To Plan or Not to Plan: Storytelling versus Plotting


‘I do not plan my fiction any more than I normally plan woodland walks; I follow the path that seems most promising at any given point, not some itinerary decided before entry.’

John Fowles

Recently I’ve found myself immersed in discussions about the pros and cons of planning a novel before embarking on the writing of it. These days there are endless numbers of story planning tools, maps, checklists and even software designed to help us plan our stories. Many of these tools are no doubt very useful and I know a few writers who swear by them. People write in different ways, according to their character and preference. Some write haphazardly with no story in mind, then cut and paste, creating links between sections until a story emerges. Some plan everything before sitting down to actually write a story, mapping out chapters and scenes, character traits and biographies. Others plan very little and simply trust the process. There are dangers and rewards in each of these approaches. Too much knowledge of a story can set the boundaries so tightly its natural growth becomes restricted. Too little and the story might never be found.

‘Of course, the writer can impose control; It’s just a really shitty idea. Writing controlled fiction is called “plotting.” Buckling your seatbelt and letting the story take over, however… that is called “storytelling.” Storytelling is as natural as breathing; plotting is the literary version of artificial respiration.’

Stephen King

Flannery O’Connor spoke of writing ‘as an act of discovery’ and for me that is certainly the case. I have never used any planning tools, not because I am averse to them but because as yet I have felt no need of them before or during the writing process. Instinctively I shy away from planning and even from talking unnecessarily about my work-in-progress, because I have found that planning and talking are easy substitutes for doing. For me the joy of writing lies in the uncertainty about what is ahead, not the comforting knowledge that all is mapped out for me. I would prefer the occasional signpost and an inner compass to a detailed map and schedule because it seems to me that creativity itself demands that we embrace uncertainty.

Writing is an act of faith. Not in God but in the creative process. This is where the magic lies. A story will come and we must allow it, nurture it, sometimes even push it, but never dictate to it. I don’t plan before I write, instead I start with an image that haunts me and a theme or two, then see what emerges. When I wrote Gathering Storm I had an image in my head of a small child abandoned on the Stuart Highway. It became the central point in the story which grew around it, a hidden memory which needed to be unmasked. When I began the writing of Flight I had a title and I knew that the story would somehow revolve around the double meaning inherent in the word flight; one of running away from something, the other of ascension. Aside from this, the only clue I had was an image of a young woman who had locked herself in her bedroom, an attic in a terrace house in inner city Sydney.

acorn_sproutPerhaps if I had planned more I would not have needed to cut so much early material from my second novel, Flight, words that were written simply to help me find the story. But then if I had planned more, I would not have had so many surprises or experiences the excitement of new discoveries. I might have missed many of the clues, the magical synchronicities, the sudden links and new themes that stepped forward to be included. If I had planned carefully, few of these things would have found their way into my novel. I would not have been able to embrace change in the way that I believe is necessary for the creative process to flow at its best. For the same reason, I don’t edit as I write. A scene emerges and I wonder why it is there only to discover later that I am referring back to it and it is forming its own thread, enriching and deepening the story. Turning points, climaxes, catalysts. . . are all useful technical devices that I consider when teaching, analyzing and editing stories but not when writing them.

 ‘I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.’

George R.R. Martin

What astonishes me about Martin’s distinction between a gardener and an architect is that he places himself firmly in the gardener camp and yet his extraordinary fantasy series, Game of Thrones has an incredibly complex plot with many subplots woven through it and a multitude of characters. Why is it then that when we plant our story seeds, they grow into such beautiful and complex shapes? Perhaps it is because within each seed of a story lies an already existing potential, just as within each tiny acorn lies the blueprint of a giant oak. No doubt there are many drafts during which Martin tightens his story lines, and perhaps like many of us, he pauses occasionally mid-story and regroups, asking questions of his plot and his characters and creating further signposts to guide him on his way. Perhaps stories inhabit the vast realms of our collective unconscious and it is our imaginations that must take the necessary journeys, in order to discover them. In Writing as a Sacred Path, Jill Jepson describes it as ‘a realm of myth, memory, imagery, trope, and dream’. Perhaps it is here that we ‘find’ our story. Then it is up to each of us to seek the balance we need, between storytelling and plotting.



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  1. I too am a gardener it seems. I love the idea of Martin’s that we plant a seed and watch it grow, watering and nourishing it. The discovery and magic of a story unfolding on the page before me is why I write. I have tried planning out novels before I write them, but it doesn’t work. For shorter stories I find a round outline helps – just a few dot points – but I usually have an idea of image in mind before I start.
    We all have different writing practice, but it is comforting to know there are others out there not so different to ourselves, thank you.

    1. Hi Georgina, thanks for your comments. your approach sounds very similar to mine. I’ve never planned though there are occasions when I get stuck and have to stop and consider what should come next. Usually it’s enough to pause, think and then plunge in again. I find story planning tools most useful when I am editing a manuscript rather than before or during the writing of it.

  2. I am not drawn to writing by some magical command of the written word. I’m pushed by my imagination. At the very beginning I hand it a concept, some characters and it begins this amazing, mysterious process that ends with me being shown a series of film clips. My job as a writer is to view these short movies and do my best to show the reader what I’m being shown. This stuff is metered out to me. I never know the end of my story except in the most general terms, the bad guy gets his just reward, but I don’t know how, where or by whom until it is shown to me.

    There is another very interesting aspect to the above. Writer’s block. I have come to believe that the story has already been written in my subconscious. As the guy who’s supposed to convert these movies into words I occasionally take a misstep. When it happens my imagination shuts me down cold. I’ve learned to look back, find the misstep and correct it. Once that’s done my imagination reopens the flood gates and the material flows again.

    With this process I have to be a bit flexible. Sometimes the characters really surprise me with a comment, observation or action. These surprises are always a tremendous addition to the story.

    You should not think for a moment that I’m going to expose all of this without telling you what I write. I’m a horror writer who creates paranormal thrillers. Some horror has a tendency to be flat and lifeless (no pun intended) with only minimal character development. That’s where I part from horror. You cannot distill fear in a reader’s heart with graphic images of blood and gore. Sometimes I do provide those graphic images, but when they come they are accompanied by crippling emotional impact.

    I’ll leave you with my media release just in case I’ve said something that intakes you to look deeper.

    C. Robert Cales
    a.k.a. ScaryBob
    author of Devil Glass, The Bookseller and the upcoming Reincarnology

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