Please Lose Sight of Your Plot

28 Sep

I’m not a plot person. I never have been. As a reader plot is, and has been since I was a child, no more than background noise to me. If you’d asked my eleven-year-old self to summarise Harry Potter for you, I’m pretty sure I’d have said, “It’s about a boy wizard,” not, “It’s about an ordinary boy who goes to this awesome magical school and is pitted against the forces of good and evil!”. For me, a character is a story in and of themselves and the sequence of events, no matter how awesome, always plays second fiddle.

As a writer, my inability to be seriously invested in the events of a story has been a bit of a shortcoming. I’ve learned to use the people around me to overcome this issue. Friends occasionally veto ridiculous, plotless story ideas of mine — the one about a boy who really, really wanted to be a tree is a good example of this, or the novel featuring a girl who sat about reading poetry all day. Beta readers and crit partners will tell me if my story wanders all over the place, adhering to no evident structure. Even in the final stages of edits on FALL TO PIECES, my editor’s asking me to cut internal monologue, or needless imagery to move the story along.

In my more recent writing, however, perhaps as a result of going through this processs, I’ve found myself doing the polar opposite: over-emphasizing plot (for me, anyway). I make spreadsheets and timelines of events. I try my best to adhere to a three act structure. This is a good thing, in some ways, because it does keep the story moving along. But plotting (I should say over-plotting) has also proved to have some vampiric tendencies, sucking the lifeblood from my stories and sapping my enjoyment of the craft.

The events that looked so awesome in my timeline are reading as completely flat on the page. The characters are reading like caricatures, whose motivations make little sense. My drafts, sometimes, read like synopses rather than novels. It took me forever to figure out that over-emphasizing plot was doing me no favors. That obsessively plotting really didn’t suit me as a writer, or the stories I was trying to tell.

I don’t think the over-plotting phenomenon is unique to me, either, based upon some of my reading experiences. Often, when I’m reading really thrilling books with plots that speed along, ratcheting up tension in just the perfect way, something will happen, something big, like a character death, and this person will not be grieved, their death will not be reflected upon. Onwards with the plot!

When authors do this (me included) they may be keeping their external plot afloat nicely, but they’re compromising the emotional core of their stories. The ultimate goal of fiction is not to take a reader from Point A to Point B. The ultimate goal of fiction is to create something with an interesting aesthetic, that generates emotion in the reader. When we fail to do that, we are really, truly failing our readers.

It’s a failure that I’ve suffering through these past few months, but have finally moved past. I scrapped the timelines and went back to focusing on meaning and characters. For me, it’s easier to get my words down and then whittle them into a plot shape, than to try and force them into a plot structure. Others work differently — plotters, I envy you your talents.

Nevertheless, for the sake of readerly pleasure I think that every writer has to lose sight of their plot. Not all the time, just now and again. Because I think it’s in those uncalculated moments that readers will truly be able to lose themselves in the story.

What do you guys think about the importance of plot?

~~~

Vahini Naidoo is  a YA author and University student from Sydney, Australia. Her debut novel FALL TO PIECES, en edgy psychological thriller, will be released by Marshall Cavendish in Fall, 2012. She’s represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can read more about Vahini on her blog.

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24 Responses to “Please Lose Sight of Your Plot”

  1. Julie Eshbaugh September 28, 2011 at 6:50 AM #

    Great post, Vee! I too am guilty of over-plotting at times. I’m currently trying to plot bits at a time, write, plot the next section, etc. It’s an experiment, so we shall see! Thanks for the post!

    • Vee September 28, 2011 at 8:14 AM #

      Thanks, Julie! And I think I’ve used that method before! It actually worked for me really well. Fingers crossed it works for you, too 🙂

  2. K, the Popinjay. September 28, 2011 at 7:45 AM #

    Honestly, plotting is my personal weakness. I have many methods to help myself and others with this but at times, which means almost always, I find it best to let go just a tad. It gives me some breathing room and sometimes I find the story really comes alive and grows.

    • Vee September 28, 2011 at 8:16 AM #

      Yay, another person who dislikes plotting! Letting go is definitely what works best for me. And I love that feeling when the story comes alive!

  3. authorguy September 28, 2011 at 8:51 AM #

    I don’t plot at all. I start with the characters and spin it out from there. My ‘plot’ comes from what happens when the actions of these various characters intersect. How do they react, and why? As I develop the characters I discover plot points that would never have occurred to me had i tried to detail a plot outside the characters.

    • Vee September 28, 2011 at 11:13 AM #

      I think coming up with new stuff as you write due to character reactions is a pretty universal part of the process, regardless of whether or not you plot (unless you’re super rigid with your plotting). I used to write like this when I first started off, and it worked really well for a while. It’s a good method 🙂

  4. Sandra Jones September 28, 2011 at 5:01 PM #

    I’m so glad to see this method works for someone else! I wrote my first book organically like–using the characters’ GMC to plot the course–and it worked for me. I enjoyed leaving lots of breadcrumbs in the writing for me to pick up later and thread back into the story. For my second novel, a sequel, I tried a structured plot method. I had a solid synopsis (solid enough for my editor), but the writing was excruciating for me. I knew where the story was supposed to go, but my characters didn’t want to head in that direction. Now on my fourth novel, I’m happily organic again, loving my characters and discovering their story along with them.

    • Vee September 30, 2011 at 6:40 AM #

      That sounds like a tough situation. Did you wind up simply ditching the synopsis? Organic definitely works best for me, too.

  5. Allie September 28, 2011 at 5:24 PM #

    I’m soooo glad that I’m not the only person out there like this. I know what’s going to happen in the story, but not definitely. Things bend and change A LOT in my stories. And when I do have a good idea about the plot, I tend to over do it.

    • Vee September 30, 2011 at 6:41 AM #

      Woo, non-plotters unite! There should be a club for something. I tend to over do things if I plan them out too much, too. Everything gets way too complicated.

  6. Sarah Brand September 28, 2011 at 7:40 PM #

    I find that I need to have some sort of plot outline (or at least an idea of what’s coming next) in order to write effectively. I’m always ready to discard my previous plan if I think of something more interesting or the characters seem to be moving in another direction, but having a plan to begin with lets me pretend that I know what I’m doing. 🙂 For me, plot and character are so closely intertwined that I don’t see this as putting the characters second.

    • Vee September 30, 2011 at 6:43 AM #

      I think that’s one of the best ways to write — with your internal and external plots inextricable from each other!

      I alwats have a really weird/loose sort of outline to begin with, too, if I’m being honest. I write down random images that come to me over the course of a few days and then twine a story around those images (as if they’re plot points). I have a slightly weird process 🙂

  7. kaye September 28, 2011 at 9:25 PM #

    This post comes as such a relief for me. Plotting ahead has never come really naturally to me and I’ve always been struggling with when to plot ahead and when to just let it go and write. Glad to know I’m not the only one!

    • Vee September 30, 2011 at 6:44 AM #

      You should definitely do whatever works for you! If over-plotting is hampering your process, then ditch it 😀

  8. Lara Dunning September 28, 2011 at 11:28 PM #

    I’ve found the more I write the more important plot is-or really scenes. I’ve started writing by scenes and its helped me improve, but at times I still find myself struggling. I think its one of those things, the more you do it, the better you’ll get. Or at least that is what I’m telling myself.

    • Vee September 30, 2011 at 6:46 AM #

      Writing in scenes IS really important, and it’s something I find myself telling people to do in critiques quite often. It stops you from telling unnecessarily and keeps up a narrative momentum.

      I tend to find that at this stage I naturally write in scenes regardless of whether or not I plot (and then later I scramble the order of the scenes for maximum tension), but that’s definitely a good way to approach things!

  9. Jessica Silva (@leijessica) September 29, 2011 at 12:20 AM #

    I seem to always start with a plot in my mind, and build from there. I write a synopsis detailing how things move from a to z, and I spend a lot of time making sure it all MAKES SENSE. But from that, I build characters that fit into the plot and the world I’m creating. Then when I’m writing, I try VERY HARD to make sure the story is THEIRS and that the plot is ruled by their decisions, not just “well the plot said they had to get on the train and even if my MC would never decide to do that, they’re getting on anyway.” But it’s a very careful balance for sure. Too much character and there’s not enough forward-action. Fast pacing means whiplash! Slow plot means BOOOORING, even with interesting characters. Sigh 😦

    • Vee September 30, 2011 at 6:48 AM #

      It’s so interesting hearing about other people’s processes! For the first few books I wrote, I literally only started worrying about the plot on the third draft. I was all like, “Man, stuff has to actually *happen* here!” It’s definitely hard maintaining that balance.

      And I actually really like plotless books (character studies are so interesting), or books with plots that wander all over the place! But I think I’m a bit of an atypical reader, lawl.

  10. Sophia Chang September 30, 2011 at 5:44 AM #

    Yay! Finally, another pantser who feels the same about plots.

    • Vee September 30, 2011 at 6:50 AM #

      Haha, but I’m not actually a pantser! (Although pantsing is really cool and fun and I’ve done it for NaNoWriMo a few times :)). I have an odd process that involves me planning, just not in the typical ways (I develop characters’ personalities before I go in and then I let my brain sit on a story-premise and come up with a bunch of images that I wrap a story around when I write. In a way, those images function as plot points).

      • authorguy September 30, 2011 at 7:08 AM #

        My method as well.Do you go serially, or back and forth from the beginning to the end? I often have an image of the end that I write to, although by the time I get there it means something different. I wrote a post about it on my own blog, called Writing Backwards.

        http://authorguy.wordpress.com/2011/08/22/writing-backwards/

        • Vee September 30, 2011 at 11:14 AM #

          I sometimes write stories in snippets (whichever part is calling to me most) and then thread them together at the end — it sort of suits the vignette-y style of some of my work. But often I find it best to write linearly, once I have like 10 of my 1-2 sentence images down. Just so that I can keep track of my own progress.

          And I never actually have my endings visualised very clearly! The story loses some of its mystery for me, if I know exactly what happens at the end. Your writing backwards method sounds interesting.

          • authorguy September 30, 2011 at 11:19 AM #

            I know what I thought was going to happen at the end. But I seem to have created a reflex in myself to never write what I’d already thought of. By the time I get to that foreseen endpoint I’m thinking of it as something to change! The only stuff that goes down exactly as I thought of it is the stuff I just thought of and just wrote.I very rarely change that, but I do embellish afterwards sometimes.

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    […] Please Lose Sight of Your Plot (Let The Words Flow) – An interesting article discussing the author’s personal preferences when it comes to plotting. I know I’m no plotter, what about you? […]

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