Plotting A Novel

Seat-of-the-pants writing is only one method

Writing instructors often divide novelists into two camps — those who plot and those who write “by the seat of their pants.” The latter have an organic method of writing, they say. The characters “tell them” who they are and what they must do.

I’ve long brushed such phrasing aside because it’s apparent that the characters aren’t alive and the thoughts “coming from them” are actually the author’s own thoughts. Why, then, this pretend that the story is coming from outside the author?

Well, maybe pretend is the point. After all, we are talking about fiction.

Certainly pretend is necessary in conceiving a novel, no matter what method the author uses to find his way. The seat-of-the-pants writers apparently write in a meandering way, often completing scenes they may discard later or will piece together with other scenes to make the whole.

I have to admit, I’ve never quite understood this manner of writing.

Author and writing instructor (Writing Fiction For Dummies, Writer’s Digest) Randy Ingermanson created a way of plotting he calls the Snowflake Method which gives more structure. The writer starts small, then expands from a sentence to a paragraph to a page to several character sketches to a four-page synopsis, and so on.

Call me lazy, but all that writing seems like a waste of time to me. 😉 I can accomplish the same thing by a simple outline.

Being an outliner from my non-fiction days, I carefully structured my entire first novel before I wrote a word. The problem was, in the writing, I often added new scenes and unplanned characters. I kept changing my outline to fit the new direction my story was taking.

Some writers claim they would be a slave to an outline. I can’t answer for them, certainly, but don’t think the outline is any different than the meandering scene-by-scene writing or the Snowflake Method — just shorter.

In all these ways of envisioning a story, the author is imagining. He’s creating characters and a story problem, friends and obstacles, places and inner struggles, a background and a resolution. In most instances, I dare say, the first conception of these elements is not the last.

After I wrote the first draft of my first book, I realized I didn’t know my character very well. He was an arrogant sinner that needed to change. But how did he get to be who he was? What were his strengths that would win people over despite his weaknesses?

As I understood my character better, my writing became less generic and more specific. But all that work! If only I’d conceived of a well-rounded character before I wrote that early draft. But of course, as a beginner, not having studied how to write fiction, I didn’t know any better.

All this brings to mind some of the writing advice I heard in school and even taught my own students: writing is 75% pre-writing (the rest is divided up between writing and revising/editing).

Without a doubt, I work better that way. Nothing discourages me more than not knowing what will happen next. So I plot. I sit down and ask myself, what are the logical things that might happen? I make a list. I ask, what are the unusual things that might happen? I make a list. I ask, what are the most likely things to happen? These things I cross off my lists.

Next I decide what else to throw away and what to keep. I can order keepers and then choose one at a time to expand.

I’m shortcutting the procedure, but I think you can see how much quicker it is to make lists than it is to write a scene which may or may not work or to expand a core idea with events that I may or may not want to include.

For me, working with brief phrases that represent the scenes I’ve imagined gives me more time to work on the actual story — the one I’ll know going in, I want.


Filed under Concept And Development

5 responses to “Plotting A Novel

  1. Hi Rebecca,

    I think the outlining phrase or even “Snowflaking” (E.J.-ism) can definitely be helpful in building a story. The more specific, the better – I think. Also on the flip side, “pantsing” (seat of the pants writing) can be helpful as well especially for either deadlines or writing contests that have a 24 hour deadline.

    Both of these techniques have validity and their consequences as well.

  2. sheilaodomhollinghead

    Good points! I’m with you. I like to outline, think through the story as much as possible, and then write. And, yes, I deviate from the outline. And the outline changes, sometimes the entire outline. But I believe the outline and the planning keeps me focused and from veering off the story line.

  3. E. J., it’s hard for me to imagine that “pantsing” is truly helpful. I realize it’s probably just a matter of God making our brains function in different ways, but I keep thinking, If only those “pantsers” knew how much easier it is to outline! 😆

    Shiela, you’ve stated my position exactly. The outline in no way prohibits change. It simply provides direction, and for me, that’s “much needed direction.”

    Thanks for your comments.


  4. I know this comes “a little” late. Nevertheless … I listen to my characters tell me what to do next. Maybe it’s just a way – or an excuse – to answer the problem of writers’ block.
    I never really quit thinking about where the story is going and how it’s going to get there, so it is really me coming up with the next move. It’s just a matter of semantics.

  5. Pingback: No Plot– Big Problem |

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