I know, it’s been a while. I offer no excuses. I have been a (whisper it) bad blogger. I aim to be better. I will be better. Probably. Maybe.
So, the title of today’s post is of the Ronseal variety. As the beginnings of a new novel take shape in my head, I’ve been contemplating the pros and cons of plotting. Now, for the purposes of clarification, I am not referring to the pros and cons of having a plot. Of that, I am more or less in favour. I could write something without one, it would be entertaining and indulgent but much like this paragraph, it would ramble on endlessly without much of a point. For the purposes of this post, when I refer to plotting I’m really referring to planning.
So the question really is to plan or not to plan? Do you write a one page outline or fifty- page manifesto that documents every movement of your main character and half a dozen subplots? Or do you just wing it and see what happens?
I have a foot in both camps. For my last novel I did a mixture of both. I had an idea of beginning, middle and end but had a stronger idea of my main character and the situation she was in and built a plot around that. Once the story had grown arms, legs, additional heads, tails and the neck of a brachiosaurus it was time to do some planning.
I’ve used various methods, ranging from the sensible, bullet-pointed, double-space Word documents, to the “where is that bit of paper with that thing written on it?” approach. I’ve used the colour-coded post-its, the spiral-bound plot notebook, the ‘keep everything in my head and let it flow’. All, except that last one which almost never works, have their own merits, and have been useful exercises between drafts and edits, but what about before the first draft? How much plotting do you do before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard? How much plotting is too much?
Although I have already used the phrase ‘pros and cons’ several times, for me to present such a list might give the impression of some kind of specialist knowledge. Since I am an expert on almost nothing (unless you count Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which if you don’t, you should) I will amend my criteria a little to Plotting – Reasons I Think It’s An Ingenious Idea and Reasons It Probably Isn’t.
1. Direction – it’s always good to know where you’re headed, isn’t it? Being lost is no fun.
2. Motivation – for writer and character both. How many hours are lost to sitting in the dark, wondering where in the world this story is headed next, with nothing being written in between? That’s just me then? Right, moving on – it’s also useful to know where the characters are headed as it helps feed into their actions throughout the story.
3. Continuity – plotting prevents that 2am panic as you realise that Character A couldn’t possibly have done that terrible thing to Character B because that terrible thing happened before they met and so on. I hope.
But then again:
1. Being lost can be fun, especially when you find your own way out. Plus, I’ve never been very good at reading a map. Sometimes it feels good to not to know where it’s all heading and just see what happens. If, like me, your characters become like real people to you, they’re just as capable of growing and changing as we are, and things might head off in a direction you didn’t intend.
2. Sometimes not knowing how it all ends can help make your characters more believable. If I don’t know something, neither does my main character, which sometimes helps if they’re meant to be clueless.
3. Demotivation – isn’t it a bit like reading the end of a book first? Do I still want to write a story once I know how it ends?
4. It’s not really going to stop that 2am wakeup is it?
I’m hoping other writers will chime in here with their thoughts, particularly as it varies depending on genre, but for me I think it falls somewhere in the middle. I’m writing character-driver crime fiction so a balance is good – I want to let the characters develop but at the same point I need to create suspense, tension and above all I want to make these characters suffer (I’m nice when I’m not writing, honest!) so I think some kind of outline is important to ensure I’m throwing everything I can at them. On the other hand, I’ll probably change my mind about that again in an hour. That’s the beauty of plotting – there’s always room for change.