The Writer’s Dilemma: To Plot or Not to Plot

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The Writer’s Dilemma: To Plot or Not to Plot

To plot or not to plot – that is the question.

When I wrote the first draft of my novel, In Leah’s Wake, for my graduate thesis, I had no idea where I was going. Like many writing teachers, my professors encouraged students to write organically – that is, without plotting. During the revision process, I looked for themes, and then expanded and developed the novel thematically. In Leah’s Wake is a character driven novel. Had I plotted the story, I would have written a different book.

My novel-in-progress, Nowhere to Run, is a psychological thriller. I’m approaching this book a little differently. I’ve mapped out a partial plot – markers to keep me on track – while writing organically. While I recognize the many benefits of plotting, sticking too firmly to plot feels limiting to me. Allowing myself some degree of freedom leaves room for new ideas and possibilities to emerge. It also makes writing a far messier process.

So which is better – writing organically or plotting?

The short answer: neither. We should write in whatever way makes us feel comfortable and our writing enjoyable. The long answer: depends on our goals. The goal of a literary writer is to develop and understand character. The goal of a genre writer is to entertain.

Writing Desk

We should write in whatever way makes us feel comfortable and our writing enjoyable

Literary fiction focuses on thoughts and feelings, how characters react or behave in the face of circumstances. For this reason, literary fiction tends to move at a more leisurely pace than its action-packed siblings. Genre fiction, on the other hand, focuses on action, what the characters do and say. A young lawyer, wooed by money and prestige, joins a high-powered Memphis tax firm. Soon, the young lawyer, under pressure from the FBI to inform on his criminal colleagues, finds himself on the run, chased by the Mafia that owns the firm. John Grisham, The Firm. Action, not character, drives this fast-paced novel.

We read The Firm to learn how the story turns out, what happens to the protagonist, Mitch. If The Firm were a literary novel and Mitch were on the run, the focus might be on the ways the experience changes him or weighs on his marriage. We’d still read to find out what happens, but character development would take precedence over the action.

This, of course, is an oversimplification. While there are extremes on both ends – thrillers with flat stock characters moving at break-neck speed, or quiet literary novels, with exquisite language, in which nothing happens – generally speaking, the best stories involve rounded characters and have enough action to entertain and engage the reader.

Why Literary Writers Don’t Often Plot and Genre Writers Typically Do

Because of its focus, literary fiction lends itself to an organic writing style. As Heraclitus famously said, ‘Character is destiny.’ Or ‘A man’s character is his fate.’ For literary writers, this is a cardinal rule: the protagonist’s character determines his fate. In The Firm, Mitch is a brash young man. He’s brash because the plot requires this characteristic. Again, we don’t read the firm to discover how Mitch’s job affects him emotionally or bears on his marriage. We may learn this, and major characters certainly behave in ways true to their character – they must or they wouldn’t feel real – but their actions and responses serve the plot.

Literary writers write to discover. Often, they begin with a voice, an image, maybe a question, developing characters and story as they write. A literary writer may have a general sense of direction, or give herself markers, steps that force a confrontation and ultimately lead to a climax. She may jot down character notes – beliefs, motivations, personal history. But she’s unlikely to plot. To stick to a tight plot – A happens, causing B, leading to C – characters must behave in preordained ways. This defeats the purpose.

In genre fiction, particularly mysteries and thrillers, failing to plot may lead to missteps or digressions, and may even ruin the novel. Like all stories, mysteries and thrillers have rules. In mysteries, something happens and the protagonist is driven to figure out why or who did it. In thrillers, the protagonist fights for his or her life against some sort of evil. Writers can – and do – break rules. But remember: readers expect us to follow the rules. If we break rules, certain readers will be disappointed; we need to understand this and prepare to lose them.

Writing a taut, fast-paced novel or a story with complex plot twists requires skillful plotting, and skillful plotting requires careful planning. With a thriller, you have to keep the action coming; you can’t afford to get off track or meander. This is why most genre writers plot.

Stephen King, you may be thinking, pens organically written horror novels. True – because his stories, despite their horror genre, are character driven. That’s not to say they’re slow. In his novels, the characters drive the action, not the other way around. He writes about things that go bump in the night, things that scare us. Most of his books, while suspenseful, are not action-packed. He creates suspense by inserting some dreadful thing – a curse (Thinner), a deadly disease (The Stand), a rabid dog (Cujo) – into his characters’ lives and then lets them deal.

Today, many books ride the line between literary and genre fiction. Authors like King may not write extensive plots, but they do begin with a clear problem or confrontation. In other words, they don’t start with an image or conversation and see where it goes. They pit their characters against some major life-altering problem, before setting them loose.

In his recent interview, Dax McGregor asked me if I’m a plotter or a pantser – do I plot or go by the seat of my pants? His question inspired this post. Thank you, Dax.

2015-02-03T18:08:43+00:00June 4th, 2011|Categories: Creative Writing|Tags: , , |

About the Author:

Terri Giuliano Long, a frequent guest blogger, with appearances on hundreds of blogs, is a contributing writer for IndieReader and also wrote for Her Circle eZine. She lives with her family on the East Coast. Her debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, winner of the Global eBook Award, Popular Fiction, and Indie Discovery Award, Literary Fiction, has sold over 130,000 copies worldwide.


  1. Tim Chambers June 5, 2011 at 9:20 pm - Reply

    I approach my own writing organically also, feeling that it is the only approach to character driven fiction. But I use a layering process, the skeleton in the first draft, the fleshing out of character and plot in the next, the argumentation and word play in succeeding drafts, and so on, until the skin is smooth and polished. But very few of the classics I've read are as obsessed with character's interior life as contemporary "Literary Fiction," so as much as I love great writing, and vivid characterization, I still cannot read anything in which I can't perceive the tale.

    • Terri Giuliano Long June 9, 2011 at 6:58 am - Reply

      Thanks for sharing your process with us, Tim. Do you sometimes find it difficult to stick to your layering technique? Perhaps you create a character with certain demands that absolutely must work themselves into the first layer? I like your approach and employed a similar technique with "In Leah's Wake." This took me years! How much time does this process generally take you?

  2. Plotfehler June 8, 2011 at 11:52 am - Reply

    […] Die Gretchenfrage bei Autoren ist die, man vor dem Schreiben seiner Geschichte den Plot entwickelt oder. Frei nach Shakespeare: “To Plot or Not to Plot?“ […]

  3. Plotfehler June 8, 2011 at 11:52 am - Reply

    […] Die Gretchenfrage bei Autoren ist die, man vor dem Schreiben seiner Geschichte den Plot entwickelt oder. Frei nach Shakespeare: “To Plot or Not to Plot?“ […]

  4. Becca June 10, 2011 at 6:13 am - Reply

    I found myself taking notes in this post. :) As always I learn so much from your blog.

    • Terri Giuliano Long June 11, 2011 at 1:16 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much, Becca!! I'm so glad you liked the post. That means a lot to me. :) I hope all is well with you & your writing!!

  5. Terri Giuliano Long June 11, 2011 at 1:20 pm - Reply

    Ich stimme völlig. So wichtig die Entwicklung Geschichte und Handwerk! Vielen Dank für Ihre Einsicht!

  6. Tim Chambers June 13, 2011 at 5:23 pm - Reply

    Thanks for responding.

    The first draft took about six months. I have spent about two years adding layers, and until I find a publisher for it, I will probably continue to work on it. New ideas occur to me all the time. Perhaps, I should start putting those ideas into short stories or a new novel, but as long as they work in the context of the existing piece, I guess I will continue to develop it until some publisher can't resist it. A work is never finished until someone else says it is, in my opinion.

    • Terri Giuliano Long June 15, 2011 at 6:39 pm - Reply

      It seems we approached our novels in very similar ways. I also finished my first draft quickly, and spent years editing. Like you, I continued to tinker. Publishing it was good for me, because it finally felt finished, and so allowed me to move on.

      I wish you all the very best with yours!

  7. Joomla Hosting June 14, 2011 at 12:59 am - Reply

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  8. […] To Plot or Not to Plot – The Art & Craft of Writing Creatively “So which is better

  9. Pantser to Plotter August 10, 2011 at 3:52 pm - Reply

    […] the soul of a pantser.Which are you?Update: Terri Giuliano Long has posted an article titled “To Plot or Not to Plot“on her blog that covers this issue in greater depth. She explains that pantsering works well […]

  10. Richard Denning August 17, 2011 at 12:25 pm - Reply

    With my first book, The Amber Treasure I did not really plot it. IT just grew organically but then I realised I had a rambling manuscript that needed surgery ;-) I sat down and alongside the book worked out the plot based on all the elements in the manuscript and them rewrote the MS.

    All well and good but not easy. With The Last Seal and also with my young adult Time Travel books I actually used the Snow Flake technique for plotting. Ie start with a defining the central question of the book, expand that to a few sentences , to a page and so on and do the same thing with your characters.

    THEN start writing. That worked well with these books BUT as now I wrote the sequel to The Amber Treasure I am finding it hard. I am finding that the book is again growing organically as I write it and ideas occur.

    So in summary I don't think there is ONE SIZE FITS ALL approach to this. Different books may just work better heavily pre plotted and others work better given the chance to grow themselves.

  11. […] I feel vindicated with the way I like to write stories:

  12. Julia Tomiak January 3, 2012 at 7:22 am - Reply

    I really appreciate this post. I wrote the first draft of my manuscript organically, but then I read so much from Writer's Digest about plot and story maps that I thought I'd gone about things all wrong. You and the other writers who have commented have helped me to see that perhaps my method was okay after all. Like so many things in life, one must find a balance and work with what feels right. Thanks.

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