The Unplotted Plot

Recently I picked up a book by an author whom I’ve enjoyed in the past and which I was very much looking forward to reading. It was a big Science Fiction novel, and the author is one of those rare few who’s managed to break out of the narrow confines of SF and become a mainstream bestseller. His books, which often feature mysterious alien artifacts, are filled with wonder, his stories painted on big canvases–all stuff I love, unlike so much of today’s SF which I find either preachy, tediously dystopian, downright timid and petty, or all three together.

After enjoying the first few dozen pages, however, I found myself starting to become uncomfortable. Despite the great setup, fine writing, wonderful worldbuilding, and solid characterization, the story felt as if it was on rails. It was meticulous, precise. It was too damn plotted.

The more I learn about this craft, the more I understand how very different every writer’s M.O. is. There’s no right way to write, there’s only what works. Some people are plotters; I’m not. I write largely by the seat of my pants, but I learned some years ago–a hard lesson, the result of having painted myself into an impossible corner on several occasions where I began a story without any sort of preparation–that even a “pantser” needs some notes and waypoints from the outset.

So today, when I embark on a long work such as the novel I’m currently about, I make sure I have a few things down on paper when I begin: a good setup and a rough outline of the first few scenes to serve as a launch ramp; full notes and backstory on my principal characters, including some psychological profiles about their deeper goals and motivations; an understanding of the “flaw in the universe”, the core conflict that drives the plot; some vague notion of the development of the story; and an idea of my ending (all of which can, and likely will, change). But I don’t even attempt anything resembling a full outline.

When I wrote my novel “Sutherland’s Rules”, two authors I respect a great deal made comments (and rather nice ones) worth examining here. One told me he wished he could plot so well–which made me laugh, as all I’d done was set the characters free to act and react, then chased them around with maps, calendars, and finally stopwatches to make sure it was all possible! The second comment about the book was that I did a fine job of not telegraphing my intentions in advance; well, how could I? How was I to know what my characters would get up to from one minute to the next? All I do is watch, and write it down.

Notice I mentioned “plot” earlier, but only as a noun. The reason for this is that I don’t believe in plotting. Like Stephen King (I was immensely happy when he made this point in his book, “On Writing”), I don’t trust plotting in the sense of a detailed, premeditated outline of story events. Plot is something that occurs spontaneously, a hyperdynamic web of forces that, for me, needs to develop organically as the writer’s well thought-out and very real characters set out to win or lose their battle against each other, themselves, or that flaw in the universe the writer has conceived as the story’s central conflict. Plot, to me, doesn’t have a verbal form–it’s a noun, and another word for story.

When I read a book where the author has mechanically plotted everything out carefully in advance (the generic MegaName thriller authors that turn out several books a year are egregious examples of this), I can quite literally feel–at least I imagine I can–the poor characters struggling to break free, to have autonomy, to do something spontaneous and unpredictable, all the while screaming, “I am not a character, I am a free man!” It’s painful. It’s boring. Now, I don’t know if this is the way is the way these authors work, but their books feel that way to me–choreographed and mechanical. And that’s the kiss of death for me.

If, on the other hand, the author has done their preliminary work well, and has some clue what he or she is about in terms of craft, their characters will act like real people in a real situation in the real world rather than like marionettes on a stage set. Oh, there’ll be some tuning, and they may need reining in occasionally, but I find that’s more a question of keeping control over their time in public view rather than limiting their actions. I mean, why would you want to do that?

I think also that when some authors talk of plotting, they’re often referring to a rather different process than the premeditated, scene-by-scene working out of story events I’m grumbling about. What I think some writers do is write an initial outline that’s effectively a barebones first draft and in which the characters are organically involved as actors, and then expand that more and more; and I think this is where a good deal of misunderstanding arises as to what plot and plotting are.

My personal belief is that the time to plot is after you’ve got the first draft down. Even then, plot in its verb form isn’t the right word–I like to think of it as outlining after the fact. And the reason for this is that when you have eighty or a hundred thousand words, dozens of chapters over hundreds of pages that have taken you several months even years to write, you need to get an overview of the whole. At this point, writing a brief summary of what happens in each chapter and scene is something that I find vital to help me see what needs doing in the rewrite.

But, plot from the beginning? No way. If I can’t trust my characters to act independently, I’ve probably not done a very good job on them, have I?

*     *     *

What do you think? Do you find some books just seem to be too obviously plotted? If you’re a writer, what’s your own process?


Filed under Writing

6 responses to “The Unplotted Plot

  1. Great post Dario. I’m a new writer and have been pantsing. I had struggled with outlining for years, imagining as I did that it as a rigid and structured beast. I never got past that stage. It was only when I started pantsing several months ago, that I actually began to write. I am at the stage now where I am actually looking at creating a loose ‘outline’ or guide though because I did have some errors related to different timelines when I realized “wait, he couldn’t have been there two years ago if he was trapped over here argghhh!” I also have some characters who need to be at certain places for events so I realize I have to at least have a general idea when all these events are happening.

    Best wishes for the New Year,


    • Hi Burt! And thanks for commenting 🙂 I’m really glad to hear that giving your muse and characters a looser rein is working for you. I totally get the timeline errors you mention, and am dealing with these very issues in my current novel. But generally working with a calendar (spreadsheets are really good for this) can sort out the problems, though sometimes I’ve found myself having to go back and fix some setup or backstory details to iron out the discrepancies.

      Best for 2015 back at you, and keep writing!

  2. One reasons I don’t like thrillers and mysteries is because I feel manipulated by their plots. On the other hand, I’m not fond of novels without plots. I like stories where the characters experience events in a naturalistic unfolding, yet satisfying way. I especially don’t like plots that feel like a series of episodic obstacles. This is often true in fantasy where the hero goes on a quest and meet X number of foes, and finally the story ends. However, that is the plot of most fantasy stories, so the writer has to distract me with great characterization and style to make up for the mechanization of the plot. Like, The Princess Bride.

    • Jim, good to see you here and thanks for pitching in. It’s funny, isn’t it, how one just sense when things are too mechanical. I think that as well as the author plotting too rigidly, sometimes this occurs also or because of trying too hard top adhere to what is perceived (and marketed!) as “the winning formula”. Just trying to adhere too slavishly to the Hero’s Journey template IMO can result in a predictable and formulaic story; Hollywood screenwriters are probably the worst offenders at every level. “The Princess Bride” stands out largely because it’s so whimsical and wacko, with such eccentric characters and takes on tropes very consciously. It all comes back to character IMO.

  3. Joanna Fay

    Totally with you on this one, Dario. Part of the interest of writing for me is ‘seeing what the characters will do next’, and loving it when they surprise me! (Even if it means rewriting the previous 10k words, lol. It’s worth it).
    I think it’s partly a confidence/self-trust thing. I know some writers who plot every action in every chapter, for a feeling of security *that it’s going to hang together and work*. But as you say, it can become obviously formulaic and predictable, all for the sake of avoiding potential rewrites.

    The other aspect is having a really good handle on your point of view characters, in particular, before you start. The better you know them, the more you empathize with them (regardless of whether they’re ‘good, bad or complicated’), the easier it is to let them plot their own way through the story, without it losing its way.
    That’s my experience, anyway. :))
    Happy New Year to you. May your/our writing dreams bloom wildly!

    • Hi Joanna ~

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I think you’re absolutely right about insecurity being a prime reason some authors feel they must plot everything. That, and maybe control issues. And I get the fear, I’ve had stories get out of control and become hard to salvage.

      But the answer IMO isn’t to stage-manage one’s characters’ every action and decision. It seems to me that most plot problems stem from character and setup/world issues, plus inattention during the writing process. I have a vague ending in mind at the onset, plus some widely-spaced fences to keep things within certain bounds, and that seems to me enough. I want my books, no matter how fantastical they may be, to feel like real life, and real life is not (at least overtly) plotted.

      Your point about knowing your character really well and empathizing with them is also well-taken. If you create real people and give them autonomy within generous parameters, it seems to me that the result is not only more satisfying, but that the author will have a great deal more fun in the writing. To plot everything ahead and then write the prose seems so like painting by numbers.

      And besides, as Stephen King put it, “Why be such a control freak? Every story has to come out somewhere.”

      All the best to you in 2015!


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