Stav Sherez – To Plot or Not to Plot?
It’s one of those perennial questions students of creative writing always ask – should I plot out the novel beforehand or just go where it takes me? And all the writers I know are split between those who map out flowcharts and utilise Scrivener and other programs and those, like me, who just hope it will all make sense in the end.
Of course, there is no right answer. Every writer takes a very different journey into the heart of their novels but we all arrive at the same place – a finished book with a coherent plot.
It’s strange, because in every other part of my life I’m a planner. If I’m going on holiday, I’ll make notes of all the places I want to visit, work out the best itinerary – I make lists of books to read, people to call, CDs to listen to.
But not with fiction. I’ve tried. God knows I’ve tried. But after a few weeks of trying to hammer out a plot I always give up in frustration. It used to really bother me. It doesn’t any more. I’ve come to terms with the fact that this is how my brain works and for all its disadvantages, this is the only way I know to write books.
But what does it mean not to plot?
I always start a novel knowing only the opening scene. With The Intrusions, all I knew before I started writing was that it would be primarily set in a backpacker’s hostel in Bayswater and that residents would go missing. That was all. I normally have a location in mind and the inciting incident that sets the plot rolling but I have no idea where the plot is going or who the killer is. It normally takes me about a year and a half of working on the book before I know who did it. Personally, I think (and, obviously, I’m biased) that this is an advantage – that if I don’t know who the killer is, it’s far less likely that I’ll inadvertently telegraph it to the readers. That’s one of the advantages of not plotting – the flexibility to twist and turn with the rhythm of the story rather than sticking to the marked path.
Writing, for me, is a way to work out what I think about a given subject. I often don’t really know what I think about anything until I begin to write about it. With The Intrusions, I wanted to write a classic serial killer thriller. So I began with the hostel and the disappearance of one of its residents. But as I kept writing, and then drafting and redrafting, I realised that the serial killer aspect was the part I was least interested in – after all, it’s been done so many times before by better writers than me. But something was happening within the draft – technology and all its ramifications was creeping deeper into each chapter. About a year into the book I realised that what interested me most was technology and how criminals use it as well as how policing has adapted to this new investigative tool. Themes of the intrusiveness of modern wired life kept creeping in too. If I had plotted the novel out beforehand, I would never have found this different tributary and, I believe, the book would have been much weaker for it.
But of course, there are disadvantages to this approach. The most important is that it takes me much longer to write a book this way. I have to go past many dead ends before I find the right path. There’s also the fear that the book will collapse. Every book I’ve written, there’s been a stage where I was convinced the book wasn’t working, would never work, and that I should ditch it and begin something new. A year into The Intrusions I very nearly chucked it. There were so many clichés, so little surprise; I was embarrassed by how bad it was. But I’m quite stubborn about stuff like this and didn’t want that year to have gone to waste so I kept at it, through another six drafts or so, and slowly, draft by draft, I could feel the plot beginning to interlock. There’s nothing better than that feeling when all the disparate ends suddenly click and you realise your unconscious has been guiding you all along and everything that didn’t make sense is now crystal clear.
THE INTRUSIONS by Stav Sherez is published on 2nd February