Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

Writing advice: show articles ▼▲

To plot or not to plot

Before your begin writing your novel, you have to have your plot outlined and fully developed.

Or so we're told.

Writing has no rules, save to make your story the best you can make it. Other than that, it is a case of 'whatever works for you.' It depends on the writer and it depends on the story.

So why are we advised to outline our plot before we begin to write?

Most failed stories fail because the writer had a great premise and had no idea, beyond this, of where to go. Not only did he have no idea where his story was going, he didn't even know where the scene he was writing was going. If you follow your own flashlight beam into the darkness, it's not surprising you get lost.

Being lost looks like this: writers who keep re-writing the first 12 pages, or who write 4000 pages of which only 5 are worth reading, or who spend 10 years writing, writing, writing, always 'never quite ready' to send it to a publisher, or who sit down every day with panic and fear in their hearts, doing anything, anything but writing.

The standard cure is to write from a developed plot outline. So learn how to do it. But if you find that creating a plot outline kills your appetite for telling your story, if you find it not a help but a straitjacket, then you are either the sort of writer who has to approach your novel another way, (and therefore see below or you have an attitude to your work that is usually answered by "Oh, grow up".

Let's look at the two ways of writing a novel: by plot-plan and by no plot-plan at all.


The overall purpose of a plot is not to kill the joy of creation, but to create a structure for your story that makes it a story and not a long, unwinding noodle of empty starchy calories. A story is a structured narrative, and 'structured' and 'narrative' have equal weight.

At its core, every story has the same structure:

Opening challenge
This is the moment when your protagonist's world changes. Something happens that forces him or her (or them) to act. Understanding what your opening challenge is gives you the basic premise for the entire narrative, and therefore its structure. See my article on Pacing Anxiety about creating a meaty opening challenge.

Chain of challenges
The opening premise kicks off a chain of linked and ever-increasing challenges. The challenges have to be ever-increasing in tension and excitement. As with the higher levels of a computer game, the stakes have to keep rising, and they need to culminate in a gratifying pay-off.

Resolution, or pay-off
This is the final Big Scene: the argument, the feat of derring-do, the ultimate fight between good guy and bad guy, the scene where the detective reveals all and the killer is named, or the mutual confession of love. This is the answer to the question the opening challenge posed. Opening challenge: how will the hero 'X' solve/overcome/gain/defeat Y? Resolution: this is what X does, and Y is solved/overcome/gained/defeated (or, in a gloomier story, Y is unsolved, X does not overcome, does not gain, is defeated by. But let's move on).

Envoi, or close-down
A short final section that eases the reader from the high pitch of tension you've created at the climax to the world again. In thrillers, the author often explodes one final, unexpected plot device, something he planted earlier and, just when everyone is heaving a sigh of relief, BANG, the last unkilled bad guy comes through the skylight. In whatever form, the envoi has to make the reader close the novel with deep sense of satisfaction, be it with a smile, tears, or quiet thoughtfulness.

Let's say your opening idea is to explore the world of the older rich woman and the younger trophy husband. How would this work? But 'young man marries rich older woman' isn't exactly a sizzler as an Opening Challenge, because there's no challenge. You get to work. Ryall is shallow greedy, idle, because no other type would enjoy being a gigolo. He marries knowing he'll be divorced in a few years, traded in for a younger model, but the pre-nuptial agreement promises him a handsome settlement. He's enjoying life, counting down to the inevitable moment she finds someone new and he gets his pay-off. One evening he realises he's fallen in love with his wife. How to make her believe it, when she'll only think he's clinging to the gravy train? That will do nicely as an Opening Challenge. Because it had to be challenge, you moved from 'story of a man marrying older woman for money' to the first conflict.

The chain of challenges follows easily: Ryall tells her he loves her; Monique scoffs: 'you're pretty but you always were a liar'; he starts taking her music career seriously, learning the ropes, seeking to be useful to her, she thinks he's trying to control her and pushes him away, he has a confrontation with the new man in her life and is ejected off the premises, she files for divorce, he refuses to give her one, it gets nasty because he is so desperate and so disbelieved. It ends up in court. In a high-octane Resolution scene, she says 'if you loved me, you'd let me go and not take a dime' and he says 'you got it'. As the judge announces the divorce, his eyes meet hers. In a romance, he sees she loves him, and the envoi will them being married again. In a comedy, he sees she loves him, and (envoi) they decide to live together – divorce is SO trying. In a tragedy, he sees that she does not love him, and never could and the envoi here would be him walking away, crushed, but at peace, having been true to his love for her.

With your prepared plot in hand, and with whatever ending has appealed to you, the work can begin. You don't have to strain after events, you simply have to write what happens.

But ...

But, you protest, you want to write in the urgency of your imagination, forging the links of your story in hot metal on a burning anvil of creative drive, not ploddingly following some already-mapped plot, even your own plot. Deep-sea divers plan their dive and dive their plan. How dull! You want to boldly go and discover everything on the way, writing it only as it occurs to you.

OK, be my guest. Do it. I will bet money that, as you re-write and shape to make whatever it is you're writing a great, readable story, it acquires the basic structure I've described despite yourself. Because that's what a story is. We have a fixed number of musical notes, yet new tunes are created every day. So too with the novel's basic structure. Without it, you have no story. With it, you can write any story you want. That's why you use a plot outline: to write a story, a successful story, a real, proper, finished, publishable story. It works.

Not Plotting

Some of you have disliked and have rejected everything I've said about developing a plot. Some of you prefer to approach things holistically, wandering through the seas of inspiration without a destination in mind, expectant, filled with hope that you will be delighted when you get to The End.

How that's working for you? Finished a publishable manuscript yet?

Having said that, you can write a story where swimming through that uncharted sea without route or known end actually succeeds, but the work happens at a different time.

I'm not saying that you can float through a structureless universe. A story is bound by the laws of the opening scene, and it must follow that logically, as a flower does when it unfolds from the earth towards the sun. This is you telling your story by writing it, or rather by experiencing it in the moment of creation, rather than in the moment of plot planning.

The un-plotted story always begins with a driving force. This is what inspires you to start writing. It is usually your opening scene. You start writing, you keep writing, but to make this 'swim in the open sea' end with a finished novel, you have to be thinking about it all the time.

You start out with Ryall the shallow, greedy gigolo marrying a rich, older woman, signing the pre-nuptial after confirming that divorce will see him right, living Monique's high-profile life with her, and then realising one moment, watching her on stage from the wings, that he's fallen in love with her. You have him tell her, and she falls into his arms. Wait a minute, that's only 25 pages, and it's not really exciting. OK, wait a minute, she's a hugely successful rich woman who has settled for eye-candy because she's learned to trust sex, not love. So he has to try to convince her that he loves her. How? Let's see, he can do some stupid, emotionally-clumsy things but, as his love and her rebuffs sharpen his sensitivity, he thinks of ways to serve and protect her. Or maybe he's a dope and keeps screwing things up. Or maybe... In short, you have to think hard all the time.

By 'thinking about it', I mean you have to analyse and consider what you are writing. You might have a pad of paper beside your laptop (or a pad of paper beside your pad of paper) where you write questions to yourself, argue with yourself: 'If Ryall fights the new dude here, won't Monique chuck him out of the house then and there?' 'If she's loved him all along, will she really push it to the breaking point in court?' You have to keep testing and challenging what you are writing with logic and sense while you are writing it.

This might force you to rewrite huge chunks as you are going along, just as you would have to re-trace your route if you'd been following your own sweet way in the coral reef and found yourself above a dump of car tires. Don't keep trying to write. Stop. Move back, analyse why it's a tire dump, throw out everything that led you to this compass point, and start again down another direction. Maybe you'll come to the same tire dump again. Maybe you'll find yourself at a different rubbish dump, or maybe you'll have found the swiftly flowing current that takes you to the beautiful bay.

You might have started with Ryall as a male bimbo, messing up every opportunity. You find yourself dissatisfied, so you backtrack and make him simply callow, a man-boy who grows up when the fear that he might be losing the love of his life makes him grow up. You might begin with Monique being tough as nails and twice as ambitious and then decide she'd be a rather nicer final partner for Ryall if you make her a secret romantic whose heart had been bruised too often for her to listen to it any more. As you think, re-write, re-consider, throw out huge sections and try again, you keep hitting your inner tuning fork and listening for that sweet true tone that tells you that this sounds right, that yes, this works.

At The End, it's time to sit back and analyse again. What story have you been trying to tell yourself? What has emerged from the dark ocean you call your brain? What's in this stack of paper, screaming to be let out?

Write down what you now believe your story is about, its 'logline' (i.e. 'this is a story where X wants Y and does A when confronted by B"; 'this is a story of shallow gigolo Ryall falling in love with his rich, disillusioned wife and working to win her heart by battling her distrust'). [See more about the logline]. Then go through your first draft and write down every scene as a list e.g. (1) Ryall marries Monique for money (2) Ryall realises he has fallen in love with her (3) she rejects his confession of love as a lie (4) he decides to take her music career seriously, learning the ropes, seeking to be useful to her (5) but she thinks he's trying to control her and pushes him away, and so on. Now explain to yourself how each scene delivers at least one conflict, delivers at least one change, that gets X closer to A, while battling B (here, Monique's distrust). If you can't find this in any particular scene, drop the scene. Or re-write it until it delivers, but really, drop it. No matter how much you love it.

With a swim-in-the-sea approach, your serious work doesn't come before the writing, but now, after the first, loose, sprawling mess is written and after you have tested each scene to see if it justifies its existence. The scenes that survive now have to be trimmed, shaped, honed, so that all that remains is what gets the characters in each scene one step closer to the resolution. This takes work. A lot of work. It takes a lot of time, but you're working towards an ending you have identified and each rewrite brings you closer and closer, the story increasingly focused, increasingly richer, until you finish what is now a novel.

When you've finished, you'll find your story looks uncannily similar to one written to a plot outline, for it has an opening challenge, an interlocking chain of challenges that rise in intensity, a final and complete resolution of the opening challenge, and an envoi, because real stories become themselves, a structured narrative, if they're given the right earth in which to grow. You might wonder if it was worth all the extra work to write without a plot if you get to the same end-point. If you have a successful, compelling story in your hands, then yes, it was. You just had to tell your story to yourself this way.

To plot or not to plot

It depends on you, the sort of writer you are. It depends on your appetite for hard work. It depends on your eye for an emerging shape. If you feel writing to a plot outline deadens the story for you, makes writing merely a 'connect the dots' exercise, then try the non-plot way, knowing that you will work for longer, work harder, by writing dross that has to be condensed into diamond through analysis, thought, self-challenge and ruthlessness.

If your every attempt to write that 'swim-in-the-sea' ends in failure, change strategy and try a plot outline again. You might find that it's actually a relief, but you'll also find that you are still analysing, challenging yourself, thinking hard, being ruthless. You are doing it before you write, not after. Because writing, really writing, is thinking about your story. A novel isn't a bunch of noodles extruded by a machine, it's an act of complete conscious creation.

Writing to a plot, writing without a plot, both take work. Each approach has its benefits and drawbacks. In the end, they both come down to understanding that your story has a shape, that it has requirements to fulfil, that it has an essence. It's your job to make it emerge from your brain. You can do this by chiselling out of marble, or building it up in clay. What you are left with, either way, is art.