Writers Club: Plotting

Plot is necessary for novels. This seems like a no-brainer. It’s the causal sequence of events in a book: This happened because this happened because this happened and so on. Events happen, problems, conflicts, and everything escalates until there’s a final conflict and resolution. Usually there is at least one secondary plotline, and often more. After all, most people have more than one thing going on in their lives.

Here’s the trouble, at least for me: I often have trouble developing the plot in advance. More often, my brain wants to see what happens as I go along. In some respects, I think this is because I’m out to entertain myself with my stories. I don’t want to know what happens in advance any more than my readers do. I want to discover as I go. I’ve a friend who calls the first draft the “discovery draft.”

The trouble with not knowing the plot is that you make a lot of wrong turns and go off to random spots, find hidden trails, and sometimes–even often–find treasures you never knew you were looking for. That makes writing exciting. It also makes it stressful. You always wonder where you might end up. Will the book make sense? Will it become a well-woven whole or will it be a mess of spaghetti dripping over the edge of the plate?

I would like to work with a plot outline. I’ve tried a lot of different methods. I used to be able to establish the major plot points that I wanted to hit on and then I could navigate toward those points, weaving in the secondary plot lines as I went. But my brain refuses to do that much anymore. I’ve been working on tricking myself and forcing out a plot outline. And of course, it always changes and is never correct. In fact I don’t really expect it to be, which ought to sound bizarre–I mean why do it at all? But having a sense of the path does help.  It frees my mind to play a little bit. Knowing that, I don’t know why I can’t just write down a possible plot direction. I’m such a weird contradictory mess in that regard. A plot outline frees me, but writing it feels like I’m fixing it permanently in place and my brain rebels.

In order to make myself do it, I focus on projects that I’m not planning to write right away. That takes the pressure off getting it done to try to get it written. It lets me play with the story in my head for awhile, and lets me be goofy with the possibilities. That last often gets me to where I want to be–an original plot line. I get acquainted with my characters, developing who they are until they feel real to me and have a voice and I know what they would and wouldn’t do, which of course leads to more adventures.

I wish the process didn’t have to be so messy, but it is and I just have to suck it up. So this is me, sucking it up. *dives back into the mess*







Writers Club: Plotting — 7 Comments

  1. The older I get, the more I realize that there is a level in which we need to recognize our patterns. Most of us were readers long before we wrote, which I think influences our writing: we emulate patterns that pleased us. (This can also be reproducing the pattern of a seminal book, which is why you see a lot of Hunger Games structure from young writers in workshops, and ten years ago it was Harry Potter structure, and when I was young, Lord of the Rings, or Andre Norton (outsider woman and Companion Animal), etc.

    The upside is that readers probably like these patterns, too. Downside, the accusation that Writer X is “basically rewriting the same book over and over.”

    Examining those patterns, and contemplating how and why they work, can sometimes break a writers’ block, and cause fresh ideas to well up, for many writers. (Hastening to add that of course not every writer has the same process.)

  2. There is also the sense that you yourself have to write in a certain way. It’s like horses: some are born to race, while others were bred to pull Budweiser wagons. Put that Derby racehorse into the wagon shafts, and nobody goes anywhere.

    There’s a wide spectrum, and all of the maniacal outliners are at one end — the planners. I know planners who outline the book not only chapter by chapter, but paragraph by paragraph. They draw maps; they design magic systems and FTL drives; they lay out the history of Middle Earth from the beginning of Arda.

    This is inconceivable for me. I am a pantser. I just step off the cliff, and the wings appear and I fly. I =cannot= outline it; if I do it dies, right there on the page. I can’t write to an outline. I need the freedom to go anywhere the story takes me. The late great Diana Wynn Jones was like this too — you can see it in her books. I was on a panel with her American editor once. She assured us that whenever she called Diana she never asked ‘How’s the book going?’ Even contemplating this was enough to grind the work to a stop. Do not ask the centipede which foot moves next! As long as she kept her mouth shut the author kept on writing.

  3. I’m somewhere in the middle between outline and pants. I need a skeleton to start with and an ending I’m aiming for. Lately I rarely hit the target I’m aiming for, but I have an end that pulls me from one scene to the next until we both wander off the primrose path. Those are the endings that work best but I can’t see them until I’m well into the book.

  4. Yes, you can have a notional ending but never get there. I live for the moment when the work leaps to life, takes the bit between its teeth, and gallops off into the tall timber. That’s when you really are a writer!