To Plot or Not to Plot?

Today, we're happy to welcome Melissa Donovan as a guest writer. Melissa is a website designer and copywriter. She is also the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

To plot or not to plot—that is the question. 
Except it’s not a question at all. A novel, by definition, has a plot. The question is how to plot. 
Should you throw a few characters into an interesting setting and hope for the best, relying on your own creativity and intuition to make a story manifest? Or should you start by writing a detailed outline in which you summarize every scene in advance? 
Both techniques have been proven to work. Some novelists swear by outlining; they need to know where they’re going or their stories don’t go anywhere. On the other hand, discovery writers say that it’s no fun to write a story if they already know how it ends.
Plot is Essential
A story must have a plot. That’s what makes it a story. Without a plot, you’ve got a character study or a piece of experimental writing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a story. 
Popular opinion says that story is mostly about character. After all, readers root for the protagonist, fall in love with the sidekicks, and rail against the villain. Readers form emotional connections with the characters and relate to them.
Still, plot is essential. 
We all love Harry Potter, but who would want to read a story in which Harry is sitting at a desk all day composing spells? 
Harry typed a line. He made some changes, but he was having trouble getting it to rhyme. He got up and retrieved a butterbeer from the fridge. He was having a slow spell-writing day. 
Characters need plot. They can’t just sit around navel-gazing. Conflict and action move a story forward. Character alone does not. That much is obvious, but how does one tackle something as massive and complex as a novel-length plot? Where does one start? 
Discovery Writing
Discovery writing is the process of writing without a plan. That’s it: you just start writing. The premise is that a plot will emerge organically. It may sound risky (and to some it probably sounds unlikely), but it works for a lot of successful writers. 
For most discovery writers, the elements of story and plot are ingrained in their consciousness. People who have read a lot, for example, will probably find that story (and plot) manifest naturally as they write. Or, these writers let the rough draft flow through an open creative process and then hit it hard and heavy with revisions, extracting plot through a rewriting process. 
But some writers find that discovery writing is nothing more than a means to run around in circles. Characters start biting their nails and staring out windows. Nothing happens. And that’s not good. That’s not plot.
Outlining
Outlining is the simple process of planning a story ahead of time. 
Some outlines consist of a short summary for each of a story’s three acts. A more elaborate outline summarizes each chapter. An extremely detailed outline might delineate every scene.
Outlines provide a frame of reference and a series of milestones to write toward. You know where you’re taking the story and you can steer your characters in the right direction.
Of course, once the outlining is done, and the composition begins, new characters and twists may arise. A writer can either force the story back to the original plan or adjust the outline to accommodate any new writing ideas that emerge. 
Discovery Writing vs. Outlining
With discovery writing, you just in get in your car and drive. With outlining, you know your destination, and you have also plotted (pun fully intended) your route. 
Outlining and discovery writing are two different techniques for generating plot—but plotting happens whether you use discovery writing or outlining. Some plots are more complex than others, but plot is the key element that differentiates a story from a character study or an abstract piece of prose. 
There’s plenty of wiggle room between these two techniques. You might be using discovery writing primarily, but you have a few, choice plot twists planned out in your mind. Or, your outline might be watered down to its bare bones, so you can build on it as you discovery-write your way through the story. 
How Do You Do It?
Many writers have already found the technique that works best for them, and the trick in finishing a novel is to find the method that works best for you. If you’re struggling with your story, experiment with different plotting techniques. If your outline leaves you feeling bored, then dabble in discovery writing. If discovery writing leads you nowhere, then construct an outline. 
Which technique has worked for you? Have you tried both of these methods or do you use some hybrid of discovery writing and outlining?  

27 comments:

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Fascinating post and thank you for highlighting both methods.

I'm absolutely a 'discovery' writer, or panster, preferring to let the plot and story unfold as the characters play. But I do think it's partly beacuse my subconscious is constantly at work ahead of me!

Carolb said...

Interesting post, thanks.
I started out as a sort of discovery writer- I had a start, and end and odd points in between, but the rest came with writing.
I'm trying the outlining method now and I find that better for me at the moment.
But I could see the discovery method still working for me on occasion.

Maya said...

I prefer to use "discovery" writing only on short stories, but I have a rough outline on paper before I start anything longer than 10 pages.

JeffO said...

To this point, I'm a discovery writer. I tell myself that on my next project, I'll outline and see how that works for me, but I'm not on my next project yet.

tracikenworth said...

I find I'm a half-and-half writer. That is, I begin with a detailed outline (well, detailed to some degree) and then when the story takes off (switches directions--this being a direction I think it was meant to all along), I take up discovery writing. Most of my "real" writing however is done in revisions where I can re-work, re-mold the shape. Great post!!

Becca Puglisi said...

I'm a total outliner. I have a very detailed outline of the entire story before I start. If it changes direction mid-stream, I have to stop and recalibrate to make sure it isn't going off on some weird tangent that won't make sense to the rest of the story. This obsessiveness when writing is interesting, considering I'm not like this at all in other areas of my life.

Thanks for the guest post, Melissa!

Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

Angela Ackerman said...

I'm a bit of a hybrid--I use both discovery writing and outlining on writing projects. When I'm in brainstorming mode, I think in depth about motivation and need, and will outline the shape of where things need to start and how they end, but then I just start to write, allowing the creative pantser side of me to take over. If there is no9 mystery to what will happen, I find it difficult to get words on the page.

Great post & thanks, Melissa!
Angela

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I am mostly a pantster, although I write that way knowing that the first draft is going to be extremely rough, have plot holes that need filling, and usually a beginning that needs to be re-written to match the traits of the characters who developed enroute.

I usually know the ending in advance, but I don't know how I'm going to get there. That's the fun.

Tiffany Garner said...

Great post!

I've always been a discovery writer, but I've recently found the most effective technique for me. I still just start writing, but as I get ideas for things to happen in the future I jot them down. By the time I'm about halfway through the novel, I mostly know where the story's going, and I sit down and write an outline. That outline is subject to change if I don't feel like things are falling into place naturally, but I usually have a pretty good feel for my characters by then.

I love this way of writing because it allows me to experiment and really get to know my characters, but I don't just let myself write in circles. I keep myself responsible.

Stacy said...

This post couldn't have come at a better time. As I'm getting ready to query a finished book, I'm plotting a second. I'm definitely a pantster, but have been trying to reform myself because the "experts" say it's wrong.

But the only way I can know my characters - and to extent, the plot - is by discovery writing. Right now I know the motivations and the end game, but everything between is up for grabs. The only way I can come up with it is to write. "They" say that's wrong and wastes time so I feel like I'm doing something wrong, but I trying to change completely stunts my creative ability.

I like to do discovery writing on characters and then a loose outline from there.

Great post!

catwoods said...

While I might have a general destination in mind--MC survives banishment--I discover my route along the way.

I've found that this often makes for a more robust story filled with nuances I wouldn't have gotten if I had already prepicked my rest stops before leaving home.

Great post.

S. Mozer said...

I used to think I was a pantster but as I learned about myself and my writing, and the more I learned from others, I realize I've always been a plotter, I just never knew how to write it down well. My plot was in my head.

I was really excited to discover the free youtube videos by the plot whisperer. She takes you step by step through the plotting process. If you are a plotter that just doesn't know how to plot, you may want to check them out.

Silent Pages said...

I consider myself to be more of a discovery writer. A lot of times I begin a story as you said, "Throwing characters into an interesting setting" and seeing where it takes me. ^^

But I outline as I go. Once I start coming up with the plot (usually expansive, sprawling, multiple-book plots XD) I write them down and loosely outline the rest of the book/series.

I think it works for me. I'll let you know after I finish revising something completely. XD

Danyelle L. said...

Very nice highlights for outlining and discovery writing. I'm a discovery writer all the way. I've tried outlining, but it never worked for exactly the reasons you detailed. :)

Heather said...

One of my all-time favorite debates! Outlining is essential to me, that little bit of planning saves months of editing. However, I outline loosely and I allow the story to grow organically when it needs to. I think it's important not to be too rigid either.

Shilpa said...

Though I do write a very high-level outline, my actual book comes only through discovery writing. Words flow more feeling and the plot builds up in my head and on paper simultaneously! :) The post was informative and I really liked the term "discovery" writing...fancy! :D

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I couldn't imagine plotting first. And the more books I read on story structure, the more I realize just how vital it is. Unless you love doing MASSIVE rewrites. :P

Becca Puglisi said...

What's amazing to me is how the different methods work for different people. Sure, 'experts' may say one way is the best, but that's like saying that all children should be taught visually. People (writers) are just different. It's all about finding what does work for you--as opposed to what you like to do, and the two aren't necessarily the same--and going at it that way.

Nikki said...

I almost always know where I want to end up and what a number of key scenes are, but I don't write much of it down before I start work on the novel. At most, I scetch out a few scenes when they come to me. I find that detailed outlining just wastes cycles and mutes my interest.

Melissa Donovan said...

@Rosemary, I think a lot of plotting and outlining can be done in one's head (both consciously and subconsciously). I feel the same way -- I'm always working ahead subconsciously.

@Carolb, I started out as an outliner and never finished anything. Then, I tried discovery writing through NaNoWriMo in 2008 and finally completed a novel. Now I'm using a mix and finding that I need some outlining for a longer or more complex plot.

@Maya, That's interesting -- you have an idea whether a project will be more than 10 pages in advance. I have no idea how long any of my writing projects will be!

@JeffO, It'll be interesting for you to see how the two techniques differ. I have tried both and found that a mix works best for me.

@tracikenworth, Me too! Except I'm writing a scene, then working out the outline, then writing another scene, and expanding the outline. Round and round I go!

@Becca and @Angela, Thanks for allowing me to guest post here on the Bookshelf Muse :)

Melissa Donovan said...

@Dianne, I read once that if you use discovery writing, it's just a longer way of outlining and the details get hashed out through revisions. It sounds like that is how you write :)

@Tiffany, Thank you! I love the way you've described your technique. I would say that's pretty close to what I've been doing lately. I discovery write the narrative but as I imagine the future (within the story), I'm also building this outline. It definitely keeps us on our toes, right? ;)

@Stacy, Who are the experts? I have actually heard more successful writers endorse discovery writing than outlining (with some notable exceptions in mystery and speculative genres). I do think it's important to try both methods (otherwise, how can you possibly know what works best for you?). But I have a big problem with any "expert" who insists that outlining is mandatory. For example, Stephen King doesn't outline. And I'd say he's done pretty well for himself. Don't live by other people's rules! But do give outlining and try and see if it helps :)

@catwoods, I have heard some writers who establish major milestones and discovery write their way to those points in the plot. This is one way of mixing outlining with discovery writing. Sounds like it works for you!

@S. Mozer, I've never heard of the plot whisperer, so I'll have to go to YouTube and check her out! Thanks for the recommendation :)

@Silent Pages, Ha! I think a lot of are still figuring it out and won't know for sure what works best until we've got a few, good novels under our belts.

Melissa Donovan said...

@Danyelle, Thanks for chiming in. It seems like most folks here use some combination, so I'm thrilled to hear from someone who sticks with true discovery writing :)

@Heather, I feel pretty strongly that each writer has to find his or her own best method. When I first heard of discovery writing, I was shocked. I couldn't imagine writing an entire novel without a plan. But then I did it, and it worked! I think it depends on the writer and the project. I love this discussion too :)

@Shilpa, Sounds like you write by mileposts. Okay, here's a confession: I dislike the term "pantsing." When I was a kid, pantsing meant yanking someone's pants down when they weren't expecting it. I never did it or had it done to me but always found one person's desire to humiliate another disturbing. I also think "discovery writing" is a clearer term :)

@Stina, You make a good point -- sometimes the absence of an outline will lead to more work during rewriting. I'm not sure that's always the case, though. In fact, I just listened to an interview with a (traditionally) published author who said the book flowed out of him and was published pretty much intact with very little revision or editing. I really don't think that works for most of us, but the possibility is interesting.

@Becca, You get so many comments here! It's wonderful to learn about all the different methods writers use. What a great discussion this has been :)

@Nikki, I'm glad you brought up sketching. One thing I like to do is complete a character sketch -- sometimes after I've written the character in a scene -- but sometimes I need to get the know the character a little before I can put him or her into a scene. I quite enjoy character sketching, even though sometimes my characters like to play hide-and-seek with me!

Jeff King said...

Finishing a novel is the easy part, it’s all the nuances that make writing good, that traps me.
Any good story has plot, whether you plot or not… I don’t plot, plan or outline a thing. The story rolls off my mind with ease.

I just hope to channel that same energy to fix my inept ability to write well.

Nice post, BTW

SarahJaneway said...

Very helpful. I don't know which group I fall into yet, but I do have a lot to think about as I attempt my first novel!

Shirley said...

My first books were written as discovery really, with a bare outline in my head. The book I am writing now has a more structured plot and synopsis, so I know exactly where I am going, although there are surprises even to me along the way. I think I prefer working this way and will try it again.

Nini said...

I have tried both ways to write a story, but apparently I only lack the perseverance. But still, this post helps me understand more about the art of writing. I'll try harder next time. Thanks :)

Cedric J. Sims said...

I've discovered that both ways work for me. I started out discovery writing though.

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