TO PLOT—OR NOT TO PLOT—THE PLOT
Having trouble deciding whether to outline your whole novel in advance or to let the story (and characters) take you where they will? In this article, one of our novelists tells you how he arrived at a hybrid approach that gave him the perfect combination of freedom and structure.
NO “ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL” APPROACH TO PLANNING
When it comes to writing your novel, how you choose to map out the plot is a lot like how you say “potato” (i.e., po-tae-to or po-tah-to)—there really is no one-size-fits-all right answer (though I am partial to po-tae-to, myself). At one end of the spectrum, there are the writers who outline all of the major plot points of their stories before ever writing a single word of text. And at the other end of the spectrum, there are the writers who forego an outline altogether, opting to let the ideas and plot points flow naturally as they go from prologue to epilogue. If one of these options works for you, who am I to argue? Good job! But in my own writing, I have found that a hybrid approach—combining the two techniques—works best for me.
DISCOVERING A HYBRID APPROACH
With Sunshine’s Darkness (my first novel), the idea for the story came to me as part of an assignment in a writing course that I was taking. To be honest, at the time of the assignment, I really didn’t think the seeds of this story would ever mature to a finished product. Realizing that, I sat down at my keyboard and just started typing out content to fulfill the course requirement. Ideas weren’t fully considered, and even the characters weren’t fleshed out (nor do they necessarily have to be when you first start writing your novel). As I typed out the first ten chapters, I realized how much FUN it was to see ‘where the day took me.’ Since I hadn’t outlined anything, I was free to let the ideas that flowed forth take me in any direction. This was great!
|Because I wasn’t bound to any rigid outline, there were no wrong directions—just alternate paths.|
That meant I never had to worry how new twists and turns would affect my end game (because at that time, let’s face it, there was no end game; just a grade). I was free to be creative—and what could be more fun than that?
Two months later, the class ended. But by then, I was so engrossed in writing my novel that I realized it was a project I just had to finish. I was nearing the halfway point. I was also starting to get knots in my stomach, and at first I didn’t know why. It seemed every time I sat down to write, I had the dreaded ‘block.’ Up until then it had been fun to just sit down and let plot twists flow forth as they came to me. Now suddenly I was tensing up every time I sat down to write. Worse, my characters were starting to stress me out because I didn’t know which direction to take them in, nor did I know the answers to two important questions that kept nagging me: “Who lives in my story?” and “Who’s going to die?”
|It wasn’t until I realized that I needed to know what the ‘end game’ to Sunshine’s Darkness was going to be that my stomach pains subsided.|
For several days, I focused on mapping out the second half of the book, writing down explicit scenes that each of my main characters would experience, all the way to the final chapter. In many ways, my novel was finished—insofar as the plot was concerned. Now all I had to do was fill in those scenes with prose and I would be done.
What started out as free-flow writing for the first half of my novel blended into a near-rigid outline for the latter half. If someone had told me to outline this novel from the beginning, I don’t think I could have done it. After all, it was the process of discovering who my characters were and what my story was really about that solidified where I would ultimately go with the second half of Sunshine’s Darkness. That freedom to let the plot—and the characters—develop was vital to my story. Likewise, if I had continued a free-flow style of writing, it would have been impossible for me to calculate the exact moments when major plot twists needed to occur in order for certain characters to end up where they needed to be. Put another way:
|Without the free-form development of the first half, my story would never have taken off; but without the careful outline of the second half, it would never have been able to land.|
By adopting the use of the outline for the second half, I was able to weave together the story that had developed freely in the first half, bringing the story to a satisfying and logical conclusion.
FINDING YOUR OWN APPROACH
|This hybrid approach is what worked for me; that doesn’t mean it will work for you—or that it will work for you in just the same way.|
If you decide to follow my method, you need not follow it to a tee. For example, you might choose to outline in the beginning a few key scenes that you want to take place, while still allowing your characters and plot to develop freely around those scenes. I didn’t do this for Sunshine’s Darkness, but with my second novel I did: I began the novel by outlining three key scenes—and the order I needed to tell about them in order to move the plot along. Likewise, you don’t need to slavishly follow your structured outline in the second half of your book if you come up with some amazing plot twist or new ending that will blow your readers away. For Sunshine’s Darkness, I thought I knew exactly what the last couple of chapters were going to be; but when I got there and it came time to write them, I found several of my characters were still left hanging. So I created a whole new ending that would weave together the characters who still had these loose threads. When something like this develops, you toss your outline aside and wrap up your book with what works best.
|You might choose to adopt:
But whichever you choose, the one thing to keep in mind is this: It’s the end result that matters. Whichever style you ultimately choose for writing your novel, as long as it gets you to a satisfying, publishable, and FINISHED end-result, then you’ve done your job. Bravo!
So what works for you? Do you map it all out? Do you let it flow freely? Do you have a hybrid approach of your own? Leave a COMMENT to share your own techniques for developing your characters and your stories.
|GREG—Read more about this editor|