To Plot or Not to Plot (Part One)

Most young writers I know laugh at the idea of plotting their stories. For some of them, it works, but most “pansters” I’ve known have ended up in a rut by the middle of their story. When I began writing, I started working on a novel that I hadn’t plotted. I was fifty thousand words in before I realized that my novel lacked something: plot. Sure, things happened, but it was more of a diary of day-to-day life with a random disaster here and there. Plot is necessary to your story. If you are one of those blessed people who can finish a readable draft without a plot, consider yourself lucky, and move on. But everyone else, keep reading.

First: what is plot? My favorite definition (and the one I consider most accurate) is “The pattern of events or main story in a narrative or drama.” It’s not just a series of random happenings, it’s a pattern, a formula. In most stories, the basic plot method can be traced back to one of five: classic, flash-back, flash-forward, parallel, or episodic (sometimes even a mixture).

1. Classic

The classic plot is the most widely used. It follows Freytag’s Pyramid closely, and the plot advances in a chronological fashion. This is the simplest of the plot formulas.

2. Flash-back

The Flash-back formula involves frequent flash-backs to a period before the plot. Here’s the danger with this method: most readers prefer the story events to occur chronologically (hence, the classic plot is the most common). Constantly throwing your audience out of the action will confuse and frustrate them. If you use flash-backs, use caution. There are a few things to remember when you’re writing a flash-back scene: 1) it shouldn’t be there just to feed your reader information, 2) it shouldn’t take away from the suspense of the chronological story, and 3) it should be clearly identifiable as a flash-back–if your readers have to put the book down to think about what the scene is, there’s a problem.

3. Flash-forward

Flash-forward scenes are quite similar to flash-backs, except they reverse the jump through time. They are just as tricky, and almost as cliched. When writing a flash-forward, you must keep in mind the same necessities for a flash-black (purpose, suspense, and clarity). Perhaps the most important thing to remember when writing a flash-forward is purpose. I’ve read too many novels that open with a flash-forward to the climax. It’s a cliched and overrated method of hooking readers.

4. Parallel

A parallel plot revolves around two separate characters, each moving through their own story. Their stories may collide at some point in the plot, but they don’t have to come together. Parallel plots, when executed correctly, contain an element all of their own. They tell not one story, but two, giving authors a chance to cement the theme.

5. Episodic

This is the plot method you want to avoid. The episodic plot is just a series of unconnected events. It generally lacks a defining story goal, climax and resolution. Unless you’re writing a collection of short stories about one character, stay away from episodic formulas.

Each of these methods center around an idea ingrained into storytelling: Freytag’s Pyramid. In Part Two, I’ll analyze Freytag’s Pyramid and share my own plotting formulas.