Every NaNoWriMo, the Internet is aflame with the age old argument: should you plot your novel, or should you make it up as you go along? Most people have agreed on the generally civil principle that some people are better at plotting, while others are better at ‘panstering’, and it’s best to live and let live. “Whatever floats your boat,” as the saying goes.
That logic is perfectly fine if you want to write a novel, and have no special wish for it to be good. In fact, ‘freewriting‘ – or writing consistently for a period of time about absolutely nothing in particular – is highly recommended as a technique to improve your writing abilities, and loosen up the cogs of your brain to let thoughts flow more freely.
However, I would like to argue that everyone should plot their writing to a certain extent, at least when the goal is to create an interesting, readable work.
Now, let me explain. I’m not saying everyone should write in exactly the same way. Some people inevitably plan their works in much greater detail than others – they may carefully structure their work with the ‘snowflake method‘ or the ‘hero’s journey‘. Like Dostoevsky, they may fill a notebook full of character backgrounds, and like Tolkien, they may write out the histories of entire worlds before they ever start working on a story.
But I’m not saying all that is necessary. I’m not advocating any particular method, and I allow that some people flourish by ‘going with the flow’, while others find it a lot more productive to plan out every scene, character and line of dialogue before writing a book.
Nevertheless, I take it as a serious principle that every good story has a few key elements planned from the beginning.
What does Poe think?
Edgar Allen Poe did a good job of explaining this idea. Yes, that’s right, Edgar Allen Poe, the gloomy 19th century American writer with a big mustache who married his cousin and wrote a very famous poem about a raven. As weird as his works may have been, they were actually carefully planned, and before writing his poems, he planned them down to the last stanza.
In ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, Poe justified his own approach to writing like so:
Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement [conclusion; final act] before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention. ¹
So according to Poe, you should always have the ending in mind when you write a book.
Personally, I like to plan my books according to the three act structure, which means that I always have at least the setup, confrontation and climax in mind when writing, and I think everyone could stand to benefit from having at least this skeletal structure before writing the very first scene in a novel or even a short story.
Pansters are quick to point out that over-planning can make a novel stuffy and calculated, and I tend to agree. But under-planning can make a novel rambling and directionless. Without any direction, the point of a book can be hard to discern, and your writing isn’t likely to catch readers’ attention. A novel with a lot of potential can turn out mediocre if it isn’t given any thought beforehand.
Wherever you lie on the spectrum between plotter and panster, before you start writing a novel, have something in mind, and preferably a few things. You’ll thank yourself later on, and so will your readers.
Have your own take on this discussion? Leave a comment! We’d love to hear your opinions.