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Behind “The Process”: Plotting vs Writing
I started this blog to give would-be and struggling writers insights into the writing process. But the insights were mine and mine alone. I don’t wanna be the guy who tries to have all the answers. So my last post was an interview that I did with RK Holliday.
He is a good writer and nice guy. He has experience writing fiction, non-fiction, songs, poetry. A real renaissance man of a writer.
We got to talking about plotting vs writing. I won’t recap what he said word for word, because you can read it for yourself. He seems to be of the same mind when it comes to plotting. So I’d like to expand on the idea of how plotting works and doesn’t work. (For me, anyway.)
What do you have against plotting anyway?
Here it is. When a story is plotted too thoroughly, it loses something. Some say that if the writer knows what’s going to happen all along, the reader will figure it out, too. Or, at the very least, the writing will be flat. Like a paint-by-numbers painting. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a paint-by-numbers hanging up in an art gallery.
There are definitely exceptions to this. Some writers outline every last detail of their plot before they begin writing the first scene. I really like John Grisham and John Irving. (Maybe I just like writers named John.) They both believe heavily in plotting. So there ya go. But you, like RK Holliday said in our interview, have to write with passion. Part of why I love writing is because I enjoy finding out how my story is going to end. Knowing how it ends before it even begins kills it for me. And I honestly don’t know how my stories are going to end until I get there. I have ideas along the way, which pushes the direction for a little while, but something new (and usually better) comes as the story develops from page to page, scene to scene, chapter to chapter.
How much plotting do YOU do then?
Ah. I’m glad you asked. Before I start a new story, I do a free write. That means I write without thinking about anything beyond ideas. No grammar, spelling, paragraph spacing, or any of that. I kind of throw up on the page, metaphorically speaking. Usually, somewhere in that free write emerges an idea. Either a character or a plot idea sticks out. Honestly, sometimes it’s all garbage. It’s a bit like fishing. But, time spent writing is NEVER time wasted. Practice, practice, practice and you will get better. Period.
Once I find something, I settle in on developing that idea. To do that, you have to ask yourself a few questions. And this works for any time you sit down to write, whether it’s a new story, or just a new scene in a story you’ve already started. How and where is it going to start? Who needs to be there? What are they going to be doing? How will this scene push the action? And so on.
With my trusty G2 pen and yellow legal pad, I start listing bullet points. Here’s an example:
- Natural disasters start going off one after another after another. No one knows why, but they have to get to safety and figure out what to do next
- Lisa and Brandon are in their car on their way back from the grocery store
- There’s a tornado behind them and it’s getting closer
- He’s yelling at her to drive faster but the crappy old car won’t go any faster
- The car is an old Ford hatchback with almost 200,000 miles on it and it leaks oil
- She starts to feel the pull of the tornado on the car
At this point—and this isn’t a story I’m working on, just an example off the top of my head—I don’t want to plot anymore. I want to start writing! I can change some of the details as I see fit, and I can come up with any number of outcomes. Maybe they jump out of the car at the last possible moment, rolling into the ditch while the twister passes by. Maybe they crash into an overpass support beam and crawl to safety as the car gets sucked into the vortex. Maybe they don’t make it, and it can just be an exciting scene to get the story rolling. Lots of possibilities there. But the best of them comes in the moment. Most of the time. When it doesn’t, that’s what rewriting is for.
My point is this:
If I plot every last thing, what happens when I have a better idea mid-way through the story?
Do I throw my grand plot away and re-plot everything? Do I stick to what I plotted out, at the risk of losing something that really had me excited in the moment?
That’s why I plot out a few bullet points, then let it go on the page as it comes to me. I want the ability to let the story lead. I lightly plot a few things just to get the engine revving. Then I drive that bad boy all the way into town and back.
Use the comment section to ask questions, piggy back on something I said, or challenge my opinion with your own. There’s no wrong way to do this, so long as you to love what you write. As RK Holliday said in our interview, “If you love it, you’ve won.”
Hope this helps.