I Think I’m Plot-Curious


Last night in workshop, we briefly discussed the idea of outlining a novel, especially after the first draft had been written. I’ve never written a novel before and much of what I’ve read about craft discourages outlines. But I think it’s important to stay open to methods that could potentially improve a story’s structure or plot. So the question for me lately is, Should I outline a story or not?

I was reminded of a blog post from Jane Friedman, who has tons of advice on writing and marketing novels, so if you’re not following her blog, please start. In this guest post from Tania Strauss of NY Book Editors, Strauss talks about making the decision to outline or not. She says that if external forces, such as setting and historical events, play a strong role in putting the story in motion, then it might make sense to create a broad outline.

The key, it seems, is to identify the pivotal plots points in your story and work from there — or toward there. If you are going for the kind of pull commonly found in movies and best-sellers, you might want to read about the six-act plot. Unless you’re one of those people who wants seven plot points. Or eight.

I’ve never written a story with a plot in mind, nor outlined anything, but to be honest, I’m curious. I like things organized (you should see my closets) and I like structure, so why not approach a story from plot? Perhaps laying down a plot-driven outline and adhering to it will teach me something about story arc and character development. Who knows? Just because I outline one little measly story doesn’t mean I have to commit to outlining for the rest of my life, does it?

As Pam Houston said in a workshop I took with here several years ago, “The structure will set you free.” In her opinion, imposing some kind of structure on your writing allows you to be widely free within those boundaries. I like that idea. I might just plot.

Credit: Jeremy Keith/Flickr Creative Common

1 Comments on “I Think I’m Plot-Curious”

  1. A fine discussion subject, Tracy. My guess is there is a big spectrum of approaches. Every author who has work to show has found a way that works for her; and moreover that way likely changes over time. Also, genre matters. In a plot-heavy genre like a mystery it is probably essential to outline in detail. In the literary stuff I like to do I have found what you said–“The key, it seems, is to identify the pivotal plots points in your story and work from there — or toward there”–to be be pretty optimal. Too much planning and the spontaneity goes away; too little and you can paint yourself into a corner. I would add that whatever approach is taken, expect surprises, and welcome them. Even an ending that you envisioned from day one may turn out, when the characters stand up to speak and act, very different from the planned one. There is an organic aspect: a plot, like life, sometimes goes where you don’t expect it too; the people in the story, like real people, will show free will and sometimes resist you. Your closet may be perfectly thought out but your story will not be–should not be. But neither should it be a hamper full of laundry.

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