To Plot Or Not


I’m often asked if it’s best to begin your novel by making an outline. It sounds so logical to say that, yes, of course we ought 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.


Let’s say it’s a love story.  Who is doing the loving and who is being betrayed?  Why does this story, of all the millions of similar ones, deserve a telling? 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.


(Except, well. I’d probably read that)


Right, it’s decided! 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.


But…um….no. It’s good advice, bt I never 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? Sometimes. Does some of my best work take place when I’m sinning that pottery wheel. Yes, the best. Also, the worst. ,


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. Did I say this was a good career choice?


Do I ever feel lost inside my own book, not even sure this is the novel I wanted to write? At least once or twice during the writing.


So, why don’t I plan out the plot of the book? Well, I do. Sort of. I work out a few chapters ahead of where I am. I sometimes work toward a big watershed moment, but 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.


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.


You don’t have to sit at the desk like a medium, waiting to hear from the dead. Plan a bit, look for 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.

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