5. Writing the Plot

 

There is so much debate on whether the writer should outline the plot before beginning to write or just start writing and let the characters write their own stories.

There is no straight answer, except your own: once you bang your head on the wall enough times, you will learn what works for you, and what doesn’t. Both scenarios do not preclude the hard work, routine, reasoned analysis, and training of the subconscious that stimulates inspiration that all go into writing good stories.

Writing the plot requires careful planning.

Writing the plot requires careful planning.

School of Thought #1: Figure out your plot beforehand

In The Art of Fiction, Ayn Rand is quite adamant about the need to work out the climax before outlying the entire story:

“If you set up a lot of interesting conflicts and seemingly connected events without knowing where you are going, and then attempt to devise a climax that resolves it all, the process will be an excruciating mental torture (and you will not succeed). Therefore, in planning your story, get to your climax as quickly as possible.”

Rand advocates first developing a climax that will be both the perfect dramatization and the logical resolution of the issues of your story, and then constructing the rest of the plot actions by working backward to see what would need to happen in order to bring your characters to that critical moment.

Since the climax is the purpose of your story, she argues, you will have to figure this out before you can begin to write the incidents that will precede it.

When it comes to the actual writing, you can start with the first chapter just as you can start with the last, so long as you know the nature of your climax beforehand. Rand says:

“There is no rule about what element has to be the first germ of a story in your mind […] But whether you first think of a character and then of the other elements, or of an abstract theme, or of a conflict situation—that is accidental. […] The only rule is that you know your climax (in dramatized terms) before you start to outline the steps by which to arrive there.”

In other words, you need to know what type of cake you are making before you can start whisking the ingredients together.

School of Thought #2: Let your characters write their own story

The antithesis of the Rand way is letting yourself write as freely as possibly, slowly discovering the true nature of your characters, and letting them figure out for themselves the logical resolution of their problems.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott speaks about her own experiences with plot treatment:

“[I]n lieu of a plot you may find that you have a sort of temporary destination, perhaps a scene that you envision as the climax. So you write toward this scene, but when you get there, or close, you see that because of all you’ve learned about your characters along the way, it no longer works. The scene may have triggered the confidence that got you to work on your first piece, but now it doesn’t ring true and so it does not make the final cut.”

In other words, whisk some ingredients together, see how they get along, add a few more, and let’s see what marvelous concoction emerges from the oven.

Comparison

Anyone who has ever written anything relativelylong—a novel, a screenplay, a doctoral thesis—knows the feeling of having written in chunks. Each block is laboriously constructed as an independent block within a greater entity. But if you do not have a crystal clear idea of your climax (in fiction) or your thesis (in non-fiction), and you come to figure it out throughout the writing process, you risk writing a Frankenstein: a work good in its individual parts, but not enmeshed enough to form a coherent whole.

Rand’s method is obviously preferable—who wouldn’t want to expertly devise the trappings of the climax before commencing? There is one caveat: if the novice writer (or the veteran on writer’s block) aspires to such heights right from the get-go, this might be an invitation to extreme frustration and delusion.

If the first method is explanatory, the second method is exploratory: the writer learns about the characters’ needs, fears, and aspirations. According to Lamott:

“Your plot will fall into place as, one day at a time, you listen to your characters carefully, and watch them move around doing and saying things and bumping into each other.”

For some writers, the climax is the first issue to settle, from which the rest of the story flows. For others, the climax will only reveal itself slowly throughout the actual writing period. The only way to discover which way work for you is to figure it out for yourself. What works for the greatest authors will not necessarily work for you. Writing is not about imitation; it is about finding a literary outlet for the creative energies, values, and experiences that are otherwise trapped within your gut.