by Charlie Cottrell
Let me tell you a story. My wife and I eloped several years back. We found a nice little bed and breakfast in the Washington Post, went out to take a look at the place,then went out there to get married. Now, this was back in the days just before the arrival of smartphones; I thought it was pretty great that my flip phone could download Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl" as a ringtone the damn thing sure didn't have gps.
The day of our wedding arrived. We headed off down the road, anticipation and excitement loading our stomachs with butterflies. After half an hour on the road, the soon-to-be wife (ho is very much a planner) asks me when we make our turn off the interstate. I replied that I did not know, but I was pretty sure I'd recognize the area when I saw it.
I'm just as surprised as you are that she still went through with marrying me.
So, no, I'm not a planner. I don't think ahead much. Live in the moment, I'd say, if I bothered to plan what I was going to say ahead of time. Which I probably wouldn't.
This isn't to say I do no planning. I do a bit. When I'm writing, I know where a story is going. Usually. I keep a list of the big things that have to happen in the story I'm working on. But it's vague, purposely ill-defined, and subject to rearrangement or even abandonment if I feel the whim.
I know a few other writers who fly by the cloth covering their butts, and I think I can speak for all of them when I say that we like to keep things loose and flexible. Sure, you always know exactly what you're supposed to write about when you plan and plot meticulously, but who wants to know exactly what route you're taking? Isn't half the fun of writing discovering the weird detours, the strange side roads and unexpected turns you wouldn't have taken if you drove exactly where the map or the gps told you to go? I love seeing how my characters get out of horrible situations. That's the whole reason I put them in those situations to begin with!
Sure, there are risks with such plotting. I've lost my share of plot points and clever exchanges because I didn't have them written down or planned out. But there's a loose, organic, almost natural feel to things when you don't plan everything out completely. Our characters aren't supposed to be us. We want each one to have her or his own voice, motivations, behaviors, and character flaws. Plots can and will take care of themselves, I've found. I know where I'm going; if I take a circuitous route to get there, have I really lost anything? The number of times I've come up with a better story or a better plot because I let it evolve and grow as I went along...well, it's happened virtually every time I've written anything. Yeah, I sometimes get stuck or lost, and sometimes a story stalls out, but I get where I'm going eventually. And I always have an interesting tale to tell of the back roads and twisty lanes I traveled to get there. My characters get to feel ore real, more alive to me because of it. And frankly, there's plenty of fabric in the seat of my pants for me to keep plotting this way.
To you conscientious plotters, you outliners and organizers: let things be fluid, let there be a bit of looseness to your plans. It can feel scary to let go of that control, I'm sure, but it can be thrilling to see what sort of unexpected directions your story can go because of it. And to you seat-of-the-pantsers: maybe trying outlining things occasionally. Have some sort of plan, even if it's as vague as "drive until you see something that looks right, then turn." Take a map, even if you don't intend to look it. Even if you take a weird detour. Take it, just in case.
About Chuck Cottrell
He also finds writing in the third person rather off-putting, but this is how things are done.
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