This is part of a six-part series on plot. You can find the other parts here:
~Devious Plots, part 2: What is this "plot" you speak of?
~Devious Plots, part 3: Don't put the toilet in the living room
~Devious Plots, part 4: Plot store!
~Devious Plots, part 5: More plot store!
~Devious Plots, part 6: Plot store, final sale!
To plot, or not to plot, that is the question!
Lots of top-selling writers don't plot. Anne McCaffrey didn't plot. Stephan King doesn't plot. In fact, in his book On Writing, King says plot is a clumsy tool, a jackhammer that destroys the fossil of a story.
But Terry Brooks in his book, Sometimes the Magic Works, points out that most of us are not Stephen King and Anna McCaffrey. He is in favor of organization, along with screenwriter and novelist Alexandra Sokoloff, and pretty much every mystery novelist you've ever read.
In that face of all these confusing opinions, how do you know what to do? Should you outline, organize? Or simply let the story flow?
Here are three questions to help you figure it out.
Question #1: What kind of story am I writing?
Orson Scott Card divided stories into four distinct categories, each of which requires a different level of organization.
Milieu: A Milieu story is mostly about the world of the story; it begins when the character enters the world and ends when they leave (or decide to stay.) Because Milieu stories are so setting-focused, they can be written well with or without plotting.
Idea: Idea stories are all about questions. Who killed Roger Ackroyd? What is in the mysterious box? Who is Keyser Soze? The question is posed at the beginning and answered at the end. Because of this, Idea stories are very hard to write on the fly. There has to be an answer, a destination, and to get to a destination, you need a map.
Character: Character stories may be the easiest stories to write without plotting. They focus on people, and the story arc starts with the catalyst, the transforming event, and ends when the character either changes or doesn't. Because the change occurs in the characters, you can follow them around without a map and see where they go.
Event: Event stories are just those, events. Something happens in the world that upsets the natural order of things: an asteroid hits, a volcano explodes, Sauron tries to take over Middle Earth. Event stories can either be plotted or not. King says most of his novels consist of putting characters in terrible situations and watching them fight their way out.
Question #2: How much revision do I usually need?
This is a sure sign of lack of organization: a huge amount of revision later. And I'm not talking about revising for submission or publication. I'm talking about making your story readable and coherent. How long does it take you to plug all the plot holes and tidy up the loose ends?
If it takes you only a month or two to write a full draft, but a year to make it ready for a critique group, you might want to think about doing some outlining before you start. If you find yourself cutting out huge sections every time you revise, you might benefit from some pre-planning.
Question #3: Is what I'm doing working for me?
This is what it really comes down to: what works for you, and your story. Forget what Stephen King does or what I do or what any other other writer does. What does your story need?
Are you struggling with side plots that go nowhere and beautifully written scenes that don't pull their own weight? Have you ever killed off a character on a whim and had your story grind to a screeching halt? Then maybe you need some organization. Sit down and write a basic outline of your story, get yourself a blueprint so you know where you're going.
Or maybe you have the opposite problem: a plodding, predictable story with flat characters, and prose so functional that it bores even you. In that case, wing it a little. Put down your outline and take your characters for a spin. Send them to Las Vegas for a gambling spree. Have them adopt a pet raccoon, dance in the rain, fall in love with an inconvenient person. Have fun with it!
When it comes right down to it, you're the only one who can tell if plotting works for you. If you prefer to wing it and you can do it well, excellent. But if you want some ideas and help with plotting, tune into the next few posts and we'll see what we can come up with!