Tuesday, 30 June 2009


I am plotting at the moment. Not to bring down the government, though I can’t say I’m not tempted, but the outline of a new book. Getting the story, which I have already decided on in some detail, into the right order. Making sure events unfold in a way that is both exciting to read and sustains the narrative over the length of the book.

I enjoy plotting because it’s fun swapping round parts of the story, deciding that though the obvious thing to do would be to tell this particular episode before that one, it might be much more interesting if I did it the other way round. Trying to find the perfect configuration, like one of those movable number puzzles where you have to get the squares in sequence.

But I also dislike it because with plotting, more that with writing, there are periods where nothing seems to be happening. You realise that although you thought you had the story all worked out in your head, once you begin to run through it in detail there are big holes that need to be filled and you can’t think of any easy way to fill them. You sit there mesmerized by the holes, thinking over and over again, ‘How did that happen?’ Soon you start to panic. Maybe the whole story is ill-conceived. Maybe you’ve been wasting your time for the last two weeks. Maybe you should pack this whole writing business in.

I hate that. It feels like I’ve fallen into one of those holes and I just keep falling for days. Finally I have to go back to the moment in the plot just before the hole opened up because that’s nearly always where the problem lies. It isn’t that I need a new episode to fill in the hole, after all. It’s that there’s a fundamental problem with the direction the story was taking. So I have to haul it back to where I want it to be. That inevitably involves shifting events and characters further along the plotline but that’s never impossible. Just hard work.

I used to do my plotting and my writing at the same time. Making it up as I went along. I thought that writing an outline was such a bore, took all the spontaneity, all the creativity out of it. Not any more. Too many redrafts that way. Now I think the whole thing through in my head to the end. I don’t want to get three quarters of the way through and find great cracks appearing on the path in front of me. I like my pain up front where I can look it in the face and say, ‘You don’t scare me! I’m going to plan you out of existence!’


Paul Lamb said...

I've had similar experiences with my current WIP. I've certainly plotted it to the bitter end, but several of my plot points are things like "and then he has a realization." That's a pretty big event in the story to have left to only a sketched outline point. So I find myself coming to that point and having my own realization, that there is plenty of imagination work yet to be done. I cope.

Brian Keaney said...

Believe me Paul, I've been there. You come to this glib little sentence and you think so how exactly was that supposed to work?

Rod Duncan said...

One of the best descriptions of plotting I have found (though irritatingly prescriptive) is in Robert McKey's book on screenwriting "Story".

He looks at in terms of a main plot with a three act structure and various sub-plots with three, two or one acts - starting and ending in different places.

Not something to be slavishly adhered to. But seeing the way he fills the yawning gap of Act 2 with the turning points of these sub-plots - this has been very useful to me. It has given me a framework for thinking about the structure of my long fiction - whether it be novels or screenplays.

easilydistractedwriter said...

My problem is that if I start with a plotline, I get so entranced with the brilliance of my ideas I never end up writing a word. And if I start from the other end, by just writing and seeing where it goes, I end up with a load of stuff that doesn't hang together with any coherence or, ahem, a plot. Which is where I am after a year or so of writing without a road map. There must be some kind of middle way...