Plot, or not to plot?

Let me ask you a question: when you write a story or a novel, do you plot it all out beforehand? Or do you have a vague idea to start with and then just start writing, not knowing where it’ll take you or what’ll actually happen along the way?

There is actually no right or wrong way to write a story – it’s all down to personal preference and methodology. For my own part, I come up with an idea for a plot in the most nebulous of terms, knowing how the story will start and sometimes knowing how it’ll end (but very rarely, though). The bits in between I haven’t the foggiest about (but the story seems to know). Most of the time I’ll be surprised: a character who I thought would do one thing will turn around and do something entirely unexpected. Or, where I do have an ending in mind, another one will sometimes present itself, because it may make more sense or it may simply appeal to me as a better ending.

The danger there, of course, is that, should you be working to a specific maximum word-count, it could all so easily get away from you. There have been times with my own writing when little sideplots occur to me that I believe will help explain the story more fully, or add ‘value’ to it, and so off I go, joyfully typing away. The result? What originally was planned as a 5,000 word tale inevitably becomes a 10,000 word one. And no amount of ‘but that’s how long the story needed to be told in’ excuses will wash with an editor if they’ve specifically asked for 5,000 words. Even with my preferred mode of writing, discipline is definitely needed: allied, of course, to experience in knowing HOW to tell a good story (which you can only get through constantly writing).

On the opposite side of the fence, there are some authors who practically plot EVERY SINGLE incident in all that they write. No matter HOW minute the incident is. I believe that George RR Martin plots his epics along those lines (which, presumably, explains the long gaps between books).  In cases like this, authors do this simply because they know exactly what it is they want to say, and don’t want any unexpected deviations from their carefully planned narratives – in other words, it could possibly become a completely different story if they just let it write itself. When all is said and done, however, it’s just another method of working, neither right nor wrong, and neither good nor bad. Different methods work for different writers.

At the recent alt.fiction event in Derby, during a podcast session between the grandmasters of the horror scene, Ramsey Campbell and Stephen Jones, Campbell discussed his experiences with using both of the methods. The upshot of what he was saying was that (and here I am relying on memory) he found less satisfaction using the ‘plot absolutely everything’ method and that the ‘let’s see what happens’ recipe was considerably more fulfilling, as the book he was working on at the time took him in unexpected directions. That in itself was something of a minor revelation to me, as, for some inexplicable and unfathomable reason, I got the impression that successful authors minutely plotted everything out (or at least had a fully worked out skeleton from which to hang the flesh of the story).

For me, plotting everything would be tantamount to being straitjacketed. I am all for spontaneity, something that I actively encourage when I’m painting, for example. In that case, I have a vague, blocky image, and then, whilst I’m actually painting, I work out the details as and when they occur to me. In that way, I believe, the painting comes out ‘fresher’ and retains the feel of dynamism and immediacy far better than something planned. In life, we react to situations in real-time, our courses of action being dictated by what’s happening at any given moment. We can plan for emergencies, but not to such a minute schedule.

Ultimately, though, it IS all down to personal preference, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. What any writer is aiming for is the best, and if one method works over the other in getting it, then stick with it. Conversely, you don’t need to get all fundamentalist about it – what works successfully for you in all probability won’t work for someone else. Everyone has a way of writing that’s particular to them, as do you. And that, ultimately, is what is so exciting about writing.

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2 Responses to “Plot, or not to plot?”

  1. I tend to use a mixture – I always know the beginning, though it can sometimes take ages to find it, I have a rough idea of the middle and I generally know how things’ll end but everything else is fair game.

    My zombie novel is, essentially, a picaresque adventure, so I’m putting together a series of set-pieces, that I’ll then slot into locations (Wales to Northamptonshire) and that’ll create the backbone.

    Of course, with zombies, that’s the plot – they’re here, they’re trying to eat you, you have to get away!

  2. I guess I could have mentioned that maybe the requirements of the work at hand itself DEMANDS it be plotted in a certain way, rather than the author dictating how things should be run…. writing is in some ways a dialogue between the writer and his work…

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