Story-a-Week #11: An Attempt at Plotting in Advance

If you’re a writer you’ll be familiar with the question, ‘are you a plotter or a pantser?’ A pantser being someone who writes before looking at such structural things as pace, arc, motifs, etc. A plotter being someone who creates a structure then writes a story/novel/whatever to fit. I’m a pantser, I create a nominal structure after the first draft, to suit the story, rather than the other way round. When I begin to write a story I never know how it’s going to end, it’s almost as if the story tells itself to me, and I try and get it down as best I can. This does mean a great deal of redrafting as I work out the details, which can be a bit of a pain, and I admire writers who have everything worked out from the start, and don’t have to redraft at all. Zadie Smith is one such writer, apparently, which has made me rethink. I’ve always thought plotting in advance was a bit odd, something for writers of genre fiction only, but Smith is a writer of literary fiction, which is what I aspire to. I began to wonder if building the cathedral before installing the vicar and instructing the choir might be worth a try. So I decided to give it a go with this week’s story.

Having let things slip while teaching Café Stories, I wanted to return to Ray Bradbury’s formula for the story-a-week challenge:

Monday: decide on a subject, and write an outline.

Tuesday: write the opening scene.

Wednesday: write the second scene, up to and including the climax.

Thursday: write last scene: resolution.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday: edit.

Monday: publish.

I decided to do an outline, on Monday, using a narrative arc diagram (I love messing about with diagrams), so once I’d decided on a subject – an anniversary lunch – I opened Scapple, and made this:

On Tuesday I wrote a rough draft. Which means I kind of failed at the second hurdle, I was meant to write only the opening scene. But, as you’ll see, this story starts in the middle of the action, any exposition is woven into that, so the opening scene is the main scene: the action is already rising. I could have stopped at the climax, but as only a couple of lines follow it it seemed mad to do that. Anyway, here it is:

He slams his menu shut, ‘I’ll have the soup; fishcakes to follow’. Shit, I haven’t even looked past the salads. I’m not hungry enough for three courses, he won’t want pudding, but it’s my favourite part. I could have a starter and a pudding…

‘Waiter!’ he waives his right arm in the direction of the bar, ‘come on Pru, I’m starving.’

I’m not even quite sure why we’re here, it’s our fifteenth wedding anniversary, but he went to work as usual this morning. We tend to do this sort of thing at the weekend, when we do it at all, so I wasn’t prepared for him to walk back in at midday to tell me he’d booked a table for lunch, and here of all places. I had to throw myself in the shower, and blast my hair dry while looking for a not too crumpled shirt, as he wandered about downstairs. Who gives someone half an hour’s notice to get ready for a lunch date? I know, most people would have been showered by noon, but there have to be some advantages to not having my own studio, and working in a shed at the bottom of the garden. The waiter!

‘Cock-a-leekie and fishcakes, no chips, just a salad. And we’ll have a bottle of Pouilly Fuisse.’ He looks at me, ‘Pru?’

‘Um…’ Did I see… no. ‘Could I just have…’

‘Why don’t you have the Bruschetta, and then sea bass?’

Because I don’t want that much, I don’t say. I notice the drizzle we left outside has been usurped by rain of the flashing-blade kind, someone turns the lights up a notch, I wish the radiator beside me was on.

‘I’ll have the, ah…’ I look at the waiter, Stuart sighs and starts playing with the cutlery. Thunder claps outside like a displeased god.

‘I can recommend the new chef’s Caesar salad,’ the boy says, he is a boy, not much older than Katie, ‘that will leave plenty of room for the pear and chocolate torte, which you really can’t deny yourself.’

Pear and chocolate torte?

‘Thank you,’ I say, ‘how can I resist.’

He takes the menus and the big, red-wine glasses, ‘I’ll get your wine.’

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday ended up being taken up by other things. To an extent I allowed myself to be distracted, I reckon, because I felt a bit stifled by the outline. Knowing what happens in a story before I write it is going to take a bit of getting used to. At the moment if feels like it spoils the fun. However, I forced myself to get back to it on Sunday when I realised it didn’t work, and decided to examine the pacing, with another diagram:

This looks almost inconsequentially simple, but the mere act of making it has helped enormously. Firstly it shows me I need to expand, and build much more tension in, the exchange between the couple regarding his wanting her to hurry up and choose, and her wanting to be able to take her time. It shows me, too, I need to weave the backstory in here with a lighter touch, at the moment it’s a bit of an information dump which holds the action up. Looking at the pacing in this defined way also gave me the title, and a new ending. It is fascinating how looking through a new lens can reveal things with such ease. I probably would have come to all these conclusions anyway, but more slowly.

What know now is that the whole thing needs to be rewritten. Possibly as a play rather than a short story, which could mean I never look at it again. Though it may mean it will sit on the back burner for years, and one day I’ll stumble on it and know what to do. Meanwhile, it’s Monday again and I have to think of a new subject, and write an outline for that. Crikey!

Header image (of my worst restaurant nightmare): Coco Kelley

2 thoughts on “Story-a-Week #11: An Attempt at Plotting in Advance

  1. Is there a technical term for anybody who writes lots of notes but promptly ignores them once they start writing because spur of the moment stuff seems far more exciting?

    Asking for a friend.



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