I am often asked if when beginning a novel it is best to work with an outline. It sounds so logical to say that, yes, of course it is only sensible to have an idea where the story is going before deciding how best to execute the work. Blueprints are necessary in the building of any sound structure. People plan everything from dinner party seating to what to plant in flower beds. If we are going to invest a year or more writing a novel shouldn’t we have some idea of where we are going before setting out on such a monstrously long task?
I mean, think about it— there are so many questions to consider. If it is a story about an illicit love affair, who is doing the loving and who is being betrayed? Why does this story, of all the millions of similar ones, deserve a telling? Why does anyone care who loves whom? What will be the consequences anyway? You could write four-hundred pages and decide there are no consequences, none at all. Joe loves Jan and Jan loves John. Tough luck on Joe, but maybe he’s rather partial to Suzie anyway, and so the story reduces to nothing but gossip.
Better to settle on the architecture of the plot before going up dozens of blind alleys or plowing through thousands of words a day figuring out where you are. In her entertaining and educational book about the process of novel-writing, Write Away, the mystery writer Elizabeth George expresses her utter bewilderment for people who “write hundreds of pages in search of a plot.”
I agree with her—how could I not? There is only one problem with me telling you to take the sensible direction of Elizabeth George, map out the structure of your book, fill out file cards for each of the necessary scenes that will escort the reader through your story, and only then embark on the actual writing of the thing.
And that problem? Why I cannot pass on Elizabeth George’s sage advice? Because I never, ever do it that way. If someone told me I had to work out where my novel would go before I even began the thing I’d take up pottery. Really, I would. Because I need the freedom to invent as I spin the wheel and if I don’t have it, I don’t want to go to the trouble.
Do I waste tremendous amounts of time, “writing into” the story that I wish to tell? Yes, it takes forever. I can spend anywhere from one to four years on a single book, and a lot of that is spent trashing chapters and rewriting others because I’m not sure where I’m going or if it even makes sense to continue.
Do I ever feel lost inside my own book, not even sure this is the novel I wanted to write? Yes, at least once or twice during the writing.
Do I wish I could plot a novel and just get on with it? So much so that occasionally my envy for people whose process is simpler is overwhelming I wish to trade in my laptop for a job as a barista. In my darker moments, learning how to make pretty pictures of hearts and leaves in milk foam would be far more satisfying than trawling through my wretched books that don’t want writing.
So, why don’t I plan out the plot of the book? Even my favourite writing teacher, the late John Gardner, had students work up a novel outline before embarking on the chapters. I suppose the reason is that, in part, most plots sound very mechanical, boring, and that if my job was to move from one place to another in a novel as though on a tour bus across the country, the project would bore me before I got started. Also, one cannot decide upon such vital aspects of the novel’s overall effect all at once, or even in several sittings. By happy accident, I come upon the important aspects of my novels—the tone of the book, the uniqueness of this moment of its telling, the idiosyncrasies of its characters, by allowing myself to play with the work.
Even the notion of progress destroys the fragile nowness of what I am doing, executing story as it is freshly in my mind. But let me assure you that my grasp of narrative structure, even of plot, is not entirely primitive or without influence. I think the three-act structure has been so ingrained in my head from all the books I’ve read for the past five decades that it isn’t an absolutely necessity that I make myself consciously aware of it as I write. I now “naturally” create the rising action you can find in any page-turner in the same manner with which I tell a friend a personal anecdote.
Of course, I try to study books that have unusual methods of story-telling, unique tones or moods or manners of revealing characters. I like the idea of something different. But the basics of most novel structures seem tattooed into my brain from all the reading I’ve done.
Sometimes, I wish I could come up with something a bit bizarre or different than I normally encounter (in fact, I just started a novel for which this is true). During these unusual bouts of mad disregard for Aristotle and his three act structure, I have to pay a lot of attention to plot. But generally, the structure is given to me by the characters and their initial dilemma. The particulars of their situation I discover almost in the same manner as a reader discovers them, as though the things that happen are both surprising but inevitable.
Does this mean I completely ignore what is called “craft”? Not at all. Elizabeth George has a nice statement about craft. She says, “Craft is there to rescue you when the art fails to.” That’s pretty accurate. And this is part of why I envy people who draw great structures of their novels across taped pages, or work out each scene on a card and then arrange the cards in different orders. People who write out character analyses and backstories. I love all those ideas. I just never do them.
And I am not the only one. In her excellent book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes, “Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.” She justifies the uneconomic manner with which our club writes as being necessary due to how much we learn from our characters as we work our way through a scene.
Anne Lamott is correct, of course, and she is also correct when she says that, at times, we have to take our already-written draft of a novel and lay it out page for page, or scene for scene, in clumps upon the floor of the biggest room in our house and look at it structurally. For me, and for all of us in the club of inefficiency, this is absolutely fine because we still have the magic of that initial writing, the germ of life that grew into a giant, living thing that wove its way through the whole of the manuscript. Working on it at the revision stage, shaving off this, adding to that, re-working the structure, won’t hurt it the way that pre-ordaining its shape often does.
And you can plan a little—you don’t have to sit at the desk like a medium, waiting to hear from the dead. You plan a bit, see a little horizon with your book, and then make adjustments as you need to. The point is that it is more like being on a long walk through the woods, being able to see just up to an edge of pine, or as far down as a stream, not being able to see beyond that place but knowing, with the confidence of having walked in similar landscapes, that when you get as far as that, there will be more that you can see, and that you can reach if you just keep going.