To plot? Or not?

I’ve run across an ongoing conversation in the blogosphere about the best way to write a novel.  There are those who outline and plan before beginning a draft.  They’re called “plotters” or sometimes “plodders.”  I’m sure that second term is meant with affection.

Others simply write, letting the story grow organically, discovering the plot and characters along the way.  I’ve seen those writers called “pantsers” for their tendency to fly by the seat of their pants.  E.L. Doctorow said that writing is “like driving a car at night.  You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I’m guessing that he’s a “pantser.”

Although there are a few with extreme opinions (like certain authors of child-rearing and dog-training books who suggest that using any method other than the one they espouse will doom the reader to failure), most writers seem to believe that the best way to write is the one that works for the individual writer.

I’ve been writing for almost eighteen years but I’m still not sure exactly what works for me.  I’ve always done some plotting and some free-writing in the course of a project.  Considering the weakness of the plot of my previous novel, I’m going to try a more deliberate plotting approach this time.

Since I’m the type of person who likes to draw a map of a room before moving the furniture, I have a feeling that I might have better luck with my next novel if I plan first.  Perhaps I should have realized this sooner.

There are many books on plotting to use as a guide.  Two that I’ve often heard mentioned as good resources are:

Story by Robert McKee

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

Both writers have backgrounds in film, which makes sense to me since the novel is a descendent of theater.  Where would we be without Shakespeare?

Lately, I’ve been following Alexandra Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Authors blog.  She analyzes well-knows films to demonstrate how film plots work and offers suggestions and assignments to help writers plan a compelling storyline.  I was delighted to discover that she’s compiled many of her posts into an affordable e-book, also titled Screenwriting Tricks for Authors.

I’m off to work on my new novel, plotting and planning, but I also can’t forget another quotation from E.L. Doctorow.   “Planning to write is not writing.  Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing.  Writing is writing.”

So, while I plan my novel, I’ll continue to write.  Maybe I’ll free-write to discover backstory, to flesh out my characters or to explore possible scenes.  Or perhaps I’ll take a side trip into a short story or an essay.  I hope that this time it won’t take six years to write my novel.  And I hope that when I get to the end, I’ll have a well-plotted story.


Filed under novels, Plot, Writing

17 responses to “To plot? Or not?

  1. anitra

    Hi shary
    This seems like a seamless and natural evolution in your development as a writer. You write extremely well in this conversational style in your blog. It really draws me along to be curious about what you’re going to say next.
    See you thursday?

  2. @ anitra – Thanks! I’m curious about what I’ll say next, too. Blogging is so different from fiction and I worry that I won’t be able to think of anything to write about.

    And yes, I’ll see you Thursday. Looking forward to it!

  3. Well said Shary, as usual. For me, I am both a pantser and a plodder, a pantser with fiction, a plodder with non, unless it is blogging, and then I’m back to pantser. Your post reminds me what a good exercise it is to practice both!

  4. I’ll be really eager to hear how this new approach works for you and writing your new novel. I agree the free-writes may be good exercises to flesh out characters, themes, ideas. I’m excited to see where the road takes you!

  5. I’ve always been intrigued by the “headlights” approach to writing ficiton. Living the dream, etc. I have no idea which approach would work for me; like you’ve mentioned, probably a little of both.
    Writing non-fiction is so different! I have the material–a huge lump of unrefined “crap”–and have to shape it deliberately, through revision after revision. Alot of times it’s just the plodding manipulation of words. Sometimes I envy the freedom of writing fiction. I’ve finally come to accept that my strength is in writing non-fiction, though, and do have fun with it.
    At some point I’m going to write a post on the differences between writing for my book and blog writing. They’re worlds apart. All interesting stuff.

    • I’ll look forward to reading your comparison of your non-fiction work and your blog.

      And I understand what you mean about the freedom of writing fiction. The possibilities are endless and that can be joyous. And intimidating. How on earth do I choose?

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  7. Shary, I’m definitely a free writer! I used to hate it when I was in school and college and instructors used to request we hand in an outline with each written piece. Believe it or not, I would write the piece first and the outline later! I agree with Anita, your conversational style writing is fantastic. I feel as if you’re talking to me directly. And I can’t think of a better way to reach a reader! For me, writing is about trial and error. Sometimes I used a certain style and think, no, this won’t do. I’m sure you’l figure it out as you go along. After all, you’re extremely talented! 🙂

    • Thanks! It is trial and error, isn’t it. I know lots of people like you who wrote first and did the outline later. I guess the hardest part is just figuring out what works.

  8. I tend to free-write to start and then outline for long pieces. I’ve heard many writers say that if you know the ending of the story, the writing becomes more fluid. For shorter pieces, I can mental plot what will happen and typically, I start with the title to get me through the completion of a work.

    I used to plan very deliberately but it’s never been effective for me. By the time I get to the writing portion, I’m less interested in the story and/or the characters. I think I would just prefer learning my characters while writing.

    • You have a point about losing interest in the charaters and the story after the outline. I’ll have to navigate that carefully, I think. Fingers crossed!

  9. I’m definitely a free writer and frankly, find the idea of writing a book, daunting. Which is why I love blogging. It’s snippets, slices of life and maybe one day, I’ll be able to turn my snippets into a full-fledged book. Best of luck on your next novel!

  10. I’m a pantser. When I work on my novel, sometimes I’m surprised at the turns a character or scene takes (which is fun!). I’ve tried outlining and plotting and all of that but it doesn’t help me and sucks the creative juices right out.

    I firmly believe that what works for each individual is the best approach.

    • I’m finding it a challenge to figure out the combination of methods that works best for me. Still working on that, but I do hope to find my best approach soon.