A Former Literary Agent on Plotting

Mon Aug 29 2016

A couple of days ago, @melissabanczak was kind enough to answer an entirely non-writing-related question for me on Twitter. Since I couldn't send brownies via Twitter, I suggested instead that she nominate the topic for today's article.

Little did I know what I was in for. Melissa, a former literary agent now turned writer, had a suggestion in my feed before I knew it:

Here's a Storify of our whole exchange.

Melissa's request strikes a resonant chord with me, for without a proper outline I am hobbled. Sans outline, I can manage a flash-fiction pretty well, but that's about it. With an outline, I can tackle a novel with both confidence and success.

Some writers firmly avoid outlining or any other form of plot planning (hereafter "plotting", just to keep things simple). Their reasons are many--they don't like it. It's boring. It "kills their creativity".

That's certainly their prerogative. If writing by the seat of their pants (or "pantsing") works for them, I certainly won't force outlines on them. The question is, does it actually work?

My favorite quote on this subject is from fellow developmental editor (and personal hero) Elizabeth Lyon, who says this in her book Manuscript Makeover:

Many writers seize inspiration and run with it, until the flow of imagination stops. I'm not against writing for the sheer joy of it. Without a plan or prior thought, you'll sometimes end up with a rough draft worth revising.


Screw that! If I'm going to spend an entire month out of my life writing a first draft, I want a better guarantee of success than "sometimes". Life's too short to write bad books.

Why do plotting?

I won't deny that plotting is extra work versus pantsing. But besides the blithe promise that plotting is better, why do it?

Melissa puts her finger right on it:

Stories are complex creations. Between inciting incident and denouement, a lot of stuff has to happen. Plot structure is no walk in the park, especially on your first few attempts. Heck, I've written eleven full manuscripts now (a number which occasionally boggles me), and I still need outlines to make sure it's all there, in the right order, and well developed.

The trouble with plot structure is that when it is realized in full narrative form, you can't see it. It's too big. Any page or paragraph gives you a peephole view, but hides the whole.

I hate to resort to a cliché, but this is exactly the problem of not seeing the forest for the trees. Pantsers, by diving right into the word-by-word narrative form, only allow themselves to see one tree at a time, but never the entire forest.

Plotting ignores nearly all of the individual trees, to allow you to concentrate on the few trees whose position in the forest and role in the whole forest ecosystem is particularly critical. Plotting lets you make sure that those trees are well-placed, healthy, and that the paths between them are arranged to fit your vision.

Speaking of vision, that's the other reason to plot.

I suspect even pantsers go into a story with some overall vision for what they're trying to do. But none of us, at that moment of inception, really know exactly how the story is going to go. We have a vision, but it is vague and hazy.

If you're pantsing, you clarify that vision by writing the story. If you're plotting, you clarify that vision by making an outline. By planting those big trees first.

But along the way, almost inevitably, we all change our minds about various things. The deeper we get into the details, the more we realize that this idea doesn't necessarily work with that one. Or we decide to move the two lovers' first-kiss earlier in the story. Whatever it might happen to be.

If you're pantsing and all you can see is one tree at a time, your ability to assess the impact of moving that tree is minimal. Maybe moving that kiss is a good move. Maybe it spaces that tree out from the other anchor-trees in the forest, giving all of them more sunlight and rain. But maybe that moves it too close to the inciting incident tree, and how are you going to know?

As a pantser, you have to rely on your memory of where everything is, or the tedious (and therefore easy to put off for later) process of flipping back through earlier material to assess the impact.

Conversely, what if you decide to move the kiss to later? For a plotter, this is no problem. Just move the "first kiss" scene down in the list. For a pantser, you can't move the scene to the future, because that part of the book isn't written yet. You're forced to make a mental note to write that scene later.

It's seductively easy to tell yourself "Oh, I'll remember to do that. How can I forget about the first kiss scene?" But yeah, you can forget, because some part of your mind remembers that the scene used to be earlier. So as you write onwards, you can fall into a state of thinking you included the first kiss already when really you had decided to save it for later.

Plotters don't have that problem, because the outline is the blueprint for their overall vision. That outline is their guarantee that the sequence of scenes they'll eventually write actually matches what they were after when they started.

The Pitfalls of Pantsing

Still not convinced? Melissa gives a nice example of how pantsing can go wrong.

Boy meets girl. Classic setup, right? Tell somebody it's a boy-meets-girl story, and what are they going to expect? They're going to expect a scene where the two meet (of course), some sequences of scenes in which they interact repeatedly, get to know one another, and fall in love. Right? I mean, that's how those kinds of stories work. What could be simpler? What could possibly go wrong?

Oh. The writer gave Melissa the scene with the initial meeting, but then forgot all the intermediate scenes that lead up to the big "I love you" moment. Thus, the boy's declaration comes out of the blue and doesn't feel plausible.

Think about it. If you read a story where two characters meet, then don't interact at all for 60 pages, then suddenly one of them shows up to declare his undying love, what are you going to think?

Are you going to think he truly loves her? No. Why would he? What basis does he have for loving her? None at all, except for one brief meeting a long time ago. By that standard, he ought to be in love with every female grocery store clerk or librarian he ever met just once a long time ago.

So when a guy with no basis for genuine love comes up and suddenly declares his love for the girl, he's more likely to set off your creepy-stalker radar than anything else. The whole thing certainly isn't going to read like a "love story for the ages."

Outlining is one way--and probably the most efficient way--that writer could have solved the problem. And here's a pro-tip for you all: when a literary agent gives you specific suggestions for how to improve your work, you probably ought to listen. Or at the very least, consider carefully what they have said.

Evidently that guy didn't, and surprise! He didn't land the agent. And I'm guessing he never got his book published, either.

Answering the Objections

If you're not convinced yet, let me try addressing the reasons people give for not plotting because I suspect most of those objections are based in expectations that aren't actually true.

"I don't like it"

Yeah, ok. I hear that. And you know what, when I hear the word "outlining", my gut reaction isn't positive either. Why? Because that word is forever linked to our middle-school experiences with doing outlines for essays and school reports.

And god almighty wasn't that ever an agonizing exercise in boredom? I hated it.

Here's the thing: plotting is not at all like essay outlining.

For starters, you get to do it however you want. Nobody's going to take points off if you don't use the approved Section 1, Paragraph A, Roman-numeral-i format for your outline. Nobody's going to get on your case if you don't have at least three sub-points in each paragraph or whatever.

Plotting is just a process of writing down brief notes about what the major trees are in your story's forest and where they go. If you need a paragraph to describe each tree to your satisfaction, fine. If you only need the phrase "first kiss", great.

The goal of plotting is to give you a vehicle for capturing and organizing all the ideas you have for your story, in a form where you can see the whole forest. That's it. Beyond that, do it however you want.

It's boring

Middle-school outlining truly is boring, but novel plotting is anything but.

I actually love it, and find it to be almost as much fun as the actual writing process. This doesn't mean I'm some kind of ultra-organized ubernerd or whatever. (Trust me, I'm not. And if you could see the state of my desk, you'd know it.)

I love it because plotting is the time when the whole story is alive with possibilities. Everything is still on the table. In this time, I am free to entertain any idea, consider any plot twist or reversal or revelation, because doing so costs nothing. At this point, I'm not committed to anything. Changing my mind doesn't mean throwing away days or weeks-worth of writing.

This is the time when I can realize that I need to know more about something--like, I don't know, how farmers on the frontier broke sod to plow their fields or whatever--and can go research it with an open mind to how my research may spark new story ideas.

What if the plow breaks? Ooh, that would be a catastrophe for the characters, and wouldn't that be dramatic! Oh, and hey, I was looking for something that would press the characters to mortgage their property, and maybe having to buy a new plow could be it!

Plotting is when I can play with any and all such ideas, see how they work out quickly, jettison them if they don't without feeling like I've wasted any real effort, and keep the ones that make the story better.

It kills creativity

A lot of pantsers have this notion that if they plot out an outline first, they'll ruin (or use up?) all their creativity for the writing process.

This one is probably the hardest objection to convince people isn't true, but I know first-hand that it isn't.

Not only is plotting very creative itself (see above), but it actually opens doors for inspiration during the writing.

This always happens. I have never written a manuscript where, somewhere in the middle of the writing, I didn't have an "Ooh, what if..." moment of inspiration. What if the barn catches fire? What if some Native Americans show up, wanting to barter game for corn?

These moments always happen, and they are precious. I well understand the pantsers who don't want to foreclose on them.

The thing is, an outline doesn't foreclose on anything. It's just an outline! As I said earlier, an outline just helps you maintain your vision for the story. Or in Melissa's words, keeps you from forgetting your direction.

How? Because an outline lets you see the shape of the whole forest. So when you get an idea for a great new tree, an outline is the tool that lets you hypothetically plant that tree and evaluate how that tree works with all the others. Does it fill a hole in your forest, or does it shade out some other tree? How will you connect this new tree to the others?

An outline lets you figure all that out before committing to the work that new tree requires.

If you decide to keep the tree, you'll know a) that it was the right decision, b) why, and c) what other work this new tree requires in order to be integrated with the rest. And if you decide not to, you can proceed with the earlier plan in full confidence that--although it may have been a really awesome tree--this wasn't quite the right forest for it.

When pantsers have those moments, they're stuck making an on-the-spot decision based on little more than gut feel and their hazy view of the whole forest, to either commit to the tree for real or walk away from it. No matter which way they go, they won't know until much later whether that was the right decision.

Did I convince you?

I think there are many good reasons to plot and few reasons not to. Too, I know there are writers out there who do just fine with pantsing. Why should they fix what ain't broken? I wish them well.

But I am equally sure that somewhere out there are pantsers who aren't so happy with how they've been writing. Who have ran smack into those pitfalls, and wasted months or years on a manuscript that wasn't worth revising.

If that's you, I encourage you to give plotting a try. It isn't actually boring. It can be a lot of fun, and can be a place where tremendous creativity happens. It can get you extremely jazzed about your story idea, so you just can't wait to start on the writing.

If none of that convinces you, though, I think I'll give Melissa the final word on the subject. Here's what she said when I agreed to write this article:

Now, are you sure you don't want to try plotting?

Stay tuned next week for an article on practical plotting tips. In the meantime, please share your successes--or tragedies--with plotting and pantsing in the comments.