The Many Paths to Plotting

Marg McAlister

For several years before I left teaching to write full time (over a decade ago now), I was a specialist reading teacher. I dealt mainly with two categories of kids:

  • Those who were struggling to read at all (I had to turn them into readers) and
  • Those who could read, but did it slowly and reluctantly (I had to build their enthusiasm and level of expertise).

Before I became a specialist in this subject, I had been a classroom teacher for some time. Every so often, there would be a new fad in the teaching of reading skills. Suddenly, all the 'old' methods were thrown out of the window. "Do it this way now," we would be instructed. We had no choice: the curriculum changed, and we had to change with it. 

During my training to teach kids with reading problems, I was presented with further 'new methods'. They sounded good. And of course, there was always proof that the new ways worked 'better'. So, armed with my pristine Graduate Diploma in Special Education, I ventured out to try the new methods... again.  

It wasn't too long before I conceded that, as usual, the new ways were no better than the old; they were just different. With fifteen years of teaching behind me, I finally had the courage to take matters into my own hands. I found a system that worked.  

Did I invent a new system?  

No.  

Did I choose one method from the many that I'd tried over the years?  

No.  

I did the sensible thing. Realizing that every kid was different, I simply dipped into my grab-bag of experience from over the years, and used WHATEVER WORKED... for each class; for each child. (Duh!)  

As a writer, I can't help but see the similarity between my experience as a reading teacher and what writers go through with plotting. You can read six books on plotting and come up with six different methods... and that's only a fraction of what's possible. The bottom line is, and always will be, DO WHAT WORKS. To know 'what works', of course, it's likely that you'll have to spend some time experimenting. Your method of plotting is likely to reflect your personality, but writers have been known to use different methods. Here are three basic approaches - moving from the least structured to the most.  

1. Writing On The Fly 

This is beloved of many writers. Some can't work any other way. They simply have a 'flash' of an idea (they 'see' a character, or imagine a situation like a car crash or a robbery) and off they go. They write while being able to see only a short way ahead - a bit like walking through fog - and write the whole book that way.  

The Advantages Of This Method:

  • You don't have to plot ahead.
  • If you don't know what is coming next, perhaps the reader won't see it coming either.
  • It can be a lot of fun - not knowing where the story and/or characters are taking you!

The Disadvantages Of This Method:

  • You can 'paint yourself into a corner'. By the time you decide that a certain plot direction isn't going to work, you might have a dozen wasted chapters. At this point many writers ditch the whole story and start a new one rather than untangle the plot... lots of writing hours down the drain!
  • You can actually end up with a plot that is too predictable (as opposed to one that 'surprises' the reader) because you tend to take the easiest route.

2. Mind-Mapping 

Good for right-brain types. A 'mind map' is sometimes referred to as 'a cluster diagram', or 'branching', or simply 'brainstorming'. Basically, you dump lots of ideas on a page so you can see the plot at a glance. Circles, arrows, lines and scribbles tend to be representative of this method of plotting.  

Lots of writers find this method works wonders. While they scribble and link ideas, they are organizing the story in their minds. Although there's not a lot on the page, there's plenty going on in the grey matter. All of this 'sticks', and provides enough of a path so writers don't lose their way.

The Advantages Of This Method:

  • It's a good compromise. You have planned a route for your story, but you have plenty of room for side excursions if a better idea should occur.
  • It feels comfortable for those who think more clearly when they use diagrams or pictures.
  • It doesn't take up too much time.

The Disadvantages Of This Method

  • It can make some writers feel more confused than ever.
  • It doesn't provide enough of a path for more organized writers.

3. Linear Plotting 

Okay, hands up all the Virgos... (just kidding. ;) We know you're unfairly typecast as anal retentives when you're really free spirits.)  

The fact is, some writers like to feel they have their bow in hand and all arrows steel-tipped and ready in the quiver before they start the trek. Well, fair enough. We all operate differently.  

I know of writers who can't start writing the actual book until they have written an 80-page outline first. This is more like a slim version of the final book - they then go back and rewrite, fleshing it out. But before the 80-page outline came the list of characters, the time-line, the backstory for each character, the setting checklist... and so it goes on.  

If this is the way you like to work, DO IT. Who says it 'wastes time'? Who says it 'takes the spontaneity out of your work'? So what if you could have written two books in the time it took you to prepare for one? 

People who make comments like this show their preference to work in other ways, that's all. You probably wouldn't like their way of plotting. Remember, there's no 'right way' to plot. The right way for you is the one that works. Period. If you like to spend six months preparing before you start to write, then do it. It's your book, and your time.

The Advantages Of This Method:

  • You know exactly what you're writing next. No sitting there playing Solitaire or Free Cell while you're desperately wondering how to get the characters out of the impossible situation you've engineered.
  • You can map the highs and lows of the plot and subplots so there's never a flat patch in the story.
  • You know your characters and their motivation well before you begin.
  • You can insert any necessary hooks, red herrings, and clues as you go along. (Writers using the first two methods above get around this by writing extra scenes later and planting them where necessary, and rewriting other scenes if required.)

The Disadvantages Of This Method:

  • The finished book can have a stilted feel to it, because you've locked yourself in from the start.
  • You turn away from interesting alternative plot twists.
  • It can take a long time to prepare.
  • You are tempted to make the characters fit the plot, even if they 'want to' evolve in a different way. 

The methods outlined above merely give you a sense of both ends of the spectrum and the middle ground afforded by 'mind-mapping'. There are countless variations in between. Experiment with different methods of plotting your story; be prepared to adopt whatever works. And don't be surprised if a method that works for one story doesn't seem right for another!  

Be flexible. Listen to your instincts. Listen to your characters! Then choose.

 

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