Scared of Plot? How One Author Embraced Story Structure Without Sacrificing Creativity

Scared of Plot? How One Author Embraced Story Structure Without Sacrificing Creativity

I was never a believer in plotting. “Me?” I’d say. “I’m too right brain.”

Years back, I attended Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and was one of only two writers fortunate to be assigned to Robert Stone for my one-to-one. He told me my writing was beautiful, but that it needed a story to serve. It needed to go somewhere. It needed a plot. What was the purpose of the story? He wanted to know.

Purpose of the story? Wasn’t liking to write enough? Otherwise, I didn’t know. I figured I’d figure it out. That the answer would come. And so would the plot—whatever that was.

Are You Scared of Plot?

I love writing about a moment in time, about an object of significant meaning. I love connections that make themselves. I love the feeling of not knowing where I’m going and then suddenly finding out. I’m really comfortable with that kind of uncertainty.  Which is not necessarily the kind of thing that gets you moving forward in your novel. It is, however, a way to access prose that transcends—and somehow captures—the ordinary; and the beauty of the ordinary.

But it’s not plot.

People say that when it comes to writing, it’s the process that counts. Then I started working on a novel, and there came a point when I had to ask myself how long I wanted to go around writing a story to which I didn’t know the ending. Having worked as a therapist, and as someone who helps writers go from stuck to unstuck, and as an editor helping other writers, I’m a believer that all the answers we need are already inside us. And the answer I kept getting was: learn to embrace—and understand—what a plot is.

Consider the Benefits of Understanding Plot

Based on what I’ve told you about myself, you already know that being led by the hand of my unconscious into destinations unknown is my favorite part of writing. I wanted to understand plot, but the truth was, I was scared of plot. I was afraid of being controlled by it. Worse, what if my characters froze under the plot’s constraints? What if I did?

A few years back one of my writing partners started insisting we write to prompts that forced our characters into situations that raised the stakes so high there was no way of knowing how they’d get out or react (she writes literary fiction, by the way).

This forced me to see the value in pushing myself beyond the beauty of language to ensure that every single word in every single sentence pushed the story forward and had inherent, inextricable meaning. Each scene I’d write in those practices had a mini-plot inherent in their structure, though, for the life of me, I didn’t understand how (or what) I was doing.

I knew, however, these particular scenes were far better than others I’d written.  They were doing something I’d never really been able to do (except in the personal essay), which was to tell a deeper story. The problem was taking this to a grander scale, to stringing them together in a novel.

Then I learned about Martha Alderson, the Plot Whisperer. I’d tried her books, and while they made logical sense, never quite understood how to do what she taught until I took a workshop with her and Jordan Rosenfeld. Martha teaches about big-picture plot stuff—simplifies it, really, while Jordan focuses on scenes within the big picture.

My goal in taking the workshop was simple: to learn about plot so that it was in my consciousness, much the way, as a therapist, for example, the structure of an intake interview was something I grew to know, from study and practice and paying attention, intuitively.

Understanding Plot Can Only Strengthen Your Writing

The biggest secret I learned—is to plot from the end.

Yes, from the end.

I recommend you think about this.

Much as my writing partner challenged me to go deeper as another way to be creative and tell a good story, and Robert Stone let my language serve something bigger than itself, I invite you to look at plot as a way to free yourself from too much aimless wandering.

Yes, your ending may change, but you will be headed in the direction of finishing rather than floundering. And isn’t that what every writer really wants?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Are you scared of plot and story strucure? If you’ve tried it, what has been your experience? Tell me in the comments!

Scared of Plot How One Author Embraced Story Structure Without Sacrificing Creativity

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About Meredith Resnick | @meredithresnick

Meredith Resnick is the creator of The Writer’s [Inner] Journey. Her writing has appeared in The Complete Book of Aunts, Dancing at the Shame Prom, Fits, Starts and Matters of the Heart, and also in Newsweek, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Santa Monica Review, Los Angeles Times, Journal of Palliative Medicine blog, PsychologyToday.com, Culinate, and others.

Comments

  1. I was much like you, write as you feel, surprise yourself, let the characters decide. The result? Piling up unfinished novels, full of ideas that I loved and wanted to develop and didn’t know how. I was frustrated, miserable and kept asking myself: do I have it in me to be a writer? Why others can and I can’t? Then I did myself a giant favor and googled “how to structure a novel” or something along the lines. I stumbled upon K.M. Weiland’s tips to structure and links to her books outlining and structuring your novel both of which I bought on the fly.

    I still struggle with plot and structure, I won’t deny that. I still like to write as my imagination guides me (this is why I consider myself a tweener, not plotter or pantster), but I do feel like my stories have a purpose when I write them. I like to hit plot points, sometimes without even trying, sometimes working harder on them. I love finding purpose in the deep waters of creativity. I love to see that my once aimless wanderings have a destination. Even though it’s still hard to nail all the aspects of plotting: character arcs, theme, plot points and the rest of them, I do feel better than I did before, without any sense of plot whatsoever. And it inspired me to start a decent blog (finally!) on the craft and how I see it.

    Bottom line, I should have come to good terms with plot and structure sooner, but I’m happy I started doing it at all. And thank you for the inspiring article.

    • I always called myself a pantser, loving to write just to find out what happens. It’s the character who leads, the writer follows.
      Except – I was kidding myself.
      I’d never studied plot until K.M. Weiland’s book, ‘Outlining Your Novel’. Reading the thing, I wondered how anyone could DO that. How could anyone sit down and write notes and plan each chapter, each scene, each plot-point, etc etc. I thought if I tried that, I’d tell the story in the outline and would be bored by telling the story twice.
      Well, I still can’t plot. I admit it. I CAN’T PLOT.
      But what I realised was that when I started writing a new novel I knew my protagonist, knew my time period (I write historicals), had done my historical research and knew where to find details that I needed as I went, and followed my protagonist along the factual historical timeline to where I WANTED HIM TO GO —
      But most important, when I started at page 1, I had always aimed for the ending I wanted. Didn’t know the details, but I knew the ending from the start. In fact, I realise that I’ve never started writing a novel without knowing where it would end.
      I’ve come to realize that I do plot. More or less. Loosely. And, like Lisa, I still stumble upon those wonderful discoveries as I follow the protagonist to where I’m sending him.

      • “Reading the thing, I wondered how anyone could DO that. How could anyone sit down and write notes and plan each chapter, each scene, each plot-point, etc etc.”

        Exactly! I absolutely can’t do that. I can’t outline every scene from nothing, because I need to feel the characters even before I dive into structure and such. I discovered that what works for me is this: write as you please, giving yourself freedom. Then come back and analyze what you wrote, make sure structure is falling into place, that each scene has goal, conflict and disaster, etc. I find this much easier.

        Also, I discovered this book that teaches to write from the middle and found it useful: http://www.amazon.com/Write-Your-Novel-Middle-Approach/dp/0910355118/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1434188588&sr=1-1&keywords=write+your+novel+from+the+middle

        Besides, learning structure helps me brainstorm better. I’m lucky this way, I write together with my mom, so we mainly brainstorm over cooking and other house chores, lol. This way, when something big and exciting comes up, I always try to find a structural place for it: this is going to be our first plot point or midpoint.

        I talk more about my creative workflow here: http://danaderville.com/2015/06/04/overwhelmed-not-to-be/ and here: http://danaderville.com/2015/06/11/write-free/

        “Well, I still can’t plot. I admit it. I CAN’T PLOT.”

        Neither can I, but I hope I’m getting there 🙂

        • Lisa, I really enjoy the books of James Scott Bell. When I first read his book (Write Your Novel from the Middle), I checked my novels, and discovered that at the very mid-point of each, there is that almost imperceptible turning point where the protagonist chooses to go forward in a new direction
          It works, but I can’t plan for it. It just seems to happen that way.

          • I love his books too. They’re clear and helpful 🙂

            “It works, but I can’t plan for it. It just seems to happen that way.”

            I know, right? What works for me, however, is look back at what you’ve written and analyze it. You can almost always find the ‘mirror moment’ and strengthen it if need be.

    • There is so much to be said about knowing the ending. It can change, but to have a direction is huge.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.

    • Yes about happy to be doing/getting/understanding plot at all! I relate. And finding your own way of doing it that works and is flexible. The best!

  2. I’ve known a number of pantsers in my life, and most have criticized me for doing an outline. They seemed to think that having an outline stifles creativity.

    What they didn’t realize, I think, is that even with an outline, there is still plenty of room for the Muse to make regular visits and for the character to write the scene for me (magic!). The final manuscript is never identical to the outline: characters’ motivations are deeper and more complex (a good thing that my characters are deeper and more complex than I am!), scenes end up on the cutting room floor to be replaced in some cases by better scenes or simply scrapped, etc.

    As for plotting from the end? Absolutely, in my opinion. The way a story ends says what the book is about and what the author wanted it to mean for the reader, i.e., theme. Change the ending and you’ve changed the theme. It could be that the author will prefer the new ending and new main theme, and that’s okay, but knowing how your story ends can remind you why you’re writing it.

    • The plotting the end – or at least, for me, knowing the end as in where the story is headed in the finale – was a major discovery for me. I’m not frightened to “say” what it is anymore.

    • JU. S. Dunn said
      …most [pantsers] have criticized me for doing an outline.
      I have to say that NOBODY can decide how another writer ought to work. My goodness, when we write fiction there are no limits to differing work habits, techniques, imagination, or style. I have to ask…
      How dare anyone judge another’s modus operandi?

  3. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Meredith!

  4. I’m one who has a collection of incomplete ideas, finding the prospect of writing a novel overwhelming. You’ve presented a wealth of concepts and approaches in this one post that offers me direction and motivation. It’s also good reading from other writers and knowing that others share some of the same feelings and experiences I do from wanting to let the ideas and characters just flow through me to reveling in the joy of beautiful language.

  5. With my first novel, I had the basic story in mind for a couple of years before I sat down to write. I couldn’t figure an ending out when I got that far. I just had no idea how to finish it. It took a couple of weeks of batting ideas around and floundering around to come up with something and then another month to rework a few things to logically flow to the ending.

    I started book two with a kernel of an idea from book one but, that time, I figured out what was going to happen at the end first and I got it on paper. As you said, it changed a bit when I got there but it really was much easier to get there knowing where I was going.

    I don’t necessarily believe a writer should lay out the ending word for word but I do believe it’s a huge help to have some decently fleshed out idea of where everything is headed. You can write by the seat of your pants to get there but your ideas will have direction.

    • I would never be able to lay out an ending word for word, but like/love the notion of having the scene in place in my head/on the page. So freeing. Again, a direction to head toward.

  6. Me? A plotter? NEVER! That’s basically what I thought until recently. Although actually I’ve been outlining ‘in my head’ so to speak for a long time. But putting it down on paper in a 1,2,3 format always eluded me. My grand ideas would seem to shrink and fade once I’d written them down in that way.
    I definitely feel like ‘Structuring Your Novel’ and ‘Outlining Your Novel’ have changed my (writing) life a bit. Especially the part in ‘Outlining’ where examples of having a conversation with yourself were given; I actually used to do that in what I called my ‘writing diary’. I would be writing, and, coming upon a difficulty, I would sit down and write as if I were having a conversation with someone, and usually it would work itself out after a while. I don’t know when I stopped doing it, but it’s very effective and I’ve started doing it again.

    • I think the plotting comes from a different part of the brain maybe, something that is more linear (even though a plot may be more of a mosaic). Still, it’s as much a part of the writing process than the writing.

  7. I LOVE story structure. Once I started learning about how to structure my novels I searched for everything I could find about story structure, posts, craft books, workshops… I couldn’t get enough! Still can’t. One of the greatest things about this writing gig is that you can never learn everything, there’s always a new technique, a new secret. But structure never changes; it’s stable, like a foundation meant to handle torrential winds. Just reading about your quest to learn story structure made me sit up and take notice. I love when the “light bulb” goes off for other writers, because mine is still burning bright. Good for you. Welcome to the “other side”. 🙂

  8. Plotting is important, but I’d avoid using the standard “four-act structure”. It makes very dull and predictable stories.

    • Khitan, I agree with you. I’ve always felt that if we stick to (I thought it was) three-act structure, and if we constantly find ways to ratchet up the drama, and if we aim for a climax at precisely the 7/8 point in the page count (Yes, I exaggerate) – how will we simply write something fresh? Freshness implies a new view, a new voice, perhaps a new shape.
      But shaped with knowledge and intent, during the revision process, not in the original draft. IMHO

    • And it’s really the character that drives the story…the plot results from the character doing what the character does. It’s intertwining them that is where things happen organically (as I continue to learn).

  9. My first novels were all written by the seat of my pants. All of them were finished, but most were either quickly abandoned or have been through numerous rewrites. The best two have been through 16 and 12 drafts respectively, I kid you not. They’re still not right.

    Then I learned about planning before I started writing and that opened up a whole new world.

    These days, I can spend weeks working on the overarching plot, character arcs, and the whole nine yards. I’m like a kid in a candy store!

    We writers get too caught up in the either-or of the argument. Either plot or character. I’m sorry. A good story doesn’t work that way. It’s like wanting just the head of a penny or just the tail. It simply isn’t going to happen. You have both or you have nothing. The first eight novels I wrote were full of lovely prose but were–in essence–nothing because I neglected plot in all of them. I let them lead me where they would and usually ended up writing in circles.

    I love the idea of starting with the end. Some of my novels are mysteries and one the best ways to write a mystery is to write the crime. From the criminal’s point of view. Step-by-step. I don’t have to know who the criminal is, but I must see how the crime unfolds. Once that’s done, finding the plot and the characters is much easier.

    K. M., congratulations on another excellent post! I hope you’re going to follow up with another that fleshes out the “work from the end” concept.

    Best wishes,

    Carrie

    • I love your analogy of the head or tail of the penny. I think plot can be very subtle – it can take place in one room or over a dinner. That is where the character means everything.

  10. I’m not too sure about writing from the end. I knew the end of my current story, which I’ve been working on far too long as a novice writer, and that still didn’t help me get from opening-scene idea to the lasts sentence…until I read KM Weiland’s book about story structure. Forget outlining, I needed the basics of plotting. Once I had them, outlining was a natural outcome. I still (in my 2nd draft) keep it fluid, but knowing where the important events need to happen has helped immensely with cutting, editing, and revising in order to put them in their proper place for good story-telling. I’m a musician and an artist besides writing, and I know in those two fields you need a sketch or chord progression to create a work of art from that vague idea in your head. Writing is no different for me now, and I’m glad to have figured that out.

  11. When I started writing, I was pretty much the same. I had no concept of plot, no real understanding. The only thing I learned from my literary professors at university was that sometimes the plot was linear, and sometimes it wasn’t. The first inkling I ever got about plot was listening to a podcast interview of Brian McDonald. I immediately picked up his book, Invisible Ink, and absorbed everything he said in that book. He somehow made plot and structure look so simple in that book, and yet at the same time so profound. It made me want to get into story structure even more.

    Structure (even the basic concepts around it) helped me a lot with my writing. Before, I found it very difficult to finish writing a story. I had no idea where my characters were going, or what they wanted. I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to happen, or how I wanted the story to end. I was mostly stumbling in the dark, and hence, I was never satisfied with any of my works and ended up abandoning them all together. Learning plot and structure helped me get over that and actually helped me finish more and finish better.

    • Wonderful to be able to finish and start something new knowing that you have skills and tools. It’s a good feeling for a writer…for anyone!

    • Francis, I feel exactly the same way. It wasn’t until I took one of Brian McDonald’s classes (based on Invisible Ink but it was way before the book was written) that my eyes were truly opened and I finally learned how great stories are structured. All of Brian’s books are near my desk so I can open them at any time and get help with my writing. Glad you found Invisible Ink to be very helpful too.

  12. Good day, Lyn Alexander. Writers tend to worship this four act structure simply because some ancient philosopher loved it. But in ancient times, stories were much shorter, and the longer epics were just collections of short stories.
    If someone chooses to write a modern long novel using this structure, they will have to insert tons of boring filler to pad the story. And this filler will be always the same as in every other four act story.
    Basically, the four act structure is a cop-out for lazy writers and literary slaves who spew out garbage non-stop.

    • Khitan, there must be NO padding for any reason in anything I write. I speak only for myself.
      I agree with Meredith Resnick and K.M Weiland that a novel must have structure. My point has been that we arrive at structure in different ways.
      I believe that many writers pad their work, not to achieve an expected structure, but to aim for the stars. Somehow they believe that beautiful words are what counts most. I happen to think that too much padding may actually conceal the story.

      • Good day. I agree with you, stories without structure tend to feel random and weird.
        When using structure, hovewer, it’s better to increase the amount of “acts” from three or four to at least sixteen. This is what I do. This eliminates predictability, raises tension, and increases variety.

  13. This seems to have become a busy discussion, and it appears to me that most of us sit somewhere in the middle between free-wheeling and close plotting. I was going to say ‘rigid’ plotting, but nothing is writing can be rigid.
    I will add this. I ‘pants’ the story through the first draft, aiming for a known ending. Then I go back to the start and write a brief outline of each chapter (2 – 3 sentences), including a word count. THEN in the revision process I use the outline to check the overall shape and dramatic arc of the story line, and for continuity and what I call ’cause-and-effect’ ~ events and details running in logical sequence. Usually there is not too much to fix. THEN I begin the line-editing to cut out the schluck and padding.
    So, in fact, I may not actually plan a plot, but for revision I do use an outline to tidy up the plot.

  14. I highlight recommend Stuart Horwitz’s new book, Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula (myBook.to/BookArchNoFormula). The approach described in his book is helpful whether you’re an outliner or a “pantser” and whether you’re just starting your manuscript or have an advanced draft. It consists of three tools: the arc, the grid, and the target. He also offers writing-related services, including critiquing, developmental editing, coaching, ghostwriting, co-writing, and marketplace assistance & process management (see http://www.bookarchitecture.com).
    In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I’ve done copyediting for Stuart’s clients.

  15. J. B. Harper says:

    Hello,

    Thank you for making this blog. Until recently, I’ve never, ever plotted. I didn’t like the feeling of being confined to a set way and was always writing by the seat of my pants. I tend to be a complete scatterbrain with thoughts and ideas humping here to there.
    But then, I began to write a zombie novel – I’ve never tried my hand at something like this before. And as I started and kept getting writer’s block and needed to change everything I’d wrote after each chapter because – hey lets face it – I had no idea where I was going or how my story was going to mesh and fit together. And I was becoming frustrated with my work and not happy with what I was producing.
    So, I finally broke down and began to work out a plot/storyboard/outline. And, sadly I had to take to youtube to see how it was done because I’d never used one before. It was a lot of work and by the end of it I had a headache but there it was, the beginning, middle, and end to my novel. I wept.
    Why? Because I finally knew how my story was going to end and everything finally fit together and made sense. My novel came to life and I finally knew what I wanted to do.
    I will forever be grateful and more then willing to work out an outline and now I recommend it. It’s totally worth it in the end, no matter how hard it seems.
    Again, I just wanted to thank you.

  16. I guess I’m backwards, and not just when writing a story. The whole story started from an ending that I saw, and it kept coming back for years. So for two years now I’ve been working backwards and getting my story to get to the ending that I see. lol. I think that’s a good thing because during revisions on the chapters I make sure they are all leading towards that end. At its core it remains the same, but as the new chapters are made and new wrinkles get added, the ending gets bigger. I wonder if that is good or bad?

    (bookmarked this page to read again later.)

    I have a request, I can’t watch any of your video as I’ve a 60% hearing loss and video caption is awful. Please consider writing out the whole article, many I don’t book mark because there isn’t much info or ‘ah ha!’ moments do to most of the information (I’m assuming) is in the video.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a guest post, written by someone else, but I’m assuming you’re talking about my weekly videos. In which case, you can find the full transcript both on the blog post page and, if you’re watching on YouTube, by clicking the “More Info” button under the video.

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