I am not, and have never really been, what you might call a ‘plotter’. Or to use George RR Martin’s analogy, I’m not an architect. I’m not the kind of writer who sits down with a spreadsheet or a file full of notes or even an outline, knowing before I start exactly what I’m going to do and then doing it with minimal changes. I would go as far as to say I’m not even really a gardener, if we’re sticking with that particular analogy: I’m more the kind of person who throws a handful of seeds in the air and waits to see what grows, and then spends multiple drafts hacking away the weeds until I have something that vaguely resembles a flowerbed.
The point is: I don’t plan in advance. I write in a very exploratory way. I can’t sit myself down and figure out what’s going to happen because I don’t know yet, and sometimes I won’t know until I’ve done it. I’ll have a vague idea where I want the story to go, but not how I’m going to get there, and sometimes I realise that my vague idea was wrong and I change it anyway. I meander. My first drafts usually have terrible pacing as a result, and require major overhauls. Everyone says outlining means you don’t have to write so many drafts and I can see why that’s the case, but I just … suck at it.
And that’s what it comes down to, in the end. I don’t have some ideology about how plotting it all out beforehand kills my creativity. I’m not going to tell you I leave it all in the hands of my characters, although sometimes it feels like that. I’m just bad at outlining. For somebody who will look up every single stage of a journey and plan it to within an inch of its life because of anxiety, I’m not all that great at looking ahead. I never know where I’m going until I get there.
Unfortunately, this has its drawbacks. Motives that aren’t properly thought through. Characters whose actions make no sense when you consider the context. Reasoning that is never explained. I tend to end up doing a lot of retrospective outlining when I get to second and third drafts, and I’m in a position a bit like that at the moment.
I’m working on a third draft, but I decided to change some major plot points and shuffle some events around so that a lot of things happen in a different order. I also decided to tackle some of the characters’ motives and inconsistencies that had cropped up in the second draft, and all of this meant that I was barely balancing my combination of documents and couldn’t really keep track of what was going on.
So, in my attempt to focus more on the antagonist, as well as trying to make the ending better and smooth out some of the pacing issues, I decided to start looking at it from the characters’ points of view. Instead of looking at a section of the book and deciding from an authorial point of view what was going to happen, which I find pretty tricky, I figured I’d look at what the characters were trying to do instead. What they wanted. What they were planning. Then I could figure out the ways that was going to go wrong, and how they were going to react to that.
Say I was planning a heist. (There’s a heist-like operation towards the end of the book.) I would tackle that from the point of view of the characters planning it. What are they going to do first? Are they going to break it up into stages with different teams — phase one has this team, trying to do this? If I look at all the stages as they were supposed to happen, and then figure out where it went wrong, I can look at the knock-on impact of that on subsequent events.
It turns out I’m a massively character-based writer these days, and so thinking about what they want is much more effective than the more plot-based perspective of what’s going to happen. And to be honest, it amounts to much the same thing. It’s just a different way of looking at it.
But I don’t like planning and I tend to feel pressure to figure everything out and have a concrete idea and I also like to be able to look at everything at a glance rather than flicking through endless pages in my notebook, which is how I ended up plotting on walls. I take a sheet of unwanted lining paper from the last time we redecorated (years and years ago). I take a pack of coloured felt-tip pens. And then I ramble to myself on paper.
There’s something about this large-scale kind of plotting that takes the pressure off. It feels rougher. It doesn’t feel like something that needs to be perfect, even while I enjoy making it colourful and attractive to stick on the wall. It helps with the idea of plotting from the characters’ POV, actually: I can imagine them standing in an ops room or something, with a whiteboard on which there are bits of paper linked together by string and lots of scribbles detailing what’s going to happen, you know? It feels like I’m planning something that’s going to happen. And I can switch from bullet points to mindmaps of flowcharts or random notes as needed. I can even stick other bits of paper onto it. It’s not like a notebook, which is limited by size and shape.
Of course, I do have to deal with the fact that my entire wall now consists of plot notes, and anybody walking into my room will be treated to major spoilers. These things happen. Also, it’s been too hot the last couple of days to actually spend any time in my room, so I’ve been stuck downstairs where it’s marginally cooler, away from my plot notes and my computer and the ability to write. So that’s been tricky. (I hate hot weather.)
It’s taken me a long time to figure out that focusing on what the characters want helps me figure out what will happen. I know. I’ve been writing for about half my life and writing novels for seven years — I should definitely have come to this conclusion earlier. Honestly, I probably only put it into words when I was halfway through the first sheet of lining paper, and then I focused on it on the second sheet. Maybe in future, I’ll see if I can do this before writing the first draft. Which would be shocking, and radical, and no doubt it would go the same way as my last attempt at outlining: I’d do loads of detailed notes and then fail entirely to follow them.
But who knows.
So here’s a question for my fellow writers. If you outline, do you take a plot-based approach or a character-based approach? Do you ever plot on walls, or do you have some other method you’d like to share with me to try next time I feel like throwing this entire draft out of the window? Let me know in the comments!