Fiction Writing: Should You Plot Your Plot?

plotting.jpgI once ran a very successful PhP gaming board. I made the story up for players as I went along.

There was no plan at all, and I winged it every step of the way. I had a beginning and a premise, and the players knew they had to go from point A to point B to achieve objectives, but everything in between relied solely on the actions and reactions of the player characters involved.

The characters truly ruled the story.

I’ve heard that the best of plans never survive the first meeting with the enemy. In the world of role-playing games (or RPG), this is very true.

The moment I planned anything, someone else would blow my carefully though-out plans apart. In most cases, that person was James and his characters.

I remember setting up a particular scene that twisted so much that it blew us all away. We’d planned carefully and set our trap for James’ character, but none of us expected the scene to go as “wrong” as it did.

The next thing we all knew, our main characters were fugitives on the run.

Now what? If I had stuck to a specific plot, I would have been leading everyone by the nose. The scene wouldn’t have been spectacular or memorable. It turned out to be both and it set the stage for many fantastic scenes to come.

Planning out every detail of your novel causes issues, too. You become so focused on the direction you want to take your novel that you forget your characters have a life, too. Instead of realistic responses, you end up with stiff reactions that don’t really fit.

The Elements of Plot

Traditionally, six elements make a plot:

  • Introduction: Introduce the setting and scene of the story to your audience. You also have introductions for each chapter. When I find I’m struggling a chapter, I wrap it up and use that as my introduction to the next chapter.
  • Rising Action: Add a little more tension, a little more anticipation and compel the reader to turn that page. Build slowly and steadily – too much at once is jarring.
  • Climax/Reversal: At this point, the story reaches its peak, becoming a turning point for the character(s).
  • Falling Action: Now it’s time to breath and let the plot unravel while you reveal all to the reader.
  • Confrontation: This is the final crisis. The lead character have a showdown with the antagonist – even if the antagonist is himself.
  • Denouement: This element is the resolution and tying up of loose ends. If it’s a series, you might not want to tie everything up very tightly.

I believe that writing freeform rather than planning each of these elements out works better. Start with a general description of a beginning and the potential outcome of the end. Everything else happens naturally – that is, if you can let go and allow your characters the freedom to act as they will.

Consider that each chapter contains some of the six elements as you write. Each new chapter is a chance for you to introduce a new scene. You’ll have some rising action, maybe a small climax and a bit of falling action that flows into the next chapter. Or, you might have small cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter.

What If?

A very popular method for creating plot is using the “What If?” method. James and I choose this technique often. We’re always wondering “What if Cass did this? What if Sunny decided this instead of that?”

After we wonder, we don’t think or plan, we just write. Most of the time, we end up with a chapter or scene that’s a real keeper. Sometimes we read back and wonder, “What the hell were we thinking?”

That’s okay. We toss that scene or edit it to fit.

My Confession

I confess that I’ve never written a plot in my life – ever.

I tried, once, and my plot didn’t work out very well. Somehow, I had the notion that to have a good story I needed a detailed plot. I sat down and wrote a complex outline with all the textbook elements of a plot.

Before I knew it, I had a monster of a mess. The whole project felt contrived and scripted, and my story lost its spark. There was no room for spontaneity. The characters were mechanical, going through the motions of getting from one event to the next. The story was boxed in and welded shut.

I became so bogged down in what I should do that I lost sight of what I could do. That was the last time I ever wrote a plot.

This free-form method may not work for you. Having some idea where your plot is going is important – but don’t limit yourself. Don’t be afraid to break away from your plans when something better comes along. So what if your ending changes? Maybe it wasn’t the right ending to begin with.

When the Muse speaks, listen. She knows what she’s talking about.

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