Plotting

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

On the crime panel at Sci Fi Weekender, I found myself – quite literally – between two opposing views on plotting.  At one end of the table was a writer who was evangelical about the importance of plotting.  At the other end of the table was a writer who says she never plots and believes she would lose interest in writing about her characters if she knew what was going to happen to them next.  I was sitting in the middle.

I was struck by how neatly this set up demonstrated opposing views on plotting.  Some writers are plotters, some are ‘seat of pantsers’, but rarely have I seen two extremes demonstrated so neatly on the same panel.   And it inspired me to come up with this post.

I am on the side of the plotters, I have to say.  But it hasn’t always been that way, and it has been my own experience that has brought me to this way of thinking.

When I started writing SUFFER THE CHILDREN, it was based on a short story called “Kiddiwinks”.  The story was basically about a group of children telling scary stories to each other about the witch that allegedly lives in the haunted house.  They dare each other to go in and discover that it is, indeed, occupied by a sinister old woman.  Who, they learn too late, eats children.  The writing group encouraged me to turn this short story into a novel, and the premise behind SUFFER THE CHILDREN was born.

When I began the novel I knew the monster was to be a mythological creature, and that the main characters would have to defeat the creature.  What I didn’t know at the time was how they were going to do that.  I began the first draft, thinking that ideas would come to me as I went along.  I ended up writing half the novel, and then got stuck.  I went back to the beginning, and re-wrote the first half, but I was still stuck at the same point.  My characters were floundering around saying that they had to defeat this evil creature, but they had no idea how to do it, and neither did I.  I put the novel away, for a good five years – writing short stories in the mean time.  I dreaded going back to it.  I had no idea how I was going to write myself out of the hole I’d dug for myself.

But I wanted to finish the novel, and eventually I bit the bullet and realised I had to work out how it was going to end.  So I went back to the beginning and wrote a three-page summary of the whole novel.  From there I took that summary and broke it down into a chapter by chapter plan, from beginning to end.

At that point, I went back and started the novel over.  And lo and behold I got to the end of the first draft.

I have used this technique for writing ever since.  I write the plot summary first – usually it runs to three pages.  I break that down into a chapter by chapter outline.  Only then do I start writing the first draft.

Some people baulk at such a regimented plan, but this is now the only way I can write a novel.  It means that every time I sit down for a writing session, I review what I wrote last time, and I look at my chapter plan and I know what’s going to happen next.  Sometimes my chapter plan is quite brief – it might say, for instance, that in chapter 10 my amateur sleuth has to discover X about this character, which turns out to be a vital clue.  But how she’s going to discover this piece of information I still have to think about when I sit down to write the chapter.

This doesn’t mean that things always go to plan.  Writing the first draft of DEAD COOL I was surprised to discover about three quarters of the way through the first draft that the killer was not who I initially thought it was.  But knowing the identity of the real killer suddenly made a lot of things in the plot that hadn’t been making sense click into place, and all I actually had to do to correct the second draft was to plant a couple of extra clues and rewrite a few scenes with different characters.  And of course it did change the ending a bit.

If you’re a pantser and not a plotter, I am not disrespecting the way you work.  Everyone has to find the system that works for them.  But I will say, as a reader, I can tell when a book has not been plotted.  Generally the book will start off with the characters heading in a certain direction, and suddenly they’ll lurch off and head in a completely different direction. Some people might say that they enjoy unexpected twists like this, but I tend to find them a bit off-putting.  But this is just me.  On the whole, I don’t like surprises.

Perhaps we can liken writing a novel to taking a journey.  A plotter takes the GPS, and the map.  They’ve studied the route beforehand, they know where they are going and how they are going to get there.  There are no surprises.  This is the way I work.  Occasionally I might take a slightly different road than the GPS suggests, because instinct suggests there’s a better way, but only if I’m confident that I’m still going to end up in the same place.

A pantser, on the other hand, will get in the car and start driving.  For them, it’s about the journey, not the destination.  They will get lost, they will arrive very late, they might end up someplace completely unexpected, but they enjoy the journey and not knowing what’s around the next corner.

Plotting and pantsing is reflected in reading preferences, too.  I much prefer to read books that are plot driven, with a clear beginning, middle and end.  Readers who are more fond of character-driven books and ‘surprises’ are going to be more fond of writers who don’t plot.  And I suspect such readers may not get on very well with my books – they might consider them too predictable.

This is one of those issues that always causes lively debate – there’s no right or wrong answer, it’s entirely down to personal preference.  Whether you’re a reader, or a writer, where do you stand?

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2 comments so far

  1. […] end.  This plot summary is something I now do as a matter of course (see last week’s post on Plotting), but at the time I started this manuscript I didn’t, and it became one of the many […]

  2. Lillith on

    I’m a plotter, mainly because I can not pants anything over the 2k mark. Lately I’ve been thinking of even plotting out my short stories, see if they feel better to me that way. I’ve tried not plotting longer work and crashed and burned spectacularly, never even finishing it.

    I tend to like books that are a mix of character driven and plot driven. Books with a clear character arc that’s fascilitated by the plot of the book.


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