Plot as Road Trip

I did absolutely no plotting for the first manuscript I wrote. None. I just showed up at the laptop every day and started typing.

I love writing that way. Every day is a surprise. I didn't see the problem with that approach until I'd typed "The End."

That story had no real structure. No sense of rising stakes. Also, because I wrote this way, I didn’t give enough thought to my character’s goals, or their emotional arcs.

I wish I could tell you that--three manuscripts later--I’ve perfected plotting. That I have a fool-proof formula. I don't, though I have learned quite a bit.

In my files I have notes on three act structure. I have diagrams and graphs. I've taken classes and read books on the subject. And I've learned tricks from my fellow Muses.

Sometimes one approach speaks to me. (Outline the whole thing, start to finish.) Other times, it's something else. (Work from a one page synopsis.) What I’m here to say is that it is okay to not have it figured out right away. It's all right to change your approach with each novel, or even within a novel. The important thing with plotting is to find a balance between planning and creativity. Over plan and you lose the thrill of discovery. Under plan and you run the risk of the story unraveling in your hands.

It’s also okay to deviate from the conventions. Some stories—some of the best stories—do. But you need to know the rules to be able to break them to your best advantage.

For my current work in progress, I'm using what I call the Road Trip approach to plotting. I opened a document and put headers Act One, Act Two, Act Three. Then I added a few ideas for each section of the story. Emotional beats, or plot twists. Whatever I knew at the time. These were the stopping points on the road trip of the story. Places I really wanted to get to. But the best road trips are the ones that take unexpected detours.

I've gone right to a few of these planned points as I write the first draft, but I'm ok if the story or the characters steer me elsewhere. Then it's just a matter of following the fun but making sure I don't go too far off my course. If that's where I'm headed, then it's time to rethink the overall journey. Detours are good, but you don't want to end up in Miami if your end goal was to see New York.


This is great. I always feel like I should have a strict outline but I've never been able to visualize a whole story start to finish. Having the three separate acts with beats to hit along the way sounds like it'd make my life a whole lot easier.

Thanks for sharing!

So, I'm convinced we're mostly the same person. This is my writing life. Three YA manuscripts later, I've got a better hang of plotting, but no such things as perfection. The three act structure, though, has helped me significantly. Love the analogy of a road trip--suits me perfectly. Start it with a road map, but take unexpected detours when it makes sense. So well said!

J - Totally agree. For ideas on beats within the 3 acts, check out the post for Follow Friday. Great website for that! C - We are so alike that I feel like I'm talking to myself right now...

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