A plot plan is one way to write a novel. It’s not the “plot plan” that architects write to show buildings, utility runs, and equipment layout. It’s a plan many writers use to prevent major plot and character mishaps. Some of us just wing it. We like rewrites. A common plot plan will define the storyline, characters, goals, motivation, conflicts and an epiphany. An epiphany comes at the end of the novel hoping the readers change their bad habits and buy another book. But none of that goes to the ethics of writing.

Novels are fictional. So truth, one of the old standbys in ethical norms doesn’t count in your plot plan. Transparence, a norm for nonfiction is also unimportant in novel plots. Completeness is an ethical standby for nonfiction but never remotely considered in plotting novels. If your story is truly complete, how do you write a sequel?

Not to worry—there are a few ethical imperatives for novel plotters. Pay attention not only to the particulars of the text, but also to how the book will read when finished. Is the novel worthy of ethical investigation? Does it inspire ethical mores? Narrative ethics often suggests an examination of the intersections between storytelling and moral values. They pose questions, embedded in the narrative about how the characters think, judge, and act. Are they mendacious to the bone or are they acting for the greater good?

Literary ethics is broadly concerned with the relation between literature and moral values. Narrative ethics is specifically concerned with narrative and moral values. Some of us shun plot plans because Steven King tells us not to plan—just write. His book “On Writing” begins with two epigrams, which serve nicely as bookends for novel writing: “Honesty’s The Best Policy” by Miguel de Cervantes, and “Liars Prosper” by Anonymous. Mr. Anonymous seems to show up a lot when writers are fudging. Mr. King says when you’re writing a story you’re telling yourself that story. And he says good writing comes spontaneously, in an uprush of feeling it has to be caught at once. Most important, he says when that day comes; the one where you will write, here comes the BIG QUESTION. What are you going to write about, he asks. His answer is—anything you damn well want, anything at all, as long as you tell the truth.[1]

Now you have the ethical norm to beat all ethical norms. Don’t plot or plan—Just write—Tell the Truth.

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

If you have an important story you want told, you can commission me to write it for you. Learn how.

[1] Stephen King, “On Writing.” Scribner, New York, NY 2000, pps 56, 62, 158.