Plot is usually one of the weakest elements in the work of developing writers. Most developing writers don’t know how to structure a plot. Even if they do, they often find themselves caught between two conflicting goals: the desire to let the story develop organically versus the need to plan and set up key elements so they generate a powerful, unified story.
We decided to ask the brain trust of Odyssey graduates how they have learned to deal with plot, so you can profit from their trials, tribulations, breakthroughs, and realizations. They’ve come through with some great responses. I hope you’ll try all the approaches they discuss and see which one works best for you. Each month, we’ll be asking them another question on writing.
Do you have some idea of what your plot will be before you write, or do you write by the seat of your pants, with no idea how the story will end until you get there, or something in between? What is your plot process, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of your process?
Lane Robins, class of 1999
After a lot of trial and error, mostly error, I’ve become addicted to outlines. I don’t have a complete outline, but rather a working outline, where I’ve built in the major plot points from beginning to end, very often with a soft spot somewhere beginning the last quarter of the book. What outlining does for me is cut down on writer’s block–where the reason I got blocked was because I really didn’t have enough idea for a novel, a novella, or even a short story, and I’ve gotten 200 pages in on style and character. That’s immensely frustrating because not only does everything come to a screeching halt, but most of the time I end up ditching the 200 pages I’ve already written.
These days when I want to work on a book, I create a file where I . . . collect snippets of thoughts and ask myself questions about the character, the world, the magic, the emotional arc, why things are the way they are, why someone wants to change them. Then once I’ve done that, I try to put it all together in a 500-1000 words synopsis, figuring if I can make a pitch out of it, I have enough to actually write a book. If the synopsis won’t be written, I’m missing something vital; a source of conflict, a character motivation, something.
After that I outline the first 8 chapters in some detail. I don’t go further than that. I’ve learned . . . that characters, setting, and events will take you places you might not have expected. I can usually see 8 chapters ahead. Not more. After writing those 8 chapters, I outline the next set. My outlines tend to involve a chapter head and bullet points about what I want to include and why. I’ve learned there’s no such thing as too much clarity in outlines. Otherwise I end up with a bullet point that reads, She chose the Skirt!!!! and have no idea why it’s worthy of exclamation points or even of being included in the important chapter information.
So yes, outlining, but not in the classic sense. I know of writers who write their books in outline form, dense, detailed narrative outlines that end up around 100 pages long, and then the book is simply expanding on that. I admire that, but don’t think I could ever manage to do it in that fashion.
Rita Oakes, class of 1998
Basically, I fall into the “intuitive” writer camp. I don’t outline. Sometimes, I wish I did, but I’ve never had any success with it. The closest I’ve come is with my story “Before Chaos and the Glare,” in Tales of Moreauvia, where I had a series of images or set-pieces in my head that became a sort of mental story-board as I was writing. That’s the only story I recall that I “saw” so clearly beginning, middle, and end.
I rarely write a story in chronological order as it unfolds. Generally I have a series of out-of-sequence events and impose order upon them later. Sometimes I end up cutting a lot, but I’ve been writing “leaner” recently, more likely due to a shift to stories set in the modern era rather than my usual historical settings.
My plots generally arise from character and how I try to puzzle out the events that led them to become the person they are. In the past that caused me to have too much backstory, but I finally learned the reader doesn’t have to know everything the author does and that’s become less of a problem. I hardly ever know the ending in advance, though I will usually know what sort of mood, tone, or final effect I want.
I recently wrote a detailed novel outline, but I wrote the novel first. That outline is more a tool for me to use in my revision process, and will eventually morph into a “selling” outline rather than a plot outline when my revision is complete.
Amy Tibbetts, class of 2004
All my life I believed I was an intuitive writer. I felt like stories came from a mystical place deep within me, over which I had no control. Outlining felt wrong, felt like it destroyed the story before it was told. I despised outlines for anything, including and especially English essays and history notes; nothing was more revolting to me than organizing information with Roman numerals and letters, and I spent my school years getting A’s on papers while refusing to outline them beforehand.
Then at Odyssey, I discovered I had no concept whatsoever of Plot. I mean really none–I had never written a story that had any semblance of a plot arc with rising tension or crisis points or things for characters to react to or make decisions about. I did not even have clear character goals or consistent overall conflict. If my stories came to a vague climax, it was by accident, entirely haphazard and not directly connected to any previous events. My rich settings and well-formed prose could fool readers into thinking they were reading stories, but in fact they were reading plotless rambles about characters who did nothing in particular.
Beginning scenes or settings are usually what come to me first when I think of a story. I had many unfinished stories that I had been unable to get more than halfway through. I had also never gotten beyond the first one or two chapters of any novel I attempted to write, but hadn’t understood why. Jeanne summed it up nicely for me by telling me it was because I expected the story to unfold as I wrote it, the way books unfold to readers as they read, but I had not formed an overall plan or even found a main conflict for the characters to overcome.
So my stories went nowhere because they had nowhere to go. So I devoted myself to the study of Plot: story structure, plot arcs, three-act structures, etc. At first I was surprised to discover how I lacked even a basic grasp of it! Which seems weird to me because I love strongly plotted novels, but I had never internalized plot structure. It doesn’t come easily to me; sometimes it’s like pulling teeth for me to figure out how the arc of a particular story is supposed to go.
But at least I figured out that I could NOT get there by just jumping in and hoping the writing will lead me to it as I go. I just can’t plot naturally or intrinsically. I learned that the hard way, over years of being unable to finish stories.
Now I am a happy, productive devotee of outlining. I tried various plotting methods (such as index cards, flow-charts, plot maps, diagrams) to little success before settling on outlining. I don’t use a rigid outline structure–and certainly no Roman numerals–but simply an orderly list of scenes, what happens in each scene, details to include in each scene, summaries of dialogue in each scene, and what the result of each scene is (character’s success/failure, conflict increased/resolved, or whatever).
Then, I make sure each scene logically leads to the next, and that there are key crisis moments forming an arc towards the climax.
This outline/list is very detailed, dense, and nearly as long as the story itself will be. It might even be considered a first draft by some writers. It also takes me a long time to do this kind of outline: weeks or even months. But it’s worth it, because the story is easy to write from the outline, and I really could not complete a story without one.
If I find my outline isn’t working when I come to write the story, I revise the outline before moving on. Otherwise–I know from experience–I’ll get nowhere. Sometimes I’m afraid that outlining will make my writing rigid or predictable, but I will overcome that as I go. So far, figuring out how to outline has been the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer.
I wish Plot weren’t such as struggle for me, but that’s the way it is.
David Lowrey, class of 1999
I find that it’s impossible for me to write a good story that has a reasonable plot without a written plan.
I used to write by the seat of my pants and basically got stories that were okay, but not good enough. Then with my novel, I realized that seat of my pants would just not work.
So I went over to the dark side. I’m too whatever-brained (left or right, I can’t remember which is which) to do a complete orderly outline with roman numerals, etc., but I have, like, a synopsis: a written plan that’s something less than an outline but more than seat of the pants. It’s several pages and it explains the story and the general order in which things happen.
With my writing plan in hand, I then feel free to write without the constraints of having to live up to an outline, but with some idea of where I’m going and what I’m doing.
I understand those that must outline, but for me a full, detailed outline is a little too restraining. Several of my best characters happened on the page without any planning on my part, and my story would be worse without them. I actually came up with my best characters without the outline and I would hate to lose that.
Susan Sullivan, class of 2005
I think my plotting process is very similar to Stephen King’s. He describes it as an archeological dig where you unearth the story bit by bit, not always knowing what exactly it is that you’re digging up and hoping to heck that you can get it out of the ground in one piece without any parts missing.
I’d love to be able to outline an entire novel before writing it, but I’ve learned the hard way that I can not force a square peg into a round hole as much as I might like to to. I wind up just spinning my wheels and feeling anxious and frustrated when I go against my natural process.
I often know a little something about a work before I start writing it, but there are a lot of missing gaps. I might know the beginning and end, but not the middle. Or I might think I know the end but in the process of actually writing it, the course of the story evolves into something different than what I originally envisioned.
I find using David Morrell’s Plot Talking method helpful during all phases of writing. Essentially I ask myself questions before, during, and after about the characters, their motivations, possible tangents and sub-plots, pretty much anything and everything story-related. I keep post-it pads and pens throughout the house and as I get an idea, I jot it down and slap it on the wall, then collect them when it’s time to write. I also write notes and questions in the manuscript as I’m writing so that I don’t have to try to find them later in a heap of notes and papers or among my many Word Files.
I make interesting connections and discover quite a bit as I go along. This part of the process reminds me of my experiences with acting. I learn about my character as we go through rehearsals, not before we begin rehearsals. Because acting is reacting, it’s difficult to react when there’s nothing to react to yet. And I find I don’t really “know” my character until I have her costume. Then it all falls into place. So, as I’m writing, the characters’ clothes and the setting details can lead to interesting discoveries and new characters can pop on the scene and audition for a part, characters I never would have even dreamed of during the outline phase (if I outlined).
Outlining in great detail for me is like playing with wooden soldiers. I’m on the outside looking down on a world and what plot I might come up with from this method feels about as wooden as the soldiers I’m maneuvering.
However, when I have a loose idea of the story, but then start writing it with only a general idea of the ways things will go, I feel like I’m taking on an acting role and getting inside the characters, and this is where I discover character motivations, reactions, and personality traits, and what ultimately leads me to the plot. So, while I may not use everything I write from this method, it feels real and organic and the characters feel like real people to me perhaps because I’ve gotten under their skin.
So, to sum it up, I’m more of an organic, mystical writer than a methodical outliner.
Scott Andrews, class of 2005
I always know the plot before I write a short story because I’ve spent two to four weeks outlining it. The disadvantage is that this takes just as long as to write the story, but the advantage is that it lets me get the plot logic iron-clad. That’s important for me not only because I often have lots of plot twists, but also because the reasons behind the plot events truly are the characters’ motivations–those plot events are happening because the characters are driven to take action to achieve their goals, and the plot events are what show those goals to the reader.
If I don’t have the characters’ motivations matched in advance with plot events that show them well, the characters don’t come through like real, three-dimensional people on the page. But once I do have the motivations and corresponding plot events figured out, that colors everything else, including characters’ mannerisms, their dialog, and the prose written from their point-of-view. As I write, the plot events sometimes change if I find a flaw or think of something better. But without the motivations and events laid out beforehand, I wouldn’t know where to start or what to have the characters do.
Matthew Rotundo, class of 1998
I’ve quoted him before, and I’ll quote him again:
“Throw yourself off a cliff and build your wings on the way down.” –Ray Bradbury
I’ve never outlined in the traditional sense, but I used to make little checklists of story events before I started drafting. Eventually, I got away from doing even that. These days, my process consists of making notes . . . and more notes . . . and still more notes. Mostly, I’m asking myself questions and scribbling down answers. I often throw out these answers as quickly as they come, weeding out (one hopes) trite or cliched ideas. This continues until I have a fair handle on my characters and their situations. By this point, I will of course have at least some notion about what’s going to happen in the story.
How much I know in advance is largely dependent, I find, on the length of the work. For novels, I’m content to know how the first act will go. I’ve become comfortable with vague second acts, and sometimes even vaguer endings. I’ve learned that when I need to know what happens next, I just have to ask my characters. If I’ve done my job to that point, the way forward will present itself. And if it doesn’t, it’s probably because I missed it. I’ll just backtrack through the manuscript until I find it. That usually happens during the revision process.
With short stories, I don’t have as much leeway, so I’ll have a clearer picture of the whole plot in mind before I begin. But even then, it’s mostly a matter of asking my characters what they’ll do next.
There are drawback to this approach, of course. It’s possible I’ll tripped up by unforeseen plot holes, or I’ll simply run out of story before I get to the end. I’ve come disconcertingly close to the latter a few times. I have literally sat down at the keyboard with no idea what I’m going to type that day–and that’s troubling, let me tell you. But somehow I’ve always managed to gut my way through those sessions, and pick up the thread on the other side.
Blind alleys are another danger. Sometimes a promising plot line just leads to a brick wall. It can take a while to recognize that wall when I come to it, but the solution is always the same–back up and find the right way.
For all the potential pitfalls, writing this way has its joys, too. For example, in the novel I’m currently working on, I was several chapters in when before I discovered a character whose existence I hadn’t even suspected during the note-making process. But there he was–and he wound up being critical to the story.
In my previous novel, I had only vague hints about the ending–until I got about halfway through the draft. And then I got an idea that totally surprised me. My first instinct was to shrink from it, but the more I considered, the more right it felt. My beta readers, too, were surprised–but the consensus was that the ending made perfect sense. Surprising yet inevitable, as Jeanne always taught us.
Those discoveries I make along the way are some of the best moments I get as a writer. Not only do I feel great about them, but they renew my excitement for the story right when I need it the most, while slogging through the first draft.
I suppose that one of these days, I might crash and burn. But then, that can happen even with an outline. So if I do flame out, I’ll just have to pick myself back up and find another cliff.