I recently participated in an author’s panel at a conference sponsored by the New Mexico branch of the National Council of Teacher’s of English. One of the questions posed to us was whether or not we plotted our stories or used a more organic process. I was the only one on the panel who said I plotted my books. The other authors reported that they avoided plotting for three main reasons:
1) They didn’t want to know the end of the story before they began.
2) They were afraid they would be putting themselves into a box if they planned out the entire
3) They were afraid that writing would lose its fun and excitement.
To plot or not to plot is an age-old debate among writers. I think that some authors who claim NOT to plot, actually have an intrinsic sense of story and may be internally planning out their story without even knowing it. The plot may not appear on paper, but the story is well-formed in the mind of the writer. I think that whether you choose to plot or not boils down to your personal temperament and your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I have used both approaches and I know my writing tendencies well enough to realize that when I don’t plot, I end up with too many subplots that I then have difficulty weeding out.
If you are wondering whether you are a plotter or a not, here are some questions that might help you decide which approach is best for you:
When you go on a vacation what are you most likely to do?
a. Do you plan out everything in advance? Do you buy your airlines tickets so early that you are
always able to find a cheap rate, type a list of the places you will be staying, and then send a
copy of your itinerary to loved ones so that if you go missing they will be able to establish
your last known whereabouts? Does this structure, which may seem anal to others, actually
gives you the freedom to forget about the details and enjoy the journey?
You may be a plotter.
b. Do you hop in the car and let the road take you where it may. Do you love the adventure of
not knowing what the next stop will be, and relish new and unexpected experiences? Are your
senses and all your powers of observation on high alert when you are in novel situations? If
you end up without a place to stay, are you willing to couch surf with strangers because it’s all
part of the experience?
You may not be a plotter.
c. Do you often forget where you have left the car? Would you like to be going on adventures but
never quite get moving, and if you do you end up going nowhere or running in circles? Do you
claim to be spontaneous, but that’s only because you don’t like to make plans?
You are the least likely to plot, but the most likely to benefit from it if you
gave it a try.
Are you a dog person, a cat person, or a plant person?
Dogs require planning. If you go out of town you’ll need a good kennel or a dog sitter. Even their daily poop excursions require forethought. Most dogs require some degree of training. If you are into this level of commitment with your pet, you may feel the same about your fictional characters. Plotting may be a natural process for you. Unless, of course, your dog is an untamed beast that you don’t mind throwing in the back of the car for a last minute road trip.
Cats come and go as they please. If you are gone all day, they can fend for themselves. A self-cleaning cat box and food/water dispenser are all they need if you are gone for any length of time. If you are a cat person, you may enjoy stories that take on a life of their own.
If you are neither a dog nor a cat person, and are struggling just to keep a few houseplants alive, you may find that starting with a short outline is less of a commitment than tackling an entire book. Though you say you don’t like the structure of an outline, you may actually take comfort in the process when you actually try it. It’s a heck of a lot shorter than writing a novel.
Whether you are a plotter or not, a couch surfer or a dog lover, the important thing is to figure out a process that works for you. Every story is unique, and so is every writer.