To Plot or Not

Plotting versus writing-by-the-seat-of-your-pants is a popular discussion, but the reality is a spectrum, not a choice.

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I’ve heard a fair bit of talk lately about whether we, as writers, should plot out our stories or just go with the flow of our writing. The way it’s spoken about very heavily implies that it’s an either/or assertion to be made about yourself, instead of a spectrum. Everyone plots to some degree, really, but how much you leave to whatever muse writes through it is what decides whether you are a plotter or not.

Between 2008 and 2011 I wrote nineteen books in total. Since then I’ve written another six. Of all those I have done what anybody would consider plotting for one of them. That’s it. And I hated it. I found it restrictive and my fingers would often start typing things that weren’t in my plot notes or what I’d originally worked out. But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t plotting them, it was just in my own way. Just because it doesn’t look like plotting, or because we don’t think we’re plotting, doesn’t mean that we aren’t.

It’s also, at its core, really easy to do. The best way that I’ve come up with to explain the issue is that it’s like a maths problem. If you have one hundred variables and you only know what one of them is, you can’t solve it. It’s not possible. The only way that you’ll be able to figure anything out is by assigning values to more of the variables. That’s what you do by plotting, and it’s an awful lot easier than it seems. So easy, in fact, that we’re going to plot an entire novel here, together.

We’ll go through the letters of the alphabet, with each one being a chapter.

A: We’ll open with Fred being dumped by his girlfriend. Let’s say that it’s because he’s emotionally unavailable and a bit of an arse.

B: Naturally, Fred is sad.

C: Fred’s friends take him out for a drink to cheer him up. He gets really drunk.

D: Fred goes into work the next day, talks to his ex, whom he works with, and says some really horrible things to her in his hungover state.

F: Fred gets fired. You can’t say things like he said to a colleague in the workplace, after all.

At this point, it’s worth pointing out that you don’t have to start at the beginning. If you’re sitting down to write something it’s because you have an idea. That’s enough. You can work forwards and backwards from that point. How did these people get into that situation and what are they going to do once they’re in there.

We’ve got an opening for our book, but we’re not really moving towards anything. Again, not really a problem. What’s the genre we’re writing in? Is it romance, where he has to win his ex-girlfriend back? Is it science fiction, where he meets some aliens? Is it fantasy, with a secret underground magic society? Don’t know what genre? That’s okay too. You’ll know something that can be used. For this one, let’s make it a story about warlocks.

Fred is going to have to meet a warlock at some point. We don’t want to do that straight away so we’ll put that in the ‘L’ slot.

L: Fred meets a warlock.

Random people don’t come up to you in the street and say, ‘Hi, I’m a warlock. Want to join our super secret organisation?’ so Fred would have to meet him before the big reveal. Let’s put that around ‘J’.

J: Fred meets a chap who is secretly a warlock.

We now need to get from ‘G’ to ‘J’. Fred is an unemployed, broken-hearted man who has to meet someone. And we have two chapters to do it.

H: Fred meets a girl, Jill, at a bar when he’s drinking away his sorrows.

I: Jill and Fred go to her place for a drink. Her brother is there; her brother is the chap that Fred meets.

Now, we have ‘J’ to ‘L’ where Fred and the warlock chap have to become close so that chap reveals that he’s a warlock. One chapter isn’t really enough to do that so we move our ‘L’ forward a couple to ‘O’. But what happens after that? Well, Fred discovers magic and is heartbroken, so he decides to use his new knowledge of magic to win his girlfriend back.

P: Fred uses magic to get his old job back, with a promotion. Now, he’s his ex’s boss.

Q: Fred and the warlock have a fight because Fred shouldn’t have used magic for personal gain like that, and because Fred dumped Jill, the warlock’s sister, to get back with his ex.

R: Fred’s ex still doesn’t want him. He uses his magic to get all sorts of cool things but she still doesn’t want him.

S: The warlock finds out that Fred is still using magic for personal gain so they have a magic fight.

T: Fred ends up in hospital and nobody comes to visit him because of his behaviour.

At this point we’ve got a natural progression to the story. He’s annoyed the warlock community to the point of where they’re willing to hurt him, but Fred has learnt the error of his ways and realised that the reason nobody likes him is because of him. From ‘T’ onwards we can have his growth and fighting with the warlocks, which leads to his eventual winning back of the ex, or he could change and learn that he doesn’t need his ex, and end up with Jill. Either way, he finds himself in a new status quo.

Will this be a good story? Not as it is. But it’s an okay start for ten minutes of thinking. You can do this, or whatever method you want, for plotting. You can do the whole thing or you can do a small section, write it and move on. Personally, that’s what I do. I know what’s happening at that moment and I know where we’re heading and that’s my plotting.

Whether you do this formally like we’ve just done, or you do your own version of plotting, it really is a moot point. When you’re writing, one thing should follow the other in a natural progression. Your characters should act and behave as real people should in that situation. They need to be reacting to what has happened to them up to that point. If you decide to formally plot out every little detail of your story, that’s great. Best of luck. If you don’t and you just want to go with the flow, then that’s great too. But you will be plotting, no matter what you do.

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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