hasn’t considered, possibly because it would be anathema to the writer for screen. Sometimes, with a novelist or playwright, a character starts to take over; in other words, s/he starts having a life of his/her own, and the writer metaphorically sits back to see where this character has decided to go. Is this possible with an original screenplay, or do you think the medium is too tight to allow this?

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Yes, indeed, that is often the case. Stephen King has said something very similar too. As have many others. I don’t see why that can’t happen in a screenplay – that’s why first drafts are there. The precision and structure can always emerge at the editing and rewriting stage. At least, that’s how it is with many writers.


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