To Plot or Not to Plot – That is the Question

to plot or not to plot

While I have been writing the first draft of my novel, plot has played a significant part of the scheme.  Naturally, stories have plots, so what’s the big deal?

It all started with an outline.  It has never been my process to write an outline.  Sure, I’ve jotted down notes and have been known to write extensive character profiles but the jumble of notes, snatches of dialogue, and ideas about scenes even in its aggregate could never have been called an outline.

After reading a pretty good case for outlining written by J.A. Konrath in the Newbies Guide to Publishing I became convinced there would be benefits galore to my writing an outline, and among these benefits were:

  • After devoting a week to 10 days to an extensive and thorough outline, I could finish a first draft in a month
  • My daily output could be more than doubled
  • I could write two to three books a year using this method
  • I would probably never write myself into a corner again

To be fair, I wasn’t promised these benefits, I did infer them but still, it was these inferred benefits that spurred me on to write the outline.

The first bump in the road

Unlike J.A. my outline didn’t take a mere one week to 10 days.  It took over a month.  And to be honest, I never finished it because by the time I got through the second act plotting I was losing the juice that inspired the story in the first place.  So I just decided to start writing, lest I end up with an outline and nothing else.

I have to admit the outline did get me started but somewhere around the fifth chapter the characters decided the outline was crap and insisted on going off-script.  No matter how many times I herded them toward the outline, they bolted every chance they got.  I also spent a lot of time consulting the outline before writing, which made me and the characters pretty impatient and I found the sequence was often wrong once the story started to gain steam.

To my shock and awe I also frequently found myself in a corner and then had to re-think things to get back on track.

Including the time spent writing the outline; I am now three months into the project and still haven’t completed the first draft.

Then I ran out of outline

And, of course, since I didn’t bother to outline the last act I ran out of outline.  So there I sat, stuck and wondering what to do, where to go, and how to get there.  I knew the ending; I just didn’t know the path that would get me there.

Since my own method – the jump in and just start and make it up as you go along method – typically takes me about three months to produce a first draft, I had to laugh.  This new method that was supposed to (in my mind) make things go smoother and faster was taking about the same amount of time.

Life doesn’t have an outlined plot, why should a novel?

Then it dawned on me.  Life has no plot.  Oh sure in hindsight maybe.  But we all know that the best laid plans rarely work out as we expect.  We all know that no matter how much we plan and stick to the plan that things we couldn’t possibly anticipate happen.  And then we have to adjust.  And then we have to rewrite our plan.  And then we have to figure out where we go from there.  Life isn’t a plot but a maze we have to navigate.

So, the other day I just said, “Screw it,” and stopped thinking with the plot.  Instead, I started thinking with the story, with the characters, and with what was happening right then.  And things started to shake loose.

By letting go of the plot I can now see how to get to the end and what’s going to have to happen to get there.  But it’s not carved in stone.  It’s not etched in indelible ink that defies erasure.  It’s a sense of direction, it’s an understanding that like life, we can never predict with total certainty what direction things will take or how we’ll react when life or characters veer off.  It’s just being okay with the fact that vigilance and persistence gets you through to the end.

So, I’m through with plotting and back to writing

I mean no disrespect to any writer who does outlines and loves them.  It’s just that I’m not one of them.  Maybe you aren’t either.  Maybe your passion for the story gives you the instinct to follow the path that leads to the end without having to plot the course first.  Life is an adventure and so in my mind, is writing.

What do you think?  Outline or not?  What’s your process?

Writer Chick

Copyright 2013




One thought on “To Plot or Not to Plot – That is the Question

  1. I start with an idea and loose outline, but once the characters take over, the story goes wheels up and screams off into the night sky. What a wonderful feeling that is…when the story takes off and you’re holding on by your fingertips!

    Hi Alfred,
    I think we may have similar approaches. I kind of like that wheels up approach too. What kind of stories do you write?
    Writer Chick


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