Being a Better Writer: Should I Build a Plot Structure?

Today I’m going to be tackling a topic by request. Now, it’s not a topic I’ve not heard discussed before. Or, to put that in a clearer context, this is a question that crops up with fair regularity in writing groups, classes, and cons … But it’s also not one of the more common questions because it implies a bit more forethought. Not that those who aren’t asking it aren’t thinking, but rather that those who tend to ask this question, at least as I see it, are probing for a bit more detail, making a bit of a “I should look before I leap” observation.

The question is: Should I build a plot structure?

Okay, there’s a bit more to it than that. Most of the time the writer asking this question isn’t really asking whether or not they should. What they’re asking is why they should or shouldn’t.

Shouldn’t? Oh yes. There are definitely cases where a plot structure might not be in your best interest, or even harmful to the overall story. Perhaps a better way to interpret this question then, is when should I build a plot structure?

The thing is, there isn’t an answer that satisfies this question one hundred percent in any context. Because on some level, each writer has a different approach to how they both write and map things out. Some writers are discovery writers, the kind that sit down and let characters and story run with one another to produce something exceptional, while others are planners who chart out every aspect of their world before hand.

I’ve talked about this before. Planners and pantsers. Neither one is the wrong way to approach a story, but shades of one or another are going to be right for you.

Now, why am I bringing this up? Because what kind of writer you are is going to very much influence the question of whether or not you should have a plot structure. If you’re the kind of writer who writes best when completely blind, then a plot structure is probably going to hurt your writing capacity. And inversely, if you’re a writer who does well when they’ve planned out everything in advance, too little planning can be just as much of a hindrance.

The thing is, you’re not going to know which is best for you until you really sit down and try both. And until you know which method works well for you, the degree to which you build a plot structure for your story may help or hinder you.

Right, let’s back off of that for a moment and talk about something else. What do I mean when I say “plot structure?” What am I talking about?

Well—and bear with me for a moment, here—think of the story you’re setting out to write as a house you want to build. Like your story, when you think of what you want that house to be like, you’re probably going to have some ideas. Scary house, open-air home, utilitarian design, etc. You have an idea of what you want that house to look like. This is a plan for the structure.

Now, this plan can vary heavily. Some people have very specific ideas about what they want in their home when they set out to build. They might need four bedrooms and two bathrooms. Or they might get eve more detailed, offering sizes on individual rooms or what kind of lighting and power requirements each room is to have.

Others, on the other hand, are less inclined to do that and stick with the basics. They tell the contractor “Give me a house with five rooms and lots of open space” and leave their requirement at that. They leave the contractor to fill in the details as he goes.

Bringing this back around, we, as writers, are both the contractor and the buyer in this analogy. Or, more accurately, we’re the buyer and the one who has the capacity to list our requirements, and then our “contractor” is our writing style and talent who goes forth and puts the whole thing together. And just as some contractors are going to work at their best when given a set of specific requirements for a house but be left free to make their own calls in areas where their personal experience trumps that of the buyer, so are our personal writing talents going to perform better or worse within certain frameworks.

Some contractors don’t need to be told “Yes, wire my home for electricity.” They’ll ask the question only if it needs to be asked, but otherwise assume that you do indeed want lights and power in each room and they can badger you for details when the time comes or just do it themselves. Others, on the other hand, will not unless asked. Your goal then, with discovering your talents as a writer, is to discover just what kind of “contractor” lives in your head.

Because all of us plan to one degree or another. A discovery writer might sit down and only have a vague “plan” of what his “house” is going to look like past “comedic and with a short length,” but their “contractor” can carry that through and deliver. A planner, however, may have a contractor that needs a more approximate and detailed set of instructions—maybe just for a few specific rooms, mind you, but more detailed all the same.

Now, some of you might be looking at this and asking “Well, why can’t or shouldn’t I just plan everything out in advance then, even as a discovery writer?”

Right, now I believe we’re actually getting at the root of the original question. But with our analogy in mind … have you ever worked a job you’re quite competant at where someone who knows very little keeps telling you what you need to do and how you’re doing it wrong?

See the trick with planning out a detailed plot structure is that your “contractor” might know better than the architect. You might plan for a chapter to have this gigantic fight, only to reach that part in your house and for your contractor to look at it and say “Hey boss, you know we’re not structurally rated for this, right? I mean, the main character isn’t much of a fighter, and we’ve not got a lot of backstory to support this decision—in fact most of it was arguing the opposite, which would mean running from the fight or trying to talk their way out of it.” And it’s at this point that the structure you’ve drawn out can be harmful, because many, when they reach this crossroad, they simply grunt, square their contractor in the eye, and say “but the plan says we do this.”

If you’re well read, you’ve probably encountered this before. There are plenty of books out there where something like this happens. Or movies. Any form of storytelling, really. Stories where the author stuck to theplan rather than heeding their contractor, resulting in scenes or chapters that just … didn’t quite make as much sense with regards to everything else. Like a room in the middle of a home with no lights or windows to other rooms.

Then again, you can run into just as many problems if you don’t plan things out in advance. A discovery writer running off of no plan, for example, may run afoul of a contractor who can certainly put all the framework in place with ease, but has serious difficulty doing the wiring … or to bring our analogy closer to home, can lay down a great setup, but has trouble figuring out what characters would or wouldn’t do.

Ultimately, taking things to their simplest state, in answer to “Should I build a plot structure?” I would say: Yes. Every time. But that does not mean sitting down and building the entire blueprint from the very beginning. Instead, it means acknowledging what level and type of planning you need to do when setting up your story so as to make the best use of both your plan and your “contractor.” If your “contractor” is great at letting characters be characters and keeping everything that’s a part of that space working well, then in the planning stage what you need to be making sure you’re doing is giving them the tools and information they need to do their job … but you probably won’t need to do it for them.

For example, when I write, my “contractor” does very well at letting the characters be themselves. So when I plot out a story, the first thing I do is come up with the basic “shape” of my house (the type of story it’ll be and the general direction it’ll take) and then I sit down and build my characters. Once I have them made, I let that contractor sit down and make a general outline of the plot for the story. Beyond the Borderlands, for instance, after the initial brainstorming was done for the characters and setting, was given chapter summaries up until about chapter 25 and a few bullet points past that. Once that was done, I did a little bit more worldbuilding, adjusting some framework to make sure the foundation of all the plot points was there … and then I went to work. My contractor let the characters be themselves, but because I’d built a framework that would guide them where I wanted the story to go, they were able to stay true to themselves while still following the general frame of the plot I’d assembled.

So yes, you should build a plot structure, but it should be one that acknowledges your own strengths and weaknesses in writing. If you know that you are going to work better or worse with certain levels of structure set up for you, then take the time beforehand to make sure those structures are in place, thus aiding yourself in the execution of writing the story. And thus answering the “When?” in our question: when it’s beneficial to you and your story.

Does this sound like work? Of course it does. It’ll take practice and lots of writing for you to decide what should and shouldn’t go into your plot structure, when you’re better off just letting your “contractor” handle things rather than mucking about with a complicated plan, and vice versa when you need the contractor to stop taking three times as long to get somewhere and instead follow the path you’ve laid out.

But it’s work you should do if you want to make the most of your writing time. So, for all you young and novice writers who are either just getting into the game or have written a few tens of thousands of words, take the time to do it. Find out if you’re a discovery writer or a planning writer. Find out what elements you prefer to plan … and which you do better if you just let them flow. Second guess yourself and check.

Because at the end of the day, if you want to build a story, you’re going to want the contractor and the buyer to be working together, in as much harmony as possible. The better they work together, the better a story you’ll create, and the easier it’ll be.

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