That Thing Called Plot

Several years ago, I was on a panel of writers that included P. T. Deutermann, author of military thrillers and other equally well-received novels. Deutermann told the audience that he begins a novel on one computer file, but when he gets stuck, he starts a second file. Before he’s finished he may be shifting back and forth between several files. He never knows, he said, just how a story will end, adding that if he decided that beforehand, he’d find the ending stale or contrived. “I’m like the reader,” he said. “I want to be surprised.”


Every novelist has a unique way of coming at a story. Some outline completely; others don’t. Some may work from a storyboard or 3 x 5 cards arranged and rearranged on a flat surface. I heard Ian McEwan say in an interview that he began Atonement with an image of a girl looking out the window and witnessing a scene she didn’t understand. Of course, McEwan may have had more in mind than that. Most of us do. But as one who doesn’t outline or pin cards on a board, I find that a story, once I get it going, has a way of unpredictably unfolding. And there’s an excitement to that, one scene leading to the next. Throw in an incidental character, like your protagonist’s next-door neighbor, for instance, and if she’s a veterinarian, fifty or a hundred pages on you may find you have a character with a sick cat.


Of course, when I don’t know where a story is headed, I may have to do more extensive rewriting later. But for me, working over a piece is what I most enjoy, when I feel the story gains texture and depth.


I like to think this method of writing a first draft mimics the actual lives we lead when we never know how today will affect tomorrow. In this way, writing long fiction becomes an adventure, an exploration, a discovery, a revelation, or all of these things, in which we writers are not just creators but participants.


Here’s a quote I like from Michel Foucault:


“The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think that you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don’t know what will be the end.”


[Note: If you like excellent suspense novels with military themes, check out P.T. Deutermann’s website and latest novel:]