The Writer's Circle – Week #4 [To Plot or Not]
Hi again everyone, sorry for the late post!(T_T) Welcome to Week #4 of the Writer's Circle! WooT! This week we are going to be focusing on plot. In light of the upcoming Heresy Online Fiction Contest 2009, I've bounced some ideas off of Shogun_Nate this time to see what could really be of use for you all this week. We both decided that a thread with a good explanation of what plot is, and how to use it would be best topic for this week. This weeks article is called “To Plot or Not” by Chuck Leddy. It comes from the August 2008 issue of “The Writer” magazine. It talks about the age old debate on whether or not you should outline your stories. Please enjoy it. After the article will be my discussion questions and explanations of different plot types and how to utilize them.
To Plot or Not: The outline debate
by: Chuck Leddy
Ask any 10 authors about the ideal way to structure a book's narrative (i.e., its plot), and you'll get 10 different answers. What works for Author X, such as preparing an intricate, detailed plot outline before the writing process begins, will be anathema to Author Y, who'd rather “discover” the story's structure during the process or writing it.
For books in many genres, such as romance and mystery, some plot details are almost prefabricated. What's a romance novel without a likeable, plucky heroine? What's a mystery novel without a hero with a troubled past or a dark secret? What's a thriller without a villain to oppose the hero? The best authors often tweak these formulaic elements of a genre's plot conventions, offering readers twists that are akin to putting new wine in old bottles. In John Garner's novel Grendel, for instance, the author narrates the story of Beowulf from the point of view of the monster rather than the epic hero.
As for “the rules” of plotting, there are none, although every writer seems to believe the way he or she approaches structuring a novel is the right way. Mystery author Jim Thompson liked to say that there's only one plot: Nothing is as it seems. Some authorities assert that there are just a few basic plots (boy meets girl; hero fights obstacles to reach his goals, etc.), but the number of basic plots varies depending on whom you ask. As somerset Maugham once summed it up: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Should you outline your plot before beginning or not? Norman Mailer, for instance, was in the anti-outlining camp. He said, “To know what you want to say beforehand is not the best condition for writing a novel. Novels go happiest when you discover something you did not know you knew.”
E.B. White took the opposite tack in The Elements of Style: “Before beginning to compose something, gauge the nature and extent of the enterprise and work from a suitable design. Design informs even the simplest structure, whether of brick and steel or of prose. You had best anticipate what you are getting into.”
Somewhere in the middle rests E.L. Doctorow, who compares writing a novel to driving a car at night: “You only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Perhaps the most colorful piece of plotting advice comes from Raymond Chandler, creator of detective Philip Marlowe: “When in doubt [about where the story should go], have two guys come through the door with guns.” Chandler did all his plotting in his head, and his novels are (predictably) filled with guys bursting through doors with guns.
As Lamar Underwood writes in his introduction to The Quotable Writer, a collection of pithy quotations from authors about various topics: “For every writer of fiction … who begins the journey into the story with a clear and firm idea of where the book is headed (in many cases even using an outline), another will eschew plot specifics and outlines altogether.” Each author has to choose what works best for him or her.
Let's give the final word to Mark Twain, who wrote this tongue-in-cheek warning in his preface to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted … persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Maybe the best plots are like the best baseball umpires—they work best when we don't even notice them.
Alright, as many of you are aware, there is no one
way for writing a story. Be it a novel or just a short story you're coming up with for the Fiction Comp here at Heresy, every author has his or her different way of going about writing it. There are those who plot out their stories, and then there are those who just prefer the ideas/story to fabricate itself as it goes along. Neither is the wrong way, and both of these techniques have merit. I for one use both techniques. I find that it solely depends on the situation that I am in. Am I writing something that is spur of the moment? Or is it something that I know I would like to develop into a deep, intricate narrative. It seems to me that my technique is determined upon the level of depth I wish the piece to have. Lets compare the two techniques.
To plot or not...a comparison.
Time saving. If you have an idea in an instant, you can just flow with it. No matter where you are, you will be able to take care of the idea right away. Where as plotting takes a little bit of time to determine where the story will lead, not having a plot will free you up to take the story wherever you want it to go, that instant.
“Free!” Not in a monetary sense, but free, as in no structure. Some authors would argue that plotting your story, limits your writing to whatever structure your plotting has established. However, if you are not one to normally plot your story, you wont run into the “limiting” affects of structure.
short bursts. This is just my personal opinion. As a writer, I have noticed that the no plot method is, for me, only good in short bursts. I just cant seem to develop the story well enough without at least some
plotting. Not to say that I'm strictly
a plotter. I carry a notebook around with me so that if a story idea or a continuation idea, or storyline concept comes to me, i'll be ready to write it down, no matter where I am. However, that is about as far as it goes. Once I get home from wherever I was, I sit down and plot out what I want to do with the story fragments.
often stunted. If you have ever run into a wall when just “going with the flow,” you will know what i'm talking about. This issue is, what happens when you run out of ideas to flow with? Now this may not be a problem when you are writing a blow-by-blow as you can come up with whatever you like to fill in this type of stuff. But what if you've been running along with this 'flash-in-the-pan' story idea and you've gotten past the action? What if you've run out of quick ideas? You wont have anything to fall back on. There wont be an outline or anything that you can turn to. However, as Raymond Chandler said in the article above:
When in doubt [about where the story should go], have two guys come through the door with guns.
Plotting it out:
Guidance. When you plot out your story, you always have some form of direction to follow. Now, the level of intensity in which you plot may vary between stories that you write. For instance, you may have one story that you just have outlined the bare bones of it. And then you may have another story so deeply plotted with every minute detail that all you really need to do, is add filler dialogue. Both are viable options, as well as a mélange
of options between those two extremes.
Increased focus. I find that when I outline my work it makes the process easier on my brain. I don't have to constantly think of where the story is going to end up. I've already decided where the final destination of the story shall be, and now I can focus on how to get there. Think of it as a road trip. Its a much easier trip if you pick the landmarks you want to visit on the way first. Then you can focus on how to plan your route to each one, and ultimately to your final destination.
Time consuming. Sometimes it can take a while to throw down an outline onto paper. This is a turn off to many authors. The “lets get right to the story!” mantra.
Limits creativity? Some would argue that creating an outline for your story stifles your creativity. Others would argue that ANY
structure stifles creativity. This however isn't completely true. You have the right to change the direction of the story at any time you would like. Even to alter the structure that is your outline. The amount of creativity is only limited by how you think. It is your story after all.
I find that having a structure to your story is not debilitating in any way. In fact, I encourage it. This is once again, my opinion. Many different people have many different views on this subject.
Lets examine some of the different style of plotting for your story. For as many authors in the world there are just as many different ways to plot out your story. However, I will just go over a few of the most common ones here.
Styles of Plot:
these are one of the easiest kinds of plots to use when writing your story. However, depending on how in depth you get with it, it can get kind of messy. Here are some ways that you can utilize the bubble tree for your plotting your story. Grab a piece of paper, and right in the middle draw a circle. In that circle you will put something relating to the story. Perhaps it is an idea that came to you when you were on the road that day. Or perhaps the name of a main character. Either way, you want to write it in this bubble. Ok, the next step is to expand from this. This is where the bubble tree can get exciting. Draw some short lines out from the main bubble all maybe 4 or 6 of them. These will be your “elaboration tendrils” as I like to call them. Next, draw more bubbles at the end of each of those lines. Write in these circles something that pertains to what was written in the main bubble. Be it a description, a location, a event, anything that continues the story from that initial idea. If you are writing an event that is related to that main bubble, you can also label you “elaboration tendrils” according to how the character experiences it or the situation arises. Then do the same thing for this next set of bubbles, and so on and so forth. Once you get to the second bubble try and have two possible outcomes to each situation/bubble. It makes for more choices and directions for your story to go in. Do the double lines for each bubble thereafter. Once you get 4 or 5 groups out you will have many different paths that your character can travel down. The bubbles multiply exponentially!
I use a version of the bubble tree method sometimes when I plot out my story. It ends up looking like a Christmas tree. lol! It starts with my characters name at the top of the page. Then it has two lines coming out from underneath it to two more bubbles. Each bubble gets two lines and two more bubbles underneath it. So on and so on, until I feel that the ending has arrived. I try to make each bubble a situation that the character(s) have to deal with. Then I make the next two bubble possible outcomes for each situation. Then the next two are new situations that arise because of the last one. Sort of a cause and effect type thing, but with a bubble tree. By the time I am done there are many many options for my characters to take. It feels like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. “If you give the rice to the man for 6.50 USD, turn to page 63.” stuff like that. In theory anyways...haha.
This style of plotting is a more chaotic version than even the bubble tree. It involves a piece of paper and a pen/pencil. Take the paper in hand and sit down to have a brainstorming session. What freewriting is is the idea of just letting your fingers do the writing. Whatever come into your mind regarding the story should get written down wherever you would like. Make sure to write little snippets of an idea. Try not to write a paragraph for each idea that flows through. It should be smooth and fast. You can group like ideas together on the page somewhere. Feel free to use different colors to represent different things. Draw circles around things that you think are important. Its all up to you, you can really freewrite any way that you would like. This is the messiest way of plotting but sometimes can lead to the greatest ideas. I'd seen a show on the tele lately that talked about a really great detective/profiler that uses freewriting to catch his criminals. His record is almost 100 percent! Like I said, it is all up to you to decide if you want to use free writing. I'd say give it a try. Even if its only once, you may like it. If you don't think you can use it, then no harm done, right? So what do you have to lose?
Have you ever written an outline for a paper whilst in school? Was it a requirement for a story in your creative writing class? Didn't you hate your English teach when he/she said that the outline was required!? I sure did! However, I realize now that I really should have followed the teachers advice. A basic numbered and bulleted outline can work wonders for helping you plan your story. If you've ever done one in the past, you know how to do one. I wont bother explaining it again here. Let me just say that you should pick out some major events in your story and use them for the main topics. And then elaborate and add detail with bullets, numbers and letters. It can be very simple, or it can be very in depth, it is up to you. An outline is a great reference to have sitting next to you when you write your story. You can keep glancing back and forth to it when you get stuck and sometimes it can spark ideas for filler material that you need to make the story sound more cohesive.
These have been just a few kinds of plotting that can be done to your story. Take them with a grain of salt. Like it has been stated throughout this entire article; For every author that chooses to outline his/her story, there is another who chooses not to. It is entirely up to you whether or not you apply anything that you have learned here in this thread. However, don't just shy away from plotting your story just because it seems like a little more work. If you haven't tried plotting your story out, give it a shot, you might find it easier for you. Once again its up to you. You've nothing to lose if you decide not to. I will, however, continue to combine both approaches. Sometimes I like to just flow the story, and sometimes I want to sit down and plan things out. It depends on the day and the mood. Best of luck to you all.
Plot? or Not? Which side are you on? there is no right or wrong, please give your honest opinion of both.
If you do not plot, would you be so kind as to explain how you go about the writing process. Is there something that you do besides the above types? Or is it something completely different?
If you are a plotter, what type do you use? Do you use more than one? How about a combination of plotting and not? Are there other things that you do that i have not listed here? explain if you can.
Once again, sorry for the late post. The real world finally discovered where I live and was knocking on my door. Stay tuned for next week! It WILL be on time! Please let me know what you think of the topic for this week. It took me the longest to write out of all of the previous ones. I'm really anxious to see what you all think of it. Good or Bad, please don't hold back!