To Plot, or Not to Plot

A lot of writers wonder whether they should plot a book or not. The truth is that the vast majority of bestselling authors do plot out their books, but that isn’t always the case.

There are some writers who don’t plot. They’re called “discovery writers,” and they tend to ponder each scene, write it down, and then discover where it leads them. Sometimes, this works really well. I used that method with my very first novel, On My Way to Paradise, and didn’t even have much of a clue as to where I was going with it until I had a strange dream one night, where I was flying on a hovercraft on my way to battle on an alien planet. It seemed that pepperoni pizza often gave me those kinds of dreams. In any case, the novel became a bestseller and the book won a Philip K. Dick award, so I felt that the experiment worked.

I don’t know a lot of discovery writers, and I suspect that Stephen King is the best known. Here is what he says about it: “I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can—I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.”

He’s right. This technique works for some people, but most professional writers find that it’s problematic. Very often when you’re discovery writing, you find that your story gets bogged down as you overwrite your characters or find that a new character is trying to take over, or maybe the plot that you come up with just seems lackluster. So I like to plot, sort of.

Recently I was on a panel with nine other New York Times bestsellers, and we were discussing whether we plotted our fiction or not. All of us did indeed plot, and I’d say that more than 90% of bestsellers do plot.

But plotting a novel also comes with a price. I see a lot of eager young writers who take courses on plotting and then write a book swiftly, sometimes in a matter of days. When I read them, very often the story feels what I would call “Plot-heavy.” In short, the plot drives the story forward swiftly, but other aspects of the novel feel . . . thin.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say that you set your story on an alien planet. On this planet there are two races of people, the humans and the Beningi. I will often see that kind of story and feel that the world itself just isn’t fleshed out. There might be little or no mention of other animals, no cultural details of either society, little in the way of languages or information on how the aliens see the world, and no sense of history as to how the aliens have developed over the centuries. So the worldbuilding feels thin.

A similar problem comes when the characters feel underdeveloped. Maybe they lack proper bodies or costumes, or feel as if they have just stepped off the page. Many of these characters don’t yet have their own voices and unique way of reacting. We don’t really feel that they have well-defined motives for what they do.

So, how do you fix these problems?

First, I think that you should only try to write an unplotted novel after you have developed a good sense of story structure. Stephen King points out that when he first began writing, he studied it meticulously. I think that by doing so, he learned to recognize when a conflict would lead to a promising tale—and he learned when to cut off and abandon a storyline that was headed nowhere. In short, he developed a very strong story sense that has served him well over the past few decades.

At the same time, I don’t like to abandon the idea of plotting. Yes, I use plots, but I also love to develop detailed worlds and societies. I love to create genuine, round characters whose motives and habits are never fully exposed to the page. So even as I write a plotted tale, I’m making up all kinds of things as I go. I’m like an explorer who sees a distant peak and strikes out in that direction, unsure what I will find along the way.

The problem of plotting has been on my mind a lot lately. I started out using a seven-point plotting structure, which I have now modified into a nine-point structure. I’ve tried various forms of Hollywood plotting, studied the hero’s journey, and even have figured out how to drive a plot by triggering the release of certain desired hormones in the reader.

But there is great value in learning how to plot in depth, to develop a strong story sensibility no matter what technique you use—even if you’re a total discovery writer.

So with this in mind, I’m creating a little three-day master class workshop where I’ll teach you several ways to plot a novel, with the idea that you can work through them and discover what really works well for you. Maybe you won’t like one style of plotting, but another method will suit you just fine.

The class is called “And the Plot Thickens, Master Class,” and will be taught in Provo, Utah from March 7-9. The goal is to teach you how to not just plot a novel, but to plot one that is well grounded in rounded characters and in-depth world creation.

To find out more or to register for the early-bird discount, go here: https://mystorydoctor.com/

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