Today, we’re happy to welcome Melissa Donovan as a guest writer. Melissa is a website designer and copywriter. She is also the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.
To plot or not to plot—that is the question.
Except it’s not a question at all. A novel, by definition, has a plot. The question is how to plot.
Should you throw a few characters into an interesting setting and hope for the best, relying on your own creativity and intuition to make a story manifest? Or should you start by writing a detailed outline in which you summarize every scene in advance?
Both techniques have been proven to work. Some novelists swear by outlining; they need to know where they’re going or their stories don’t go anywhere. On the other hand, discovery writers say that it’s no fun to write a story if they already know how it ends.
Plot is Essential
A story must have a plot. That’s what makes it a story. Without a plot, you’ve got a character study or a piece of experimental writing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a story.
Popular opinion says that story is mostly about character. After all, readers root for the protagonist, fall in love with the sidekicks, and rail against the villain. Readers form emotional connections with the characters and relate to them.
Still, plot is essential.
We all love Harry Potter, but who would want to read a story in which Harry is sitting at a desk all day composing spells?
Harry typed a line. He made some changes, but he was having trouble getting it to rhyme. He got up and retrieved a butterbeer from the fridge. He was having a slow spell-writing day.
Characters need plot. They can’t just sit around navel-gazing. Conflict and action move a story forward. Character alone does not. That much is obvious, but how does one tackle something as massive and complex as a novel-length plot? Where does one start?
Discovery writing is the process of writing without a plan. That’s it: you just start writing. The premise is that a plot will emerge organically. It may sound risky (and to some it probably sounds unlikely), but it works for a lot of successful writers.
For most discovery writers, the elements of story and plot are ingrained in their consciousness. People who have read a lot, for example, will probably find that story (and plot) manifest naturally as they write. Or, these writers let the rough draft flow through an open creative process and then hit it hard and heavy with revisions, extracting plot through a rewriting process.
But some writers find that discovery writing is nothing more than a means to run around in circles. Characters start biting their nails and staring out windows. Nothing happens. And that’s not good. That’s not plot.
Outlining is the simple process of planning a story ahead of time.
Some outlines consist of a short summary for each of a story’s three acts. A more elaborate outline summarizes each chapter. An extremely detailed outline might delineate every scene.
Outlines provide a frame of reference and a series of milestones to write toward. You know where you’re taking the story and you can steer your characters in the right direction.
Of course, once the outlining is done, and the composition begins, new characters and twists may arise. A writer can either force the story back to the original plan or adjust the outline to accommodate any new writing ideas that emerge.
Discovery Writing vs. Outlining
With discovery writing, you just in get in your car and drive. With outlining, you know your destination, and you have also plotted (pun fully intended) your route.
Outlining and discovery writing are two different techniques for generating plot—but plotting happens whether you use discovery writing or outlining. Some plots are more complex than others, but plot is the key element that differentiates a story from a character study or an abstract piece of prose.
There’s plenty of wiggle room between these two techniques. You might be using discovery writing primarily, but you have a few, choice plot twists planned out in your mind. Or, your outline might be watered down to its bare bones, so you can build on it as you discovery-write your way through the story.
How Do You Do It?
Many writers have already found the technique that works best for them, and the trick in finishing a novel is to find the method that works best for you. If you’re struggling with your story, experiment with different plotting techniques. If your outline leaves you feeling bored, then dabble in discovery writing. If discovery writing leads you nowhere, then construct an outline.
Which technique has worked for you? Have you tried both of these methods or do you use some hybrid of discovery writing and outlining?
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.