To plot, or not to plot – that is the question …
To me, there are two parts of writing. There’s the wonderful enchantment that overcomes me sometimes, when words tumble through my head faster than I can write, when every word rings true as soon as I catch it in my net. And then there’s the hard slog of writing when every word is dug out of obstinate rock.
To me, good writing seems so effortless, it is as if the reader was making it up as they go along, as if every word and every happening in the story is inevitable. I never want to be seen striving for effect – I want the architectural girders of the story to be invisible.
However, to write that well is hard. It is all too easy to lose your way, which is why having a plan of what you are writing can help you be a more focused and effective writer. I have two mantras that I teach my students:
- To write without a plan is like going on a journey without a map
- Never start a novel with a blank page
There are basically two methods of writing.
The Intuitive Approach
Sometimes called ‘free associative writing’.
You set off on a journey with no idea where you are going, allowing the words to carry you along as they will.
Every time you get stuck, which you will be often, you can use a form of brainstorming to get you going again. Ask yourself questions – where are my characters? What are they doing? Why did that happen? What can my character hear, see, smell, taste, feel? What am I trying to express or communicate with this story?
The main problems with this method is getting so stuck you can’t get going again, or ending up with a lot of material that cannot be used, thereby wasting time and energy.
The Analytical Approach
Some writers plot out the entire story before they write a word, complete with characters sketches, chapter-by-chapter and scene-by-scene breakdowns, and thematic conclusions.
Such planning can help with both the actual writing process (you know what you are writing about) and with the tying up of any loose ends. However, it can also limit you to only writing what was planned and so not leaving room for any of those great leaps of the imagination that can take you in all sorts of surprising directions.
What I do is use a combination of both of these methods – I develop a plot-line where I know my beginning and my end and a number of key scenes along the way. Then, as I am writing, I develop this plot-line further as new ideas come. I also do a fairly comprehensive outline before I write each chapter so I know exactly what I want to have happen in that scene.
So what exactly is a plot?
A Plot is a series of events which is driven by the protagonist’s attempt to RESOLVE a source of CONFLICT. The plot is therefore driven by the protagonist’s actions and reactions to a set of problems or obstacles or ordeals.
You could also describe this as a causal sequence of events in a story.
- This means a plot works in two ways – what is happening (the sequence of events) and why it is happening (cause and effect of what is happening)
- Character and plot are therefore inextricably entwined, because the personality of your characters will determine how they react to any given situation
The Basic Formula Of All Stories
Protagonist + Objective + Obstacles = Story
Another way to put it:
Character + Desire + Conflict = Story
i.e. someone wants something that is hard to get
Once you understand this, it is much easier to plan your story.