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Why plotting a story won’t help you write it

plot is retrospective

Why plotting a story won’t help you write it


Alan Hancock © 2014

If you want to write a story that works you can forget about plot. Plot is retrospective: it’s a great tool for analysing a story once it’s finished. But it won’t help you if you’re setting out to create one.


Why? Because the process of making stories is not amenable to the application of logic. It doesn’t matter how many guides to creative writing that you read, how many rules you know about plot, characterisation, turning points, crisis, resolution and denouement—when you start writing a story you’re on your own.


You’ll be relying on your imagination, intuition, and memory to tell the story as it unfolds. And as psychology has shown us, memory too is a creative act. As Stephen King puts it in his book On Writing: “You may begin to wonder where plot is in all this. The answer—my answer—is nowhere . . . . I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”


Plot is tedious. Both as writers and readers we want detail, feeling, pleasure. Think back to the last time someone retold you the plot of a movie they’d seen. Were you interested, held, drawn into the world of the story? I doubt it.


By retelling merely plot the narrator was missing out the vital ingredient: how it felt to witness the story. That’s what you get when you write through improvising with language. You get involved in telling your story as it unfolds.


And with this involvement comes pleasure—I’m not saying that this happens without hard work as well—as you find out by writing it what will happen in the end, and in each step on the way there. A plot is an idea about a story. It is not a story itself.


As you write, you may well draw on other stories you’ve read, heard and seen. Most great writers have spent a perhaps unhealthy portion of their lives alone with a book. They’ve absorbed all they need to know about structure through reading other people’s stories, so that what they know is a store that can be drawn on as tacit knowledge.


It’s something they know without being able to explain just how they know it. They may say something like ‘That just doesn’t work,’ or ‘This needs to happen next’. But they won’t have a rational explanation as to why this is so.


Editing is a quite different process. It may well involve analysis: pulling things apart to examine structure, to see how they work. If you’re editing your own work, from a first draft to a more finished form, you can sit back and look at whether it does adhere to the rules of narrative that many editors, critics and commentators refer to in their work. But still, it’s often a gut reaction to a part of the story that gives you your first clue that something isn’t quite right, or is working nicely.


So if you don’t start to write a story by planning its narrative structure, what do you do? You write. You watch the words on the page form characters and stories, you make it up as you go along. That is the only way I know to write a first draft that other people will want to read, and maybe even pay money for the pleasure.

And pleasure is an important part of the process. Most beginner writers who give up writing a story do so because they get tired, bored, or stuck. I’d say that the chances of this happening are high if you’re simply joining the dots on a plot that you drew up to start with.

Sure, you may think you know the ending of your story before you get there. But how the story gets to its conclusion, and whether it ever reaches the end that you had in mind, are things that you’ll find out as you write it.

Learning to write this way is largely a matter of unlearning the way that we learned at school. It’s as close to learning to meditate as it is to literary criticism or English studies. It may not seem common-sense but it works.

I’ll end with the words of one of the great writers of recent times: Ray Bradbury. I believe that if you follow his advice—set out in his book Zen in the Art of Writing—you’ll not only get more pleasure from writing, you’ll be more likely to produce something of interest to others:

“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.”