I've written about it before, but it's so hard to put into action that I thought I might as well bring it up again.
Recently I was given an assignment to write a short story based on a specific theme. Twice, I tried to start it without any plan, and twice I dead-ended within the first page. Because I tend to "write from the gut," as one of my professors used to say, I'll come up with a beginning, then I'll plan from there. It's not the order that I recommend, but it had worked for me up to a point. Then I realized that I was going at it backwards.
So when I cleared the document for a third try, I started like this:
Narrator: Esther Clery
Message: Friends will always fight for each other.
Events: Esther must defend her friend from the Nightmare Monster.
It's not very complex, but it was something to start with. And now that I knew what the message was supposed to be, I had a better idea of what the feeling of the piece should be, and where I could go from that beginning I'd wrecked twice already.
As I wrote, I realized that the message wasn't quite right, so after three pages, I scrolled up to the top and changed it.
Message: The life of a friend is worth more than anything.
That fit the story better, and I was able to finish in 3 days. BAM.
My plan moving forward from here, is to start each piece with that same basic layout. Figure out what the theme, message, events, and narrator are before I even set down the first line. Not because those things show up in the text of my story, but because knowing them up front helps direct the ways in which the story develops in my brain.
I like to think that this will help reduce the number of times I write plot holes into my stories or paint myself into a corner with character interactions, but that's probably not true. More likely, it just makes the way out of the mess a little clearer. :)
Tell me what your order of writing operations is, and how it works out for you!