Monday, February 13, 2012

Where Did My Plot Go?

I’ve never been a plotter in my writing. Working out long and detailed story plans, working out character motivation and building my world has never really enthralled me. I prefer to work spontaneously, writing whatever comes into my head and letting the story wander at will.

The only problem is, my stories have no plot, no meaning. Why would the characters do these things? I would never run off into danger unless I had to. They had no reason to. They had no reason to do anything. No, these stories had no plot. And that makes for a real problem with revising. How can you fix a story with no plot?

Obviously you can’t really, not without rewriting every single word of the story to make it into a plot. So, project after project ended up abandoned for lack of that all important thing: Plot.

There are two different camps in writing: those who use outlines, and those who don’t. Obviously I was one of those who didn’t. But that didn’t work for me. Time to try plan B: outlining.

Outlines scare me. How can you write down what’s going to happen in the story when you don’t know what the story is yet? When you haven’t met the characters? When you’ve only got a vague idea of where you want it to go?

So I skirted the outline, writing character profiles for my characters, working out their hopes, dreams, fears, backstory. And ideas started to flow. What if this person had done that? What if this event happened? What would cause someone to do this?

Hey, maybe I could write this outline after all. I typed the last word on my last character profile and opened a new document. Outline, I was going to beat you.

Ten minutes later, outline had won. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t decide what happened in the middle. I never knew what was going to happen until I wrote it.

Another new document, and I was thrashing my problem out on screen, writing my thoughts down as I when. What would this person do? What if this happened? Why would it happen?

Slowly but surely, a story-plan appeared on screen, mixed up in aimless ramblings. This could actually work. I returned to my outline and wrote in what I had worked out. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start.

I’m full of hope for this story. My plan tells me main points, places I need to get to in the story, reasons for people to do things, but it doesn’t tell me everything. I have room to be creative, to let the story flow.

Maybe outlines are useful. I’ll love them forever if they stop my plot from disappearing.

Do you have a problem with story plots? Do you outline? Or write by feel? How much planning do you do?


  1. Hi Imogen,
    I find that I have much the same problem.. my stories (that are longer than 500 or 1000 words) usually fall to pieces cause I don't make an outline. (I write outlines for essays just not actual stories)
    I have this very vague image in my head about how I want the story to begin and end, but the middle is the trickiest bit! So that's basically what happens, I write the first few chapters and then stop.
    And even with my short stories I am still a 'write-by-feel' sorta person. It's just easier with stories to do that instead of writing out an outline (for me anyway).


  2. I do not outline. And I am happy to display the result of that online! Weired, isn't it? My story started with a map, which must be why it's full of huge against-the-odds battles in imitation of LOTR. Beyond that, I started with a prince named Valun. Eventually, he needed to prove himself. It went on spordically from there. It helps to write down every random line of dialogue or description that you notice floating in your head, so if you can't write outlines, carry a notebook. And be ready to pull it out anywhere. A question and answer can morph into a chapter, (insert cliche here ;D)

  3. I used to write full on outlines, but now I just keep a vague sort of outline in a notebook :)
    Whenever I have a plot problem now I usually just write it down as a question (but it has to be a question you can't answer yes or no to) like, why does so and so do this? what if this happened instead? - that sort of thing :)

  4. I plot some things, pants others. My main points I plot, but HOW they get there? I don't know until I write it! I always thought I was a straight plotter-- and a big part of me still wants to be-- but I realized that I do a fair amount of pantsing everything I do. :)

    I love that you found that outlines can really work!

  5. Helena, it's so hard knowing what comes in the middle. I never really know what's going to happen until I write it. The most I'm hoping for from this outline is that it'll give me some major points to work towards and I can make the rest up as I go.

    I can't write short stories for anything! They always get too long and complex. I've always admired people who can write them though.

  6. JT, for one of my other novels I had a notebook, and I used to write down every thought I had about the novel in there. I'd write down questions I had about the story, ideas that just came to me, information about the plot and characters and anything else, relevant or not. It was the best thing I ever did for that novel. I really loved keeping that notebook. Hopefully I'll do the same for this novel. Only I have to find a notebook first.

  7. Carrie, I did that for Indigo's story. There were so many questions it was almost not funny. I'm asking lots of questions about this plot right from the very start. I suppose these means I'll have more questions than ever now.

    I really need to get a notebook now.

  8. Peggy Eddleman, I always thought I was a straight pantser. I hated plotting and was resolved never to do it. I have to eat my words now. It's proving to be a big help.

    Like you, I'm not trying to plot everything, just the main points. The little points are just too hard to think about straight up without having written a word of the story proper.