Oct 1, 2015

To Plot or Not to Plot

No doubt you’ve heard (and probably participated in) debates over which is best—plotting in advance, or writing off into the mist. I have no doubt that you have a preference, because just about everyone does. 

Although we can sometimes get into heated debates, we all know that there really is no right or wrong way. No one-size-fits-all solution to the question of how to get from the beginning to the end of your novel. The important thing is to achieve the desired effect, to pull readers into our stories and keep them hooked from the first page to the last.

Whether you plot before you begin to write, as you begin each section of the book, or sit down every day with no conscious idea where your book will be going that day, we all plot. Even those who write into the mist plot in some way at some time, either consciously or unconsciously, or they wouldn’t end up with a story.

But let’s begin at the beginning.... What is plot? 

Plot is probably the most often-heard term when writers get together to discuss fiction. Most people consider it the essence of fiction. Without plot, there is no story. While some people begin with plot and then look for characters to enact that plot, others begin with interesting people and discover their plot by looking into the characters’ lives. Either way, plot is story.

There are many definitions of plot floating around out there. Plot is
  • an ordered structure of significant events;
  • the story of strong forces meeting and one of them triumphing over the other for better or worse;
  • a record of change.

 An ordered structure of significant events. Okay, I guess that’s true. If I’m describing my plot to an editor, an agent, or a potential reader, I’ll want to give an ordered structure of story’s significant events, so yeah. That describes plot as I know it. 

Plot is the record of strong forces meeting and one triumphing over the other, for better or worse. I agree with that, too. Plot is all about the conflict, about a person who wants something, meeting strong forces that keep him from getting what he wants, and his eventual triumph over or defeat by those forces. 

Plot is a record of change. I agree with that, too. Change alters people’s fortunes, their thoughts, and their beliefs—even if it’s only long-held beliefs about themselves. Change is what readers come to the book to find. I doubt you’ll ever run into a reader who picks up a book hoping for 400 pages in which everything in the characters’ lives remains exactly as it was on page 1.

Plot is also a force upon the people in your story, often called narrative drive. This drive is the relentless forward movement of events, and the details related to those events, that pile up until the whole teetering tower collapses into the final conflict—those climactic scenes that make the story worthwhile.

We need that force working on the people in our stories because, again, readers don’t come to the book to find out what happens in the life of someone who never experiences something beyond their control, never ends up with their back against the wall, or never has to fight their way out of a bad situation. So change isn’t enough. It needs to be a change that challenges the character to climb higher, dig deeper than s/he ever has before.

It’s a rare person who will stick with a book about nice people to whom nice things happen repeatedly until the story ends. As an author, I wouldn’t know when to stop writing if the people in my book had nothing to conquer or nothing to concede defeat to by the end. 

Readers need plot—that relentless forward movement—to keep them hooked. Authors need plot to know when and where to begin, and when and where to stop. 

In the past, I've worked with many confused writers who had no clear idea of how and when to begin the book they want to write, no clear idea where they’re going, and no clue where to end. This is a horrible feeling. It leaves a writer feeling unequal to the task they’re facing, which might be okay if they weren’t driven to face that task, tackle the book, and conquer it—a mini-plot in itself!

We’re all terribly afraid that our plots won’t work and worried that we are the rare thing among writers—the one and only author who can’t come up with a perfect plot.

Rest assured that there is no such thing as a perfect plot, but in Plotting the Organic Way, we'll focus on creating plots that are as close to perfect as humans are capable of creating—and, more importantly, plots that work.

To quote author Stella Cameron,
 “What doesn’t work in a plot is what doesn’t work. If the reader stops, frowns, re‑reads, and stops again—there’s something very wrong.”
There may be different causes that bring about the pause. Perhaps the inadvertent loss of viewpoint control throws the reader for a loop, or maybe it’s a slip in chronology, or maybe the author’s failure to create a setting the reader can see and feel. Maybe it’s an illogical or unbelievable reaction by one of the characters, or a decision no sane person would ever make. Or it could be a reaction, a situation, or a decision that was obviously contrived for the convenience of the author but which has nothing to do with reality. All too often it’s an inconsistency in plot ... which we'll have to discuss later. 

I've discovered that I'm neither plotter nor "pantser." My style falls somewhere in the middle, a plot style I like to call organic. What kind of plotter are you? 

Plotting the Organic Way: A Dancing on Coals Workshop for the Fiction Writer coming soon to a Kindle near you! 

photo credit: Building Blocks Library Macros April 02, 20114 via photopin (license)
photo credit: Left Or Right? via photopin (license)

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