I remember dreading discussions of plot and theme in literature classes. It always seemed plain to me that the plot is what happened in the story and the theme is what the story is about. However every year instructors seemed convinced that I was either missing essential layers of nuanced meaning or was being deliberately lazy. (Most began the term believing the former and ended the term convinced of the latter.) As a student, I never earned more than a "C" in a literature class.
As a writer I've never given a moment's thought to theme.
But as a writer I'm thinking about, and working on, plot all of the time. Because without a plot there is no story. Beautiful sentences, evocative settings, scintillating dialog, compelling characters -- all of these things are wonderful, but if nothing happens it's not a story. If you're a storyteller, you're a plotter.
With plot such an important element, you can be sure many writers spend a great deal of time working out every detail of the plot. One friend of mine, science fiction and mystery writer Ilsa Bick, produces 20,000-word outlines for 100,000-word novels. While not everyone is this meticulous, it is common for writers to thoroughly map out their plot before writing. Political thriller writer Allen Drury developed formal outlines for each of his subplots and main storyline before writing. Stephen King works out summaries of each chapter before he writes. The strength of this approach is the writer is never taken by surprise; never at a loss as to what to do next. One trap of this method is crafting the perfect outline or summary could become an end in itself consuming creative energy. Another potential problem is the writer missing opportunities in the writing process, not exploring options that are not in the outline.
Other writers are plot deniers, and I know several of these. They start with a blank page and begin writing. These writers often describe the writing process as letting the words flow. Many say things like their characters just take over the story and all they did was watch and listen and type what happened. Of course what they're doing is using their subconscious to plot, a process not unlike directed dreaming. The primary problem with this approach is -- as anyone whose ever tried to recount the events in a dream will tell you -- the subconscious is not big on logic. Just as there are holes in your dream there will be holes in your plot. And with this seat of your pants method there is always the danger of writing yourself into a box; or finishing a killer scene and having no idea where to go from there; or starting with a love story that becomes a mystery that ends with a gunfight and a Broadway musical medley. Most authors with collections of half-finished manuscripts began with little or no plot laid out in advance. But there are also successful writers who earn their livings writing this way every day.
Most writers employ elements of both of these extremes. They block the main events of their novel -- where it begins, where it ends, major decision points between the two -- but do not think through the steps between each plot point in much detail. One writer has described this as seeing each major point as a mountain peak above the fog. She knows there's a road connecting the peaks, but the actual path is in the fog. She sets out on the road knowing she will find her way by keeping the peaks in sight, but that she will also discover things she had not anticipated as she goes. She does not worry about how winding the road is as long as she keeps moving toward the next peak.
I call my own method composting, though it's been suggested percolation may be a more accurate metaphor. I think scenes through, sometimes for days before writing. My family is used to me muttering snatches of dialog unrelated to anything happening outside my head, missing turns, mowing the hostas, or calling home from the grocery store to ask what I had been sent to buy. Though I seldom have a detailed outline, I do have key elements thought through and set -- with minimal descriptions jotted in a pocket notebook -- before I ever sit at the keyboard. When I seem to simply sit down and type more often than not I'm writing down the highlights of days of guided daydreaming.
A common tool for keeping track of events while plotting is storyboarding. The writer starts with a stack of index cards, then writes one-sentence descriptions of scenes and key plot elements on each card. Then the cards can be laid out or tacked to a bulletin board. This gives the writer a visual overview of the novel as a whole, allowing her to see where what she is writing at a given moment fits. I have used this method with some success, and found it particularly useful when the flow of Wolf Hunters was not working: I was able to shuffle and rearrange the cards, playing with plot structure until I found a combination that worked. For short fiction I often use graph paper and create a very rough flow chart of events to help me remember sequence and context.
However you do it, and whatever tools you use, if you're going to be a writer you must be a plotter.
How about you? How do you plot your stories? And what tools do you use to help you stay on track and turn that plot into a story?