The eternal question — plot or not?

It seems like every writer’s forum eventually ends up with an animated discussion of whether it is better to plot your novels or write by the seat of your pants. (Are you a plotter or a pantser?)


Image from Pixabay


So I decided that rather than addressing the question superficially when I encounter it, I would address it in detail here, and then just link to it when necessary! Sort of like the question of “Where do you find the time to write?

For me, it has been a journey of three decades of writing (so far).

When I started, there was no outlining whatsoever. I would start a book with no idea where it was going. It was an exploration of a character or a situation, and it unfolded (or didn’t) over time. I had difficulty ending a story; most of my early books ended by killing off the protagonist once I was done with the character or situation. Some stories wandered for a long time, or a shorter time, and I got bored/frustrated with them and didn’t finish them. Other books were great! And sometimes I would go back to an unfinished story and finish it years later.

At that point in my writing development, if I knew how a story was going to end, I either wouldn’t finish it, or I would go somewhere else with it. I felt like if I knew how it was going to end, it took the fun/creativity out of writing, and I was no longer interested in the story. Writing a mystery was impossible, because if I knew the solution, I was no longer interested in the story, and if I didn’t know the solution, I would paint myself into a corner, making it so that there was no possible solution.

I had one character that I loved and wanted to write more about. Of course, I had killed her off in the first book. So I wrote what happened to her during a period of missing time in the first book. I still wanted to write more about her, so I wrote an alternate “she’s not really dead” sequel. I still wanted to write more about her, so I went back to her childhood and wrote a prequel. And more missing scenes. All of this was over a period of years, between other books or while writing other books. It occurred to me that even though I knew the ultimate ending, I was still able to write more about her. Knowing the ending did not take the joy out of writing more about my favourite character.


Flickr Creative Commons Dwayne Bent

Flickr Creative Commons Dwayne Bent


I managed to write one book that had a plot twist that I knew ahead of time that the reader would not be able to anticipate. Even knowing the plot twist ahead of time, I was still able to complete the book. (Okay, I did still kill off one character at the end… but not until after the big reveal… still have to rewrite that one…)

Around that time, I started writing for Nanowrimo. I experimented a little bit with writing for Nano knowing how the story was going to end before I started, reminding myself that I could still enjoy the creative process even if I knew how it was going to end. And it was only 50,000 words. Practically a short story. I also tried writing out of order, jumping forward or back through the timeline, including flashbacks or backstory, etc. As long as I was writing something to do with the story.

Then I wrote my first book outline. I think for a Camp Nano novel. I was finding that I was floundering mid-Nano, knowing that I had to meet a quota but not knowing where the story was going was causing me a lot of grief. It was a pretty general outline. First, second, and third act. It was a mystery and I knew the protagonist was going to find the solution in the third act, and generally knew who the perp was, but not why or how he would find the solution. Some of the scenes in the first act were outlined, but not all. I finished the book (100,000 words or so) in lots of time, without getting too bogged down. And it was a great plot!

In between Nanos, I started using the Snowflake method to help identify problems and replot/rewrite some older stories. Soon after that, I used it to plot a story for the first time.

Plotting in Scrivener

I have been (mostly) plotting since then. Some of the plots are more detailed (100 scenes/plot points identified before beginning), and some of them are less detailed (A, B, and C happen, and it will end with protagonist either turning his life around or not and ending in tragedy.)

I still do some free writing, discovery writing, or pantsing, whatever you want to call it. When I get stuck, I’ll mindmap, do a Snowflake outline, or whatever. Most of my new novels are being plotted before I begin writing. I am still experimenting with what level of plotting works best for me, but I think it may vary from book to book. There are some where I have 20-30 scenes identified per act before beginning, and others where I have 5-10 plot points per act. But I am finally comfortable with both plotting and with knowing how a story is going to (or probably going to…) end when I begin writing and still feeling happy and creative. There is always reworking and reordering to be done along the way; I am pretty flexible with changing my outlines as I go. I’m okay with skipping a scene or going back and inserting one afterward. I’m okay with writing back story at any point, and working it into the story later, or not.

For me, outlining helps to keep the momentum going, so that a first draft is wrapped up in a month, instead of wandering around or being abandoned over a period of years. But I’m still okay with writing other stuff that isn’t on my production schedule without an outline or plan.

Tell me what you think!

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