Writing Tip: To Plot or Not to Plot

portrait of beautiful young woman over white background

Plot means the story line.  When people talk about plotting, they mostly mean how to set up the situation, where to put the turning points, and what the characters will be doing in the end.  What happens.

Some fiction writers write organically, not knowing where the story they are writing is going.  These writers say it would be boring to know what’s going to happen next and they lose their enthusiasm to tell the story because they know the outcome already.  They prefer throwing themselves over the edge and into the void.  This method can be very anxiety-producing.  It means you need a lot of faith in your process.

E.L. Doctorow describes the process like this:  “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Other writers plan the story before they begin.  In crime fiction the story definitely needs to be worked out beforehand so information can be drip-fed to the reader.

In the past, when creating my stories, I have worked organically and not known where my stories were headed as I wrote them. Sometimes, when I’m feeling despicable about  writing, I think I really should plot to put me out of my misery. But, in the end, I just keep going, one tiny step at a time.

The shorter the piece of fiction, the less need for plot.  You can write an interesting story in which not very much happens.  A woman fights with her neighbour, a man quits his job, or an unhappy family goes out for a pizza.  Simple structures work better than something too complicated when the story is short.

A plot can, like a journey, begin with a single step.   A woman making up her mind to recover her father’s oil paintings may be enough to start.  The journey begins there, as it did for Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment when he decided to commit his crime,”  Jerome Stern Making Shapely Fiction

The plot grows and develops out of what helps and what hinders the characters’ progress toward their goals.

The Writers’ Workshop   http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/plot2.html  ask:

  • But how do you know if your draft plot has the right amount of weight to carry an entire novel?
  • What kind of structures work?
  • Is there a quick way to design your own plot template?
  • And how do you handle a book with multiple points of view?

“A good plot has a clear motivation.  It has a clear structure.  It has an outcome.  It has subplots.  A good plot looks something like the plot structure template below,” The Writers’ Workshop.


Motivation Lizzie Bennett wants to marry for love
Plot structure She meets Darcy & Wickham. She dislikes Darcy, and starts to fall for Wickham. Wickham turns out to be a bad guy; Darcy turns out to be a good guy. She now loves Darcy.
Outcome She marries Darcy
Subplot 1 Jane Bennett (Lizzie’s nice sister) loves Bingley. Bingley vanishes. He reappears. They get hitched.
Subplot 2 Lydia Bennett (Lizzie’s idiot sister) elopes with Wickham. She’s recovered.
Subplot 3 An idiot, Mr Collins, proposes marriage to Lizzie. She says no. Her friend, Charlotte, says yes.

Of course, there are a lot of things that the above plot template doesn’t tell you.  It doesn’t say where the novel is set, it doesn’t tell you anything about plot mechanics – it doesn’t say why Lizzie dislikes Mr Darcy, or how Lydia is recovered from her elopement.  It doesn’t have anything to say about character.

The Writers’ Workshop strongly advises us to build a template much like the one above before starting to write.  “If you’ve already started your MS then, for heaven’s sake, get to that template right away.”

So that’s all we need:  a beginning, a middle and an end.  Aristotle defined it like this:  a beginning is what requires nothing to precede it, an end is what requires nothing to follow it, and a middle needs something both before and after it.

Easy peasy.  Not.

I hope these ideas on plotting, or not plotting, are helpful.   Do you have any tips you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it. 


11 thoughts on “Writing Tip: To Plot or Not to Plot

  1. I have done exactly what the plot template suggests (noting plots and subplots etc) and it works. But the real power is all the action that moves a plot forward. I wrote the draft sequel to my just-published novel about ten years ago. Now, getting it ready, I am amazed how much plotting I did! Every time things slow down, I’ve tossed in a bit of action.

    I wish I could remember how I did that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. wow! that’s great Jacqui. you’ve got your draft sequel ready to work on. all that plotting has paid off. i wish i could do it, but find it takes the freshness out of the writing for me. good luck with your next big writing project journey.


  2. Great article, I like the plot template you shared that just helps to simply solidify some of the important aspects.

    My novels always have more than one POV and usually a few subplots, so I do try and outline my plot though it usually stays fluid enough to make changes as things come to me.

    Lol although my current outline for my new WIP is over 15K words long. It’s turning into a mini book. 🙂

    Shared this on Facebook

    Liked by 1 person

    1. wow! a 15K word outline. at least you know where you’re headed. yes, with several POVs and several subplots, it’s a good idea to plot. good to know what works for you in your writing process. good job.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. as simple as the template sounds, i’m more like the guy who drives in the fog..I do however, have a beginningand an ending to my stories before i start. Once i take that one step into writing, i let the fog take over, and i drive toward that ending i figured at the beginning. sometimes however, the ending will need some minor adjustments, but so far, this technique has worked well for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yes, that’s the technique that works for me too. but i have to keep reminding myself not to try and look too far ahead because it freaks me out. i don’t know each step between beginning and ending until i get to it. it’s a tricky business this writing journey.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. when i think of something that i want far ahead or maybe even a few scenes ahead in a book, i write it down at the end of the file. I’ll either get to it and write that scene when i get to it, or i’ll check it out again once i finish the first draft. Sometimes I have a lot of notes at the bottom – and only use a sentence or two, but most times i get a lot of useful notes that i’m impressed i was the one who actually made them. am i making any sense?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. yes, great. makes lots of sense. wonderful that so many ideas come your way. i’m happy to get one idea at a time and work on it. am always so grateful that some magic happens when i give time and attention to the work. never stops amazing me. sounds like the writing is flowing well for you and you are very familiar with your own process. fabulous. well done you.


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