|For some, plotting is a labyrinth.|
Plot. A simple word cherished by some and hated by others. One writer’s heaven, another writer’s expressway to hell.
For some, plotting is a labyrinth--a confusing and complicated web that brings about the death of a story like victims of the Minotaur, as the Greek myth goes. For others, plotting is the key that unlocks the story from the shackles of aimlessness. Plotter vs. pantser.
I have to say, I’ve been a bit of both, with a strong preference for plotting.
When I was a kid and first started weaving stories that burned and blossomed in my mind like supernovas, I had no care or concern for plotting. I knew how the story started, I had an idea of how I wanted it to end, and everything else would come to me as I went along. Nothing was ever set in stone, a very liberal process. Anything could change at any point; it made no difference to me, so long as I found the story entertaining. In light of this, my tales went anywhere and everywhere. Aliens, monsters, robots, pirates, knights, alternate dimensions, time travel—anything. My creations entertained me, but it’s safe to say those free form products of my wild imagination would get a laugh and smirk if scrutinized today.
As I got older, I added a slight touch of plotting to my process. I’d sketch a few key components of a story or a poem. I scrawled an outline or two. But that was the extent of my “story architecture” at that time. From there I let the words fly across the expanse of pages. They took my writing to many great places, and many terrible ones.
About two years ago I started my first “big” writing project—a spec script entitled “Cross Bronx Expressway.” As it was my first real experience writing anything of large proportions, I didn’t know where to begin. So I just started writing. After a few weeks I’d accumulated around thirty pages of scratches and scrawls and sketches and realized: this clutter needs structured. That was my first true initiative to plot. Over the next few months I had filled a binder with over 130 pages of notes and character backgrounds and scenes.
Satisfied I had done my preparations, I wrote my first draft of my spec script. It came out to 185 pages (the average spec script running 120). Obviously, mine was too long, so I went back through and revised. After scanning my notes I figured out that I had not really plotted at all. What I’d done was slap a bunch scenes together, scenes which I’d written on the fly, with no sense of direction or structure, just a rambling story.
It was then that I bought the book “Save the Cat!” It completely redefined my understanding of story structure and plot. Even though it is a book on screenwriting, I highly suggest writers look into it, as it offers sound advice that can be used in all writing forms.
|"The Board," a very useful tool in structuring my biggest projects.|
I had other screenwriting books as well (“The Screenwriter’s Bible” being one of them), but “Save the Cat!” really helped me understand the idea of a 3 act story, major plot points, and story structure. It also gave me the idea of “The Board”—a cork board I use with note cards to structure my biggest projects.
After reading the book, I went back to work on my script, with strong attention to plotting. I nailed in an inciting incident, a mid point, etc. I laid out all the scenes, the basic idea of each one etched on a note card. I rearranged them on the board and was able to visually identify how each affected the other, what points were lacking, what segments needed polished.
After doing this, I sat back down to write my second draft. It came out at 115 pages. Not only was the 2nd draft crisper, the whole process was smoother and faster. Plotting helped me to achieve that.
I have since outlined and plotted most of my projects. It helps me save time. It helps me get most of the scenes and structure right on the first attempt. I still let things go wherever they want to now and then, as it keeps the scenes and stories fresh. I never hold to the idea that everything in my stories are etched in stone, that way I'm not attached and won't feel guilt when I have to polish or remove the faulty parts.
There are many writers who don’t plot. Stephen King is one of them. He expresses his views in this article.
This blog offers great insight into the advantages and disadvantages of plotting.
Ultimately, there is no “right way.” Plotter or pantser, it’s whatever fits your writing style best. As for me, I’m a plotting convert, but I think each project can be tackled in a different way. I like to keep an open mind, and I’m sure I’ll use a combination of both throughout my writing.