So we’ve discussed the setting and characters for your story. What comes next? Well, after I create characters, I usually start on my story’s plot. But what, exactly, is a plot? And do you actually have to know your plot when you start writing?
Today we will touch on both of those questions, as well as a few others.
First off, what is a plot?
The plot of your book is the series of actions your character(s) do to move your story forward. In life, these things seem to just happen on their own. Your car breaks down, the dog chews up your socks, a lightning storm passes through–these things just happen. But in your book, there’s not going to be anything that “just happens.”
Anything you put in your story has to mean something, at some level, to at least one of your characters. Because if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t mean anything to your reader either. For that reason, you almost never find a book where things happen, well, just to happen.
Most editors/agents, if that’s what you’re looking for, will reject work that has events that have no meaning. Even if you aren’t looking into publishing just yet, or if you’re looking into self-publishing as I am, you need to cut out all events that have no meaning to your characters, or never even write those meaningless events in the first place.
So there you have it, plain and simple: plot is the actions your characters take to get to their goal.
So how about that next question? Do you really have to know your entire plot line to begin writing? Do you even have to have any idea for a plot before you start?
Well, the short answer is no, you don’t. It all comes down to the way you prefer writing. There are two main ways that authors write. There’s the planners, and there’s the pansters. Both are extremely different ways to write your novel, and both are great ways to go.
Now, a seat-of-the-pants writer, which most call a “panster,” writes just like their name states–by the seat of their pants. These writers begin writing with only the barest hint of an idea of where their plot might go, and have no set guide of rules for where they want to end with their story.
This can be a fun way to write. These writers don’t worry about structure or grammar, instead letting the story write itself out. They sit down and just go ahead and write. If a character wants to take the story in a different direction than the author originally had been thinking, then the writer will let them.
This way of writing often means that the story is more character-driven, and even if the writer doesn’t know very much about their characters to start with, they almost always know everything about them by the end of the novel, down to the very last detail. But, as with anything, this way of writing has some serious drawbacks.
Being a panster means you don’t know how or when your story will end until late into the writing process. The first draft is fun to write, just jotting down everything that comes into your head. But then once they do end their book, they know exactly what they want their story to look like. That means making some pretty harsh cuts to the manuscript in the second and third drafts.
A few characters they had in their first draft almost always don’t make it to the last draft. Plot twists that had seemed great at the time now have to be cut out. Commas, periods, and m-dashes now need to be put in the proper place. Sentences need to be re-structured; paragraphs need to be indented; words need to be replaced, all in the several drafts after the first.
Pansters almost always have more drafts to do after the first one is finished than planners/outliners do.
A planner (or outliner depending on the what the writer prefers), plans everything. Every scene that happens, they know about it before they even set pen to paper. Every big turn of events, every plot twist…all those are planned, all calculated.
Now, this can be a life saver at times. You have everything you need to write spread out in a roadmap for you. You know everything you want to happen in your story. You know your characters inside and out from the beginning.
Planning is fun. But you know its drawbacks? Often planners start planning their novel, and they never stop planning. They can be too scared to actually write the thing because they want everything to go as planned. If a character starts to head in a direction away from their main plot line, then they often freak out. (Okay, a side note to those who don’t write stories: yes, characters have a mind of their own. They can take the reigns from an author and make their own decisions. I know it sounds strange, but characters do make their own choices. It’s weird. You’ll understand if you ever write a book.)
The easy part comes for planners after the first draft is written. Compared to the pansters, they often have quite a bit less re-writing to do. The first draft is agony, but the drafts afterward are a breeze.
Now, both methods are a great way to write, and there are many published novels out there written in both ways. Personally, I’m a panster. If I try to plan a novel I get bored with it before I even begin writing. Yes, it’s hard cutting out characters and sentences, whole chapters even, but I’d rather do that than know about every detail and get tired of it. I love the adventure of writing without a care. When I write I’m almost as surprised as my characters when there’s a plot twist. It’s actually very fun.
But I do, however, have to have some sort of idea before I begin. Whether it’s a lyric from a song, another book, or a character in a movie, I just need something to spark my ideas. A good exercise is to try and describe your novel in one sentence, just one.
When a young boy finds out about his father’s secret inheritance, he must journey far to find the truth.
Something simple like that is fine. You don’t have any plot twists or character names, but you know the main idea, and that’s all you really need. Here’s another one:
In a small town in the middle of nowhere, a woman is plotting to take over the government, and only one can stop her.
See, plain and simple is the way to go.
Hope you enjoyed this post about plot! Stay tuned for next month’s post where we will discuss theme, and why you need one.