Bill's Blog

Who’s the Boss – You or the Plot?

Sep 27, 2010

When I first started helping other writers more than twenty years ago, I thought I knew everything there was to know about writing a novel. For example, I thought I knew the absolute right way to develop a solid plot. I had, after all, written several successful novels. And I had written each novel in four easy steps:

  1. Dream up a hot new story idea that’s big enough for a novel.
  2. Create the characters and work out the movements of the plot in fine detail, culminating in a scene-by-scene outline.
  3. Write a first draft, following the scene-by-scene outline.
  4. Tweak the story and characters as needed and edit into a final draft.

Okay, so I was kidding about the “easy steps” part. None of those steps turned out to be particularly easy. But they eventually resulted in completed novels that were accepted by my publisher. So with the self-assurance of youth, I thought I had it all figured out.

I started teaching creative writing at the local community center and soon became an instructor in the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Workshop. Plotting was one of the workshop topics, and I was pleased to see that Writer’s Digest School also believed in the importance of working out a detailed plot as one of the first steps in writing a novel. It worked well for many of my students who had been struggling to get their first novels off the ground.

It made (and still does) perfect sense to me. When planning a driving trip, shouldn’t you first look at a roadmap and decide what route you’ll take, what towns you’ll be driving through and where you’ll turn onto new highways? To me, following a scene-by-scene outline when writing a novel is like following a detailed roadmap. If I know that Kyle and Patrick are going to have a big fight in Scene #26, and that Patrick is going to join a motorcycle gang in Scene #40 and get killed in a shoot-out with a rival gang in Scene #48, then I can construct events, build character motivations, and drive the plot toward those important turning points. If I don’t know where the story is going . . . well, how can I get there?

As I said, it makes perfect sense to me. But over the years I got to know other successful novelists and realized that they don’t all follow my “four easy steps” formula for success. Many novelists don’t work from a detailed outline at all. They have a general idea of where they’re going, and they let the story pick the route.

Stephen King feels strongly that it’s a mistake to work out the plot before you start writing. He talks about that in his autobiographical book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. (This is a great book, and you should read it. A 10th Anniversary edition was published this year.) He also mentions his allergy to plotting in his 2005 Introduction to a re-issue of ‘Salem’s Lot:

Writing controlled fiction is called plotting. Buckling your seatbelt and letting the story take over, however, is called storytelling. Storytelling is as natural as breathing. Plotting is the literary version of artificial respiration.

Alfred Bester, whose science fiction novels I enjoyed as a young boy, put it even more succinctly: “The book’s the boss.”

I’ve tried writing a novel without a detailed outline, and for me it doesn’t work to let the book be the boss. For whatever reason, I need that outline to keep my story on track. But it’s hard to argue with the success of storytellers like Alfred Bester and Stephen King. I have a feeling that if they tried to force their writing to follow a detailed outline, their stories would suffer.

I remain convinced, however, that most writers trying to break in with their first novels will be more likely to succeed if they plan their novels carefully before they start writing, including the development of a scene-by-scene outline. I’ve known so many writers who, like me, found their storylines wandering aimlessly without an outline. But in my online novel writing workshop, I no longer require that my students develop a scene-by-scene outline. If they want to do so, great. If they choose to go with a more general story summary, I’m cool with that, too.

If you’re trying to break into this business with your first novel, here’s my advice about plotting: Try whatever appeals to you. If you like plotting out your story in intricate detail, do it that way and see if it works. If the thought of detailed plotting makes you nauseous, then try working from a general idea and see where the story goes. With a little trial-and-error, you’ll find out which approach works best for you. And at the end of the day you can sing along with Frank: “I did it my way . . . ”

Questions about this topic? Call me at (505) 401-1021 or send me an email at william@wgreenleaf.com. I’m in my office most weekdays from 9 to 5.

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