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Sunday, April 13, 2008

To Plot or Not to Plot, That is the Question

There is an age-old feud amongst writers: Plotters versus Pantsters. That is, should you plot out the course of your novel, or should you fly through it by the seat of your pants?

In my opinion, you should do both.

I've been on both sides of the feud. I wrote my first novel completely by the seat of my pants, blindfolded and with no map at all. There was something wonderfully spontaneous about it, like I was living on the edge all the time. Every time I sat down to write I was given a new surprise, a new twist that took my breath away. I loved the freefall of it.

But the novel took me five years to finish, and then another year of extensive edits to get it in shape to submit. Granted, that draft got me my agent. But the novel didn't sell, and a big reason, I believe, is because it still needs editing, and a lot of the stuff that probably needs to go is stuff I found while I was on my wild ride and refused to let go of.

When I started my second novel, I didn't want to lose that spontaneity, but I didn't want to take six years to write it. So I sketched out a loose outline using The Hero's Journey (a book by Chris Vogler - highly recommended) template. Then halfway through writing the book I realized that the story needed to start a lot later so I started rewriting the whole thing. I never adjusted my outline, and so once again I was flying virtually by the seat of my pants. That book remains unfinished.

With my third novel, my current WIP (work-in-progress), I decided that I wanted to finish it in less than a year. That meant I needed a strong outline, a clear road map of where I needed to go. I took a class in Plotting Via Motivation (with - also highly recommended), I drudged up all my old notes from various plotting workshops I'd attended at conferences and I dragged out The Hero's Journey. I put together a hero's journey template for my MC (main character) and even worked out a scene plot. I'm on track to finish the book within the time frame I've given myself.

The important thing is that even though I have this road map, I'm allowed to veer off it. That outline isn't chiseled in stone. Flights of fancy are of course allowed because characters aren't always predictable and sometimes things happen that surprise us. For instance, I just had a character pop up that I had not planned for or even heard of. But there he is. So I've got to adjust my scene to allow for him. There's still spontaneity. But I have found that spontaneity within a structure is ultimately much more productive - and time-saving.

Writers will debate plotting until they're blue in the face. Terry Brooks swears by outlining. Diana Gabaldon doesn't. Both are fantastic writers. You can't tell from the finished product whether a writer used an outline or didn't. (Well, sometimes you can, but that's a different blog).

It's all about which process works best for YOU. And it may even be dependent on the story. Maybe my first book needed to be written in that meandering, fly-by-night way. My current WIP needs structure. The important thing is to listen to yourself, to your characters, and decide.


Gerb said...

Your post brings up two points that I stress whenever someone asks me about plotting. 1. There is no one correct way to write - it all depends on what works for each writer, and 2. It is possible to be both a pantser AND a plotter!

By nature, I'm a pantser, but by necessity I'm a plotter. This doesn't mean the spontaneity is gone; I still discover exciting things as I go along - and the outline is not static! It can change as the story evolves. So I've come to believe that I'm a plotter when it comes to story structure and a pantser as I fill in the blanks. And that seems to work for me at this stage in my writing.

Ginger Calem said...

Ah the plot/pants debate lives on. Seriously though, I actually find it interesting that this is sometimes truly debated among writers. Nicole, you very clearly showed that a writer needs to use the method that works for them.

I find it's a great experiment to try a little of both. Challenge yourself. If you're flat out a die-hard plotter, give yourself permission to dabble in a story with no preset (at least not written down--head plotting doesn't count) plot to follow. See what happens. On the flip-side, if you can't fathom trying to follow a plot, think it will steal away your creative energy and just 'ruin' everything...just give it a tiny chance and see what happens. You may find that not having to worry about the bones of the story might actually give your creative energy more room to stretch and fly. Could be the very thing to give you the momentum, energy and ooomph to push through to the end.

Personally, I have learned that I need a road map for my stories, especially for my mysteries. But my map is not so detailed that I feel like I'm traveling through a tight tube with no options to veer off course. My map is more like a nice wide country road. All sorts of things can still alter my journey but I can always see the road so I don't get lost.

Plotting and writing by the seat of your pants are both writing tools. Don't discount a tool unless you've tried it. Do it ALL. :)

Julie O'Connell said...

Terrific post, Nicole. I'd like to think that I'm adept at both methods. The sad truth, however, is that I'm not-so-hot at either. Since I live by the motto, 'If it's not written down, it never happened', I HAVE to keep a road map of scenes, characters, and plot points. If I didn't, I'd forget them five minutes later when another work or family crisis interrupted me.

I've gotten some great ideas and inspirations from free writing that have turned into longer, stronger pieces. I also have a few outlines and templates that are tucked away on my hard drive and may never see the light of day. What works for me is a blend of the creative and the regimented, and I believe that everyone can find their own blend.