To Plot, or Not to Plot?
One of the most common questions about the writing process is, “Should I write a plotline before I write my novel?”
A written plotline may come in many forms: a numbered list, a few paragraphs or pages of synopsis, or a diagram like Freytag’s triangle or the “10 Scenes Tool” from Jim Smith’s Writer’s Little Helper. Ideally, a plotline will give you the direction you need as you write, helping you to keep the goal in mind when you finish that adrenaline-pumping chapter one, move into the intriguing chapter two, and then get lost somewhere around chapter three and aren’t quite sure where to go from there.
I’ve used variations of written plotlines over the last several years, and it seems like every time I write a new novel, the format differs (or, in some cases, disappears completely). Steel had a chapter-by-chapter outline, and while that story wasn’t spectacular by any means, it did have direction, it didn’t stray from the point (much), and it went where I wanted it to go in the end.
The first draft of deAngelis, however, had no plotline. However, I wrote the majority of it for NaNoWriMo 2009. NaNoWriMo is famous for it’s “no plot, no problem!” slogan, and in a way, that’s what I’ve found works.
I’ve moved away from plotting, for the most part- I like to discover where the characters take me, because a lot of times I experience the story as I write it. It’s easier to realize how my characters will act, react, behave when I’m already in their heads. I do, of course, have a process – and a large notebook.
- Get Down the Basics. Every story has three key parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you don’t know these three things, then you are not ready to write this story. At the time when you’re writing these parts down, you don’t need to know every tiny detail of every scene, who all the supporting characters are going to be, and the intricacies of every subplot. You just need to know how the story begins (the inciting incident, if you will), what the main character spends the majority of the story doing, and how everything winds up after it’s all over.
Ideally, that’s all I’ll start with. Often I’ll jot down a few things that I know I want to happen in any of those three parts, but I try to keep my plot as loose as I possibly can. I don’t like to lock myself down to something. I don’t want to restrain a story before it’s even started.
- Just Write. NaNoWriMo is great for this. It encourages you to just spill the words, get them on the page, and not worry about quality. Getting the story, from beginning to end, written is the main priority. Since this seems to be the hardest part for a lot of people, NaNoWriMo can be the one incentive they need to just get the damn thing done. The community support, both online and in the local writing groups that usually meet at least once a week, is also a huge bonus. If it’s not the encouragement of your fellow writers, it’s the drive to get a higher wordcount than all of them that will drive you to the finish line.
NaNo is the producer of rough drafts, and yes, all of them suck. It doesn’t matter how good of a writer you are, if you participate in NaNo the way you’re supposed to, you’ll end up with plot, characters, and 50,000+ words of absolute garbage. Maybe 10,000 of them will be worth using, and of that, only 2,000 will remain intact in their original form (not counting articles, prepositions, etc).
After that, things get a little tricky. This is where I like to start actually writing out a plotline. There’s a couple ways that I tend to go at it. Once again, that great big notebook* is great to have handy.
- Read through the manuscript and pick out the beginning, middle, and end first. Then pick out the clear plot points, put them where they go. Rewrite, add, remove, and arrange them as you feel works best, shaping it into an outline for the story you want it to be.
- Go at it blind. Sit down at the computer, open the old draft and a new, blank document, and split-screen it, with the draft on one side and the new document on the right. Use the old draft as a guide and just start rewriting.
- Plug the biggest scenes into Smith’s ’10 Major Scenes’ tool and then perfect those, rewriting them until they meet your own standards. Fill in the blanks as you go, kind of playing connect-the-dots. You can go in order, or jump back and forth between stretches of blank plot and populate it as you will.
- Another technique, similar to both #1 and #3, is one I’ve used writing academic papers. I outline as briefly as possible, and then go over it again, and again, and again, expanding a little more each time.
You can use only one of these methods, or two of them, or all of them. There may even be a few that I haven’t thought of or tried. After each draft, I often switch to another method.
Of course, outlining isn’t for everyone, but for the writer who can’t seem to figure out where to go next, it’s definitely a useful tool. It may not fix all of your problems, but it can help, and even if you don’t use a neatly numbered list, or a diagram with perfect, straight lines, just jotting down a few lines to give yourself a goal to work toward can work wonders. A short description of a scene, jotted in your notebook, or a line of dialogue you mutter to yourself and try to recall later.
Are there any methods you use to map out where your story’s going?
* I do, actually, prefer to use a notebook for plotlining, as opposed to a computer or a stack of looseleaf paper. While I write prose and dialogue on a computer best, my plotting plans seem to flow better if I’d doing it by hand.**
** I also tend to write only in black ink, and the thicker, richer the ink, the better. I like the pricier black pens***, but not too big around – I grip writing utensils too hard, and it makes my hand and arm cramp after five minutes.
*** There you go, birthday gift idea.