To plot or not to plot? My advice: It’s wise to make a plan before you embark on a long journey. (Especially for the crazy road trip known as NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, November’s annual caffeine-fueled, group-dare exercise soon to be undertaken yet again by thousands of avid writers.)
You’ve heard, perhaps, the famous statement by novelist E.L. Doctorow:
Writing is like driving at night. You can see only as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
The NaNoWriMo crowd might chant that as a daily mantra. But be warned. It’s a bit of an overstatement, the catchy quote that gets circulated and easily misunderstood. Yes, a rare few writers get inspired to sit down and write well in a “Wonderland” way.
The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
– Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
But in truth, most good writers working seriously on a novel have a pretty good sense of where they are heading before they get in the metaphorical car. They just don’t zoom around at night looking for random things to be surprised by as they drive by. A good novel is not the product of drive-by plotting.
It’s just a mistaken assumption that you can make it up as you go; it certainly decreases the chances that it will turn out well.
Better is the approach of John Irving, a story-centric, plot-driven, eminently successful American novelist. In his afterword to Last Night in Twisted River (2009), Irving describes his writing process:
Endings not only matter to me; endings are where I begin a novel or a screenplay. . . . From the last sentence, I work my way back to where the story begins. This constitutes a kind of road map in reverse. That process — of working my way backward through the plot, from the last sentence to the first — usually takes a year or eighteen months, sometimes longer . . .
INTERVIEWER [RON HANSEN]
How do you begin a book?
Not until I know as much as I can stand to know without putting anything down on paper. Henry Robbins, my late editor at E. P. Dutton, called this my enema theory: keep from writing the book as long as you can, make yourself not begin, store it up. This is an advantage in historical novels. Setting Free the Bears and The Cider House Rules, for example. I had to learn so much before I could begin those books; I had to gather so much information, take so many notes, see, witness, observe, study—whatever—that when I finally was able to begin writing, I knew everything that was going to happen, in advance. [. . .]
The authority of the storyteller’s voice—of mine, anyway—comes from knowing how it all comes out before you begin. It’s very plodding work, really.
Have any of your novels changed drastically as you created them?
Along the way accidents happen, detours get taken—the accidents turn out to be some of the best things. But these are not “divine” accidents; I don’t believe in those. I believe you have constructive accidents en route through a novel only because you have mapped a clear way. If you have confidence that you have a clear direction to take, you always have confidence to explore other ways; if they prove to be mere digressions, you’ll recognize that and make the necessary revisions.
The more you know about a book, the freer you can be to fool around. The less you know, the tighter you get.
Of course, plunging in might seem more fun than plotting. At first. But just think of all the roadside attractions and scenic views and other points of interest you’d likely miss that could have been included in a better-planned journey.
In general, the more experienced writers do tend to use plotting methods.
If you want a slim, simple but effective book with some good technique for plotting, I can recommend Fill-in-the-Blank Plotting by Linda George. It combines the key elements of the Hero’s Journey and the Three-Act Structure in an easy-to-use methodology.
Let me know if there are other plotting methods or books that you recommend.