On non-existent plots and an ill-fated writing goal

Day 8 of National Young Writers’ Month and I thought one week in is as good as any for an update.  My 3 goals, as detailed in my earlier post, Go Go Gadget, Write!, were to: Blog every day, join a writers’ group and outline the plot for my novel in preparation for this year’s NaNoWriMo.  Blogging every day: Check.  Join a writers’ group: First meeting tonight – Check.  Outline plot: Big fat FAIL.  I’m struggling something chronic with this goal, and although I’ve made ‘progress’, in a sense, it’s just not turning out how I’d like, which is ultimately discouraging and therefore counter-productive.

My problem is this.  I have an idea.  I think it’s a pretty good idea. I have my character, a special ‘ability’ and a world to create around her.  But I have no plot.  No rising action.  No climax.  No falling action.  No conflict.  I can see my character in this world and the things around her, I know she’s special, but I don’t know what she’s fighting for.  Is this a sign I should give up now? Let it go? Start afresh with something new?

I understand the conventions of a good fantasy – characters going from ordinary to extraordinary, good vs evil, the anti hero, destinies, prophecies, isolation.  And the fantasies I love most are the ones with multi layered plots, a universal theme, an underlying task to achieve as well as smaller tasks to carry the protagonist through, individual character agendas, secrets and surprises.  I love endings, god how I love good endings.  So, naturally, this is what I want my book to read like too.   Did J.K. Rowling, she who ties everything together superbly over a massive seven books, did she work out these things before she began writing or just start with a boy finding out he’s a wizard, and work out the rest as she went?

Perhaps I could just start by writing my character in a scene and see where she takes me.  Or do I need to have some resemblance of the nitty gritty figured out before I dive in?  Do I need to know the evil, need to know my Voldemort before I can start writing?  I’ve read that people will often scrap a large majority of their drafts before they get to the final masterpiece.  Is this the reason why? Because they are fleshing out the story as they go and don’t really know where it will end up when they begin?

These are the questions I ask myself today.  Perhaps they are also questions that I will ask at the writers’ group tonight.  In the meantime, I’m going to sit here and panic, possibly bang my head against the wall a few times, and hope that my good idea will not be stuck inside my head forever without the plot to let it shine.

~storytelling nomad~

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24 comments on “On non-existent plots and an ill-fated writing goal

  1. Hm, I wish I had some advice I could say worked for me. Asking your writing group about it could help. If I’m stuck on something, I usually call up a writer buddy and have a brainstorming session. Lots of “what ifs” are better than none. Maybe you could put your character in a situation you think she’d be suited for, or some conflict/battle where she would shine?

    I don’t think you have to have a plot outlined before you start writing. Just call them character profiles and back story. :-)

    • Character profiles and back story sound like a good place to start actually. I guess if I just write down the things that I do know, the characters and such, things might reveal themselves that way.
      Brainstorming also a good suggestion…I must run it by my brother, he’s usually pretty good at that. Thanks Angela! I was getting a bit swamped in the panic for a moment there! :)

  2. Fully pre-plotting your book is overrated. In fact, it might be time consuming to the point of being useless. If you have a strong character voice already lodged in your head, then I would definitely plop her in a scene, see how she interacts with other characters, responds to a minor problem, and just let her dictate the story.

    • Thanks Hannah. I think I’ll give that a go, it seems to be the general consensus to get it going. I really appreciate your help, thank you!

  3. I can’t plot before I write. When I do that, I lose the energy I had for the story. Perhaps your lack of plot–before you even start writing–is just your brain’s resistance. It is hard to write a novel after all. Daunting. People fail at it all the time. Yes, plotting as I go means I have more rewrites to do, but at least I’ve written something. I start with a scene, and I ask why is she here? Keep asking, “Why?” There is usually a story in the answer.

    Good luck!

    • Yes, losing energy, that’s what it feels like. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t know the ins and outs before I start writing! Great suggestions, thank you so much for your comments.

  4. Personally I fail pretty epically at trying to pre-plot a story. I can’t seem to sit and cold-bloodedly work a story through from start to finish; my creative brain won’t do it. I need to be immersed in the story, actually writing and living in my characters’ heads before inspiration starts flowing. I ended up writing the whole of my recently drafted novel the unplanned way. It does mean I’ve had a lot of editing and rewriting to do on it, but I don’t really care because the story structure is finally there, and I love it. There’s so much in it – events, places, characters – that I’m pretty sure would never have occurred to me if I’d insisted on doing it the plot-by-numbers sort of way.

    Overall point being, not every writer gets on well with the plot approach. You don’t have to be that kind of writer if it doesn’t work for you. Some of us thrive on taking off the writing brakes and jumping right in. Maybe you’re one of those! Maybe give it a try.

    • That is so helpful Charlotte. People often talk about how they come up with their ideas and edit their work, even what order they write their chapters in, but rarely do I hear about how people actually begin, what they start with and how much they start with. I think you might be right – I think I might be a non-plotter! It’s a scary thought after being so used to writing short stories where there’s more of an opportunity to work out what will happen over a smaller amount of text. But with a novel, a trilogy even…how to work out each plot, each sub plot over hundreds of thousands of words that haven’t been written yet?! It’s fairly intimidating. But I am feeling much refreshed after everyone’s valuable comments. Just knowing that other people take this approach and succeed with it is helpful. I’m going to follow your suggestions and dive in! And I can do editing…heck I’m studying Book Editing and Proofreading so bring it on. Thanks again.

      • No problem! Actually ‘pantsters’ are quite common in the world of writers (hateful word but you’ll hear it bandied about a lot…). I have a tip, if you want to try this: open up a separate document and start keeping running notes. Some of the ideas you’ll come up with on the go will mean you’ve got to change things about your earlier text in order to make it work. This can start to feel like a royal mess after a while, but don’t panic! Just write it down in your notes doc. Everything you can think of that has to be altered. It helped me because as long as I had it written down, I could think ‘I can deal with that later’ and calm down. It also stops you from getting so tangled up in belated changes and edits that you can’t actually get to the end. By the time I was done I had a lot of editing notes ;) Now I’m going through them one by one and I feel like it’s coming together. It really does take more time in rewriting, but it can be really thrilling to work up a story when even you don’t know where you’ll end up.

        Just some thoughts! Good luck with it!

      • That sounds like a brilliant idea, thank you. All the best with your editing. It must be such a good feeling to get that first draft out of the way!

  5. Inertia is a powerful force, whether you are standing still, or moving! Your conundrum is not atypical, nor is it unlike the proverbial ‘hen’s teeth!” The culprit is inertia, not you or your story. You need some form of prompt (an intellectual push) to set you in motion; the characters will take it from there. Explore some aspect of your protagonist’s character. How or why do they do the things they do? Did this character ever feel incompetent? When? What were the circumstances? Was this person ever embarrassed? There are myriad questions about the character and their life you can explore and once you are in motion things will pop! But, I will grant you this caveat: plot and meaning are inseparable; it’s the old form follows function dictum. Without understanding of function form is at best a paint by number process. You are obviously resisting that impulse. Write around the character and about things that matter to you. When you find that impulse the tools of characterization, plot, setting, conflict, etc., begin to reveal themselves…

    • Ah yes, inertia! In my defence, I have been working on characters and seeing where they take me, BUT I have been holding back, reluctant to take a road that might not work out or hit a dead end. Dipping my toe in the water so to speak, without diving in. I genuinely wasn’t sure if I could make it work by just ‘winging it’ and so my heart wasn’t really in it because I kept thinking “this is pointless! I shouldn’t be bothering with this until I have the plot!”. Rather it seems that I won’t have my plot until I move forward confidently with the characters and the ideas that I already have. Your suggestions seem to reflect what others have been proposing, and so I’m feeling much more confident now to stop resisting this preconceived idea that I need to follow a set of unidentified rules in order to write the damn thing. You’re absolutely right, I just need to start with a prompt and write. Thanks so much for your input, I very much appreciate it!

  6. I’m reading Robert McKee’s Story right now, and the best advice he gives on the plot and climax is to give your protagonist nothing but HELL throughout the novel. Take your character and ask yourself, “What’s the worst possible scenario that she could go through?” And then write it out. Sometimes an idea works mentally, but falls apart on paper. Good luck with this process – I’m currently going through the same thing. I have a protagonist, an awesome idea, and an ending, but it’s killing me to plan the middle part, the climax.

    • Thanks for your suggestion Lizzie. That does sound like a pretty good way to get a ‘conflict’ in the story! Ha! After reading everyone’s comments I feel better about just going for it and seeing where my characters take me for the time being. Good luck to you also…I’m jealous that you have an ending though. I haven’t even got that much! ;)

  7. I simply know my characters well enough to know where the story begins and where it will end. As I write both it leaves so much room in the middle to torture and antagonize them. I am at my best when I am creating/writing the middle bits. I think it is a mistake to focus only on the ending because it is in the middle that we, as the reader, are invested in the charaters. If the ending changes after that then it changes, not a big deal. Plotting is necessary in order to have direction and to tie up the loose ends just like good ole Rowling. Plotting and freestyle creation are not mutually exclusive.

    Have fun developing your style and keep in mind that you have four months until NaNo. Prepare as much as you can and in the end if you end up throwing it all into the rubbish bin, so be it. All you’ll end up doing is figuring out how you like to write and how you don’t. At the end of all of this you’ll be a better writer, so don’t fret too much. Keep with it and remember if you’re not having fun writing it then your readers will not have fun reading.

  8. OFten times my stories start off with nothing but a character, or maybe a single scene. The novel I’m currently developing started off with nothing more than this: the silhouette of a girl sitting my a lake at sunrise muching on her breakfast. I had no idea how she got there or what part of the book this scene would be found in. So, I started thinking backwards trying to figure out what could have led her to here. And that’s how I got the story.

    I’ve heard that it’s best to know you’re ending before you begin writing, simply because your character then has something to work towards. And I do believe this. Perhaps try getting to know your character a little bit better. See what thoughts are bumbling around in her mind.

    Also, outlines are not imperative things. Rarely, if ever, do I work from an outline! My stories are almost always written off-the-cuff and totally guided by the characters~

    • Thanks for sharing Willow. It’s interesting to see how people expand a simple idea into a fully developed story. I’m sure I’ve been getting too bogged down in the logistics of it all, when really I should just be writing. Perhaps another form of the dreaded procrastination?! It’s nice to know other people don’t use outlines though…I think it’s an approach I might adopt. Thanks again :)

  9. First, thanks for “liking” my blog post. Second, and more importantly, I once interviewed a novelist who had just won an award for her first published novel. She told me that she had a whole plot mapped out and wrote an entire book before she realized that the real book started where the one she’d just written left off. She threw out the entire first draft and started over again at the end. I’m not a novelist (although I always wanted to be), but I tend to think writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, is kind of like life. There are things that you plan and do exactly as predicted, but most of it you kind of plan and dive into and end up going where it takes you. I’m 54 and could never have predicted where my life has taken me. Although I’ve never read an interview where JK Rowling answered this, my guess is that she waded into her characters and was eventually as surprised at the way the long involved story worked out as all her readers were — both the story on the page and the story that turned out to be her life! I’m sure your writers’ group will give you tons of better advice, but I say, just start. Be open to getting to know your characters as you go along, and to seeing where your book takes you. I’ll bet once you start writing that the wonderful heroine you’ve conjured will tell you what she’s going to do that will make her a heroine — and you’ll be as surprised by the ending as she will. In fact, I’ll wager that element of surprise will be what will make your story a gripping read, and your career as a writer a fulfilling success. :]

    • Not at all. I’ve been working on my twitter participation which has been severely lacking since I joined a few years ago, so I found your post really interesting!

      Thanks for your invaluable advice Lynne. That’s particularly interesting about the novelist you interviewed, it just goes to show there is no ‘recipe’ to writing. Of course everyone is different, but I’m definitely looking towards taking a more freestyle approach to starting this novel, and seeing where it will take me. It’s a bit scary feeling so unprepared and going in blind, but I think that’s just part and parcel of the writing journey. Thanks so much for stopping by :)

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