Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Plotting Versus Discovery Writing

I have been asked the question many times - what do I prefer? Plotting a story or figuring it out as I go?
I actually like to do a bit of both.
When I’m trying to write something quickly that I have spent the time to think through, I always like to plot first. Plotting in advance allows me to do the fast writing without losing track of what I’m writing or where I am in the story. The things about this method that I don’t like is, plotting is hard! You have to basically create the entire story arc in advance. Since that exercise doesn’t really feel like writing to me, it is always a struggle. Throw in a little fear that the story will come across as too stilted and I like the technique even less.
Figuring it out as I go along has the benefit of surprise. I get to discover the story as I go along, almost, but not quite like a reader might. Discovery writing means I’m busy typing away quicker than I ever could by plotting. The problem I’ve always found is, Discovery writing is much messier than writing from a plot.
But what do I mean by, “messier?”
Simply put, I am writing by the seat of my pants. I may come up with a great idea that needs to be foreshadowed earlier in the book. Because it isn’t planned, I have to find the write spot in the earlier story to plan the seed that will eventually germinate into the current idea. I also find that my writing lacks a certain amount of polish that seems to be inherent in the plotted writing.
The natural next question would be to ask, “Which is better?”
I actually don’t believe one technique is better than the other. They serve different purposes.
When I am finished writing a plotted story, I find that I need to step away from it for a while so when I do come back to edit it, I’m able to see it with new eyes. That new perspective often allows me to add elements to the story that are surprising and fresh. It gives the story more depth.
When I am finished writing a discovery story, I also need to step away, but for a different reason. I do need to be able to see it with fresh eyes as with plotted, but in this case, what I am looking for are the logic and continuity gaps that often spring up when a story is properly planned.
I find that discovery writing, while having better twists and turns than plotted writing, also needs more editing. I have to find those places where I may have expressed the same idea in different ways. I need to find where the character names don’t match or some aspect of the story’s continuity are at odds with each other.
Where I find my writing is best is when I use a combination of the two techniques. I plot the story with the high points. I identify conflicts and resolutions and I make sure every chapter has a purpose. I leave it vague enough that I have to figure out some of the elements necessary to the story.
By writing in this way, I’m able to control the story’s structure and still bring in the discovery and freshness that is inherent in it.

How do you write? What are the benefits and liabilities to your methods that you can identify?


Big Mike said...

I'm a pure plotter. Given I write suspense, intrigue and political thriller, everything has to link together in a nice bow by the last page.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Liz Fountain said...

Hmm... "discovery writing." I like that phrase! That part usually comes pretty easily to me. It's the plotting I need to practice.


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Plotting an outline is hard for me, but plotting a long synopsis is a good guide once I begin to get to know the main characters.

My worst nightmare is the wrong spelling for the same character. How many ways can you spell Munro? Ask my very first editor.

Olga Godim said...

Wonderful post. I too subscribe to both techniques. I need a rough map of the story before I start writing, but all the details are filled out later. Sometimes, discovery writing offers marvelous and unexpected detours to the characters, but in the end, they always return to the way I want them to go.

Ute Carbone said...

I agree that one isn't better than the other. I'm a seat of the pants writer, making it up as I go along. That said, my early draft is kind of like a big messy outline. And I do keep some plot points in my head as guides that I write toward.
And that name change thing? Done that. :).