To Plot or Not?

Will you wing it to bring it?

It’s one of the biggest questions in writing. Do you plan every tiny part of your novel in advance? Or do you start to write and just see where it takes you? And which one is the right way?

I am here to tell you that there is no right way. I know people who produce perfectly publishable books both ways, and I do a little bit of both. It completely depends on personal preference — some people feel that plotting before starting to write spoils the story for them. Yet some people find structure comforting.

Let’s take a look at some plot or not methods.

Losing the plot

In all the writing groups I have attended or run there have been people who steadfastly make a stance to not plot. They extend this not just to story, but also to structure.

I find this fascinating, because it often goes hand in hand with creative freedom and experimentation. You might expect lack of planning and freedom to just write would produce something quite different to a planned, structured novel. Yet many of these stories were just like the pre-structured and plotted ones — with a beginning, middle and end.

Stories are in our psyche, and we recognise the shape of a story. So while the not-plotters are not consciously plotting, the story shape still comes through to and extend to make the piece recognisable.

Bringing the plot

At the beginning of my writing career I didn’t plot at all. I just sat down and wrote for all I was worth. I could tell a story. People read it. It wasn’t until an agent mentioned John Yorke that I started to understand that there was a lot more to storytelling, and that started, for me, with the three — act structure, or, as John teaches, the five act structure.

I watched John Yorke’s YouTube interview at Google and then attended a screenwriting Masterclass run by him. It was almost an epiphany. I had gone from barely knowing anything about structure to thinking about acts and midpoints. I rushed home to check all my novels for midpoints and, sure enough, they were there. A reversal. The relief was real. But I knew I could do better with my new awareness.

I became a serious plotter and produced a plotting chart. I used this to plot my psychological thrillers and even introduced a multi-strand chart to track worlds, scenes and characters. This came in very handy when I got structural edits on one novel and had to change an entire strand.

My writing improved and my editor and agent noticed. I was invited to write a guest post for the brilliant Damyanti Biswas where you can download a copy of my plotting chart:

But then I discovered Save the Cat.

Almost Saving the Cat

Following hot on the tail of Save the Cat for screenwriters came Save the Cat for novelists. The book is an instruction manual for writing your novel beat by beat, story type by story type. You can find all about Save the Cat on this siteEditors started to tell me that Save the Cat was their ‘bible’ and they wanted their authors to stick to that format and bring beat sheets as outlines. It keeps it nice and uniform, I guess, for busy people who know what works.

In a talk at an author group I almost faced a mutiny when I started to talk about Save the Cat. Some of the authors told me that the strict formulae and defined story paths were stealing their creativity. I listened, but it occurred to me that in writing there are no rules.

But if editors want a certain format, our best chance of getting published is to present them with work in that format. I knew to my cost that if you decide to bring them an apple when they want an orange, they will choose the next person with an apple.

It seemed like the outraged authors were taking Saving the Cat a little too far. After all, aren’t rules there to guide us rather than restrict us?

Reader, I broke the rules.

Saving the Cat then setting it free

I wondered if I had been doing it wrong. I had been using the Save the Cat beatsheet and story types as guidance, not as rules. I revisited the book and thought about how I had applied all the things I had learned along the way to my plotting.

I used the beatsheet to get an idea of how my story would work, then used my own plotting sheet to go into more detail. Some writers do an outline for each chapter in advance and extend it as they write.

I talked to my writing mentor about it and she thought it was a little bit like cooking; some people throw food into a pan and something delicious appears, whereas some follow a recipe to the gram.

Plotting is the molding of the story holder, the shaper, the pot. The story is the flowing, flexible water that we pour into it. If your pot is solid, you can’t pour the water in. You have restricted your plot and left little room for the story to tread itself through the plot points.

Schrodinger’s stories

Stories are our shared consciousness. I am so convinced of this that I spend six years doing a PhD on that subject. The reason plotting or not plotting is an option is that we already know stories. Stories sit deep down in our sense of meaning and they are how we make sense of the world, alongside other meaning making language such as maths and science.

So stories are everywhere all at once. When a book is written and published it is with both the writer and the reader concurrently — a shared abstraction of a subject that they are both interested in. Like the Schrodinger’s cat though experiment, it’s a mind-bending look into how we relate to each other and what invisible dynamics move our lives collectively forward.

Cats, heroes and villains

Of course, my cat analogy has gone too far. The real meaning of ‘save the cat’ is that we need to make a likeable hero (who loves cats so much they save one) for our story so the reader can be invested and engaged.

The purpose of plot is to signpost the story shape and give the reader something recognisable to understand in the background of the story itself. It is plot and story structure that we learn throughout our lives as we are told stories over and over again; we don’t remember all the individual stories but we know what a story is and what we want from it. A path. A shape. A plotted course that we understand.

Unless you are running on pure subtext (see Sally Rooney’s Normal People for an example of this) you will need to drive the reader on with plot points and hooks to move your story forward.

We need to be rooting for someone, but it needn’t be the cat.

My advice is: don’t take it too seriously, read up on plot and structure — start with Freytag’s pyramid. Listen to John Yorke. Read Save the Cat and other writing books. Take what YOU like and enjoy from the gathered wisdom and apply it to YOUR story. It’s about what works for you, what keeps you in flow and what supports you in writing your novel.