Plot: Spontenaity vs. Structure

by Mary Schaeffer
(Racine, WI USA)

Question: How can you combine both spontaneity and structure when outlining the plot of a novel?


Answer: I would hazard to guess that no writer is ever a pure pantser (spontaneity-only) or plotter (structuralist). Everyone has to find the balance that works for them.

Most writers start with at least some form of an outline which expresses the structure of the story. For some, it's a paragraph. For others, it's ten pages. For fantasy world-builders, it may be a lot more. You must decide how much plotting you want to do ahead of time. But no matter how detailed an outline you create, there will always be an enormous number of creative choices that will only be made during the writing process.

The purpose of structure is to make sure that all the crucial creative choices work together. It is like the spine of an organism that unites and supports the whole and gives it the ability to move. With no structure, the story may have no momentum, sense of purpose, or message.

An outline is like a testing ground for your story's structure. It's a way to make sure all the elements of your story work together, so that you don't find yourself 100 pages into writing a story and realize you have no idea where it is going or how to get there.

That said, you don't need to turn your outline into a straightjacket. Think of it as the best summary of the story you want to write at the moment you create it.

During the writing process, you may find better ideas coming to you, even ones that drastically change the story. That's okay. But rather than toss out your outline out the window (leaving you with no idea where your story might be going), consider revising your outline to match your evolving ideas.

If you can see that incorporating the new ideas into the outline makes for a better story, great. Continue writing with your new and improved outline. On the other hand, if you discover that the new ideas don't actually lead to a better story - that they wreck your previous structure without leading to a better one - then stick to the old outline. This is how an outline can prevent you from spontaneously heading down a dead end path.

Sometimes too, comparing different versions of an outline can let you discover a third option: a structure that includes the best aspects of all your ideas so far.

As I've said elsewhere, some writers are just naturally pantsers and some are plotters. Plotters may take a long time thinking about their story and playing with ideas in their head until they eventually gel into a structure. At that point, they write an outline (to give them the sense that the ideas are more fixed). Then they proceed with writing a first draft.

Pantsers may do their preparation-thinking on paper. They may write many snippets of a story. Some of these may come together later into a first draft. Others may become backstory. Others are like the "searching lines" artists sometimes draw. They are ways of exploring different aspects of the terrain, different versions of characters and events, until the true shape of the story becomes clear.

Of course, for many pantsers, the story doesn't gel until the second draft. That's when they cut all the material that doesn't fit with the emerging structure - and look for places to make the structure stronger.

It's all about when you prefer to make your creative decisions and how prone you are to getting stuck.

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