The Dangers of Over-Plotting

The results are in. After months of worrying over the impact the new English GCSE would have on our students, we’ve found that, thankfully, they’ve done about as well as we expected. Look a little closer, and you could see the particular issues this new system has thrown up.

Unsurprisingly, in English Language, the question they struggled the most with was about structure. It works something like this: They get an unseen passage of a text, they have to respond to it. From interpreting factual information, to summarising, to commenting on language. Then they need to look at structure, which is always tricky. Sure, the use of language in this sentence is lovely, but why is this sentence here? Why not earlier, or later, and what changes about the piece if it’s here rather than somewhere else?

Very often, it’s only after something has gone well (or badly) that we are able to look back and see the related strands, the bits that held things together. I always find that I can only really think about the structure of a book once I’ve read it and become familiar with the characters and story.

A framework can really help your writing come together – but don’t overuse it!

So how does this help with writing? I’ve recently finished yet another (8th? 9th? I forget) draft of my first novel. I had thrown it in a corner and forgotten about it, even written the first draft of a second book. But somehow, it kept nagging at me.

On another reading, it suddenly seemed really obvious what was needed. Things were just happening, one after the other. It didn’t have a sense of urgency, of progression. For the new edit, my focus has been pace and plot, and little else, aside from adding in new scenes which were needed to facilitate this new focus. Drawing the reader forwards, sending them off in one direction before sneaking a surprise on them. It completely re-framed my understanding of what I’d written.

So, I thought. Fantastic! For this next writing project, I’ll start with that stuff first. That way, I won’t have to spend all this time shifting stuff about and re-editing it in order to get a decent draft.

Oh, the folly.

What I forgot, of course, is that the reason I could play around with my characters and my story was because I knew them intimately. Having written and re-written and moved scenes, I knew where they were, what happened in them, why, all of the knowledge necessary to creating a pacy edit.

Also, the writing that creates a place for the readers to discover and the writing that creates a tightly-honed story are two very different things.

What I ended up with, when I tried the ‘plot as starting point’ method, was 20,000 words of dullness. Sure, stuff was happening, but there was no connection to the people, the places. Probably because I needed to discover it first.

I also recently read an article which included this thought:

“Plot takes the backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens. And how it happens occurs in the way language captures it and the way our imaginations transfer that language into action.”

I’d spent so long worrying about how to tie events together, I’d forgotten that I should be starting elsewhere.

I’m not advocating a completely ‘free’ approach to writing. There’s always a scribble, a plan, some A3 sheets covered in scrawl, before I start laying things out on sentences. I also know that there are writers who, in the plotter v panster debate, fall on either side.

Personally, it seems I’m focusing far too much on the framework, worrying about where things go, and it’s getting me nowhere. So I’m scrapping what I’ve done so far, and remembering that the words used to create a world are what make it come alive, not the events that happen in it.

How about you? Do you find focusing on structure squashes your creativity? Do let me know in the comments.

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

One thought on “The Dangers of Over-Plotting

  1. This is mostly unrelated, but when I was in school our standardized testing eventually took up more of the day than actual classes. They were awful. I’ve never hated writing, blogging being a case in point, and my bleeding thesis another, but those tests nearly wrung it out of me.

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