Storytelling versus plotting


Reading a very good book called ‘Lines - A brief History’ by Tim Ingold which is about the anthropology of lines, threads and traces and covers some very interesting ground about such diverse things as weaving, seafaring, writing, drawing, threads and writing.

One of the riffs in the book is about the difference between wayfaring and travelling and it’s logical double storytelling and plotting.

Wayfaring is being in travel, the walking of a route for the routes sake, or for the joy of the route, the experienced gained and territory surveyed. Transport is the act of getting from a to b, the act of going across space, that is the joining of two points in the fastest possible time.

The difference is clear; in transport we try to blank out the environment and the experience, all we want is to get there - ‘there’ being the destination, the point of interest. We sit on The Tube, our heads in a book or a private reverie, working hard to not inhabit the here and now. But when we get to our point of interest we open out our focus and look around - when we reach ‘the end’ we are starting. In wayfaring we might ride our bikes in London with no particular plan or destination, purely for the experience and joy of riding in London. When we reach the end we rest.

The old argument about whether or how much plotting to do before you write I started to think about this relationship between in and across in relation to writing, and particularly the common discussion about how much (if any) plotting you should do before you start writing.

The short answer is “as much as you need to”. But the distinctions above help us unravel some of the anxieties writers have about this vexed question…

Storytelling vs Plotting

We think we know what a storyteller is - it’s simply someone who tells a story isn’t it? Ingold describes the storyteller as someone who gesturally inscribes their journey as they make it, a ‘trace maker’, a tracer of narrative where the narrative is a record of the experience of the terrain that the writer has explored.

Plotting on the other hand is quite different: It’s working in advance by placing two or more points down (a departure, a destination) and then making a direct line between those two points. The comparison with writing is quite clear - we say we are plotting when we ‘objectively’ map out the territory of the narrative and place markers (turning points) which we then have to ‘hit’ when we write.

No wonder some people have a strong preference either way - storytelling is a kind of doodling in experience, a thing in itself, an exploration of subjectivity where plotting is a conquering, a laying down of intention, a bordering of territory. One opens out, the other closes down.

So are they mutually exclusive?

Generally speaking I would say that writers would tend to prefer one activity over the other and will develop a practice that favours one or the other. But, in a effort to break a routine or get some new insights into your work, working in another mode might really help you out. So if you are rampant doodler taking the time to do a little objective mapping might help with narrative drive where as if you more like me - a ‘point to point’ writer - taking time to just doodle is hugely beneficial and can help you engage with the thematic and emotional elements of what you are writing (and indeed, why you are writing it!)

Ingold describes the practice of hunting in a Inuit tribe. First they ride out on reindeer and kind of perambulate on their territory, following traces of animals, suggestions of routes, learning about their surroundings through circuitous experience. And when they find animals to shoot (or bow and arrow) they leave them on the spot.

Later on they hitch up the sledges and travel back to their kill in straight lines, taking the most efficient way.

Perhaps that is what we should be aiming for - a kind of fluency of approach where we can see the point of both wayfaring and transporting, storytelling and plotting.