Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Should an SOP writer worry about plotting?

No. But he should worry about telling a great story. 

Authors have different approaches to shaping their stories. Some people, often referred to as “seat-of-the-pants” or “SOP” writers (a term that, to put it mildly, I am not a fan of), don’t outline or try to plot out the book beforehand. Other authors meticulously outline each scene and then, in a certain sense, fill-in-the blanks as they flesh out their outline and form it into a story.

I do not outline my stories. I do not “plot them out.” My stories are so complex that even now, after they are written, I can’t imagine trying to outline them.

But neither do I write by the “seat of my pants.” (I find this phrase derogatory. If the writing community is going to refer to those who write their stories organically as “seat-of-the-pants” writers, I think they should refer to outliners as “plot-handcuffed” writers.)

The ingredients of a story shape the direction of the narrative. For example, every story worth telling is about a character, whom readers empathize with or want to succeed, who faces a struggle and either overcomes it or is overcome by it. As an organic writer, I’m constantly asking myself what should naturally happen next and how can I escalate the tension and then resolve it in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable, and satisfies the reader.

Additionally, genre constraints help define the direction of a story. In crime dramas, I know that I will need a villain that is bigger-than-life, the case must become personal to the detective, there will be a final confrontation between good and evil, and so on. As I write I remind myself of these and let them keep my writing on track.

Over the years I’ve noticed that those who write organically often have stories that are strongest in believability, since these writers (myself included) are constantly asking, “What would naturally come next?” However, sometimes they write themselves into a corner and the climaxes sometimes aren’t as satisfying.

Outliners often have great climaxes, but characters will act in inexplicable ways on their journey toward the climax. You’ll find gaps in logic, people will do things that don’t really make sense, but are necessary to reach that climax that the writer has decided to build toward.

In my view, outliners need to listen to the story more and be more willing to discard their outlines; organic writers need to remain focused on escalating their story to reach that unforgettable, exciting, satisfying climax.

I believe that outlining a story is one of the biggest mistakes aspiring writers make, but writing by the “seat-of-your-pants” comes in a close second. Write organically instead. Pay attention to the story, meet genre conventions, ask the questions I mentioned above as you work on your novel, and then exceed reader expectations by going the extra mile and giving them an ending they could never guess, but ends up being the inevitable and most believable ending of all.


  1. I love this post.

    I am an organic writer. My first two novels came at me a hundred miles an hour, and it was all I could do to keep up with the characters.

    Then I found out there was such a thing as outlining, a three-act structure, this formula and that formula...

    Before I knew it I learned so much I found myself paralyzed, unable to write without fear of ruining my story, and worse, not writing at all.

    Writing organically works for me, and that's what I'm going back to.


  2. Thank you for this article. I'm half way through my first novel. I am naturally an organic writer, but I've been second guessing myself -concerned that I should have a structured outline. Thank you for setting my mind at ease.

  3. The description of organic and outlining writers was very helpful to me as I try to figure out what kind of writer I am. And I thin it's more of a spectrum than two sides of a coin. I fall in between. I do research on the place and people, get my ideas together, and then lay down a very rough outline first. Then as I write, I only use the outline to stay on track and know where I am in the story, just a guideline.

    Your thoughts will help me to use both of those things (organic writing and outlining) to my advantage in the future, making sure I leverage both for the good of the story in my own way. Thanks!

  4. Great opening post.

    I think both types of writers can tell a story well, and both can butcher things.

    I think SOP is an accurate description of people who don't outline but also don't consider the genre conventions or the big picture of the story they are creating. They have their head down on the page in front of them and plow ahead.

    Likewise, outliners can construct their plot with little thought of what the characters would naturally do, and they end up with a compelling plot at odds with the characters who are supposed to carry it out. They do, as you say, handcuff themselves.

    I think organic writers can come from either end of the spectrum. I try to create the story organically, frequently checking plot developments against character and (as much as Patrick would disapprove) motivation--but I do so from a bird's-eye view. Instead of writing each scene out in prose, I think through it, summarizing what happens, how characters respond, etc., and then move to the next scene.

    Would you consider that "organic"?

  5. Wow. This really helps me a ton! Thank you so much! I will attempt this next time!

  6. Thank you! I love that catagory and will freely claim it!

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