Plot luck

Alexis wrote on December 2nd, I love writing, but I usually just write with very little in mind, typing whatever comes to me and it ends up this elongated mess with no clear plot and I haven’t the slightest idea on how to do so without constantly worrying about it. When I deliberately set out to make a plot, I think of that chart I get in middle school, where I had to define the rising action and the climax and the falling action and so on. This just seems to take all the fun and creativity out of writing for me, but I know I just can’t write blindly. Can you please help me?

Not all stories have a crisis. Some books are a chronicle, held together by the charm of the characters or the fascination of the subject. Joan Abelove’s Go and Come Back is narrated by a girl in a Peruvian tribe that is visited by two American anthropologists. The story begins with the arrival of the anthropologists and ends a year later with their departure. Many things happen during their stay. One of the anthropologists gets very sick, for example, but her illness isn’t the story’s crisis, because there is no crisis, and yet the book is engaging and hard to put down. I recommend it highly, one of my favorites, and an example of how this kind of story can succeed. For middle school kids and older.

I think I’ve written before that a book or a story can be structured around an event, like summer camp or a wilderness adventure. In such a story, this happens, that happens; maybe there’s a crisis, maybe not. But there’s an accretion of experience. The main character comes away changed, and the reader is satisfied.

Some books are short stories strung together by common characters. Some of the stories may follow a rising-action-crisis-falling-action format and some may not. The reader gets attached to the characters and wants to see them in new situations, wants minor characters in one story to star in another. This works too.

My books are plot driven more than character driven, but that doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing. Sometimes I feel like I’m lost in a maze. A while back, in misguided desperation, I bought two books on plot, thinking I might discover a template that would guide me through all my stories. One of the books has this subtitle: “How to build short stories and novels that don’t sag, fizzle, or trail off in scraps of frustrated revision–and how to rescue stories that do.”


Nobody can instruct you so that you – or I – can’t fail. Nobody can do the work for you. I don’t remember this as a bad book. It just promised much too much. We all have to hack our own way through the thicket of plot. We learn by practice.

Now here’s a writing book I definitely do like: What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. I’m not sure about it for kids below high school age. Have a parent or a librarian advise you. What If? has a few chapters on plot and some interesting exercises.

One of its ideas is that plot arises out of character and situation. For example, in “The Little Engine That Could” the little engine faces a huge hill and a string of train cars that have to reach their destination. In the classic, the engine is plucky, determined, and all heart. But what if the engine’s favorite conductor just lost her job, and the engine is ticked off? Or what if it’s winter, and the engine is depressed due to Seasonal Affective Disorder? Where does the plot go? Can you get it back on track (pun intended)? Do you bring in other characters?

Even if you’re a rambling kind of writer, a bit of tension is necessary, whether or not your story comes to a crisis. Think about what interested you originally. What was the spark? Suppose you began with two friends going shopping together, and you wanted to show what they’re like by the way they shop, because you’ve observed yourself shopping and your friends and your family. Or suppose they’re just out for a walk… Or suppose they’re in a field, and they’re both bored. All they’re doing is watching grass grow.

You don’t have to make the earth crack open, revealing a golden stairway to the realm of a lost civilization, for your story to take off. You can put it in flight with the tiniest thing. You can just have one character ask the other, “What are you thinking?” and begin major conflict. After all, how many times have you had thoughts that you do not want to share?

If you feel your story degrading into mush, examine what you’ve got. This means going back into the narrative. Hunt for spots where you can make trouble. You don’t need a grand plan. Just look inside what you’ve written. Twist something small. Drop in a tiny new detail. Make a character angry or unhappy or lonely. Anger can work particularly well because it’s lively. Create a problem in which action is forced on one of your characters. Bring in a new character who will shake things up. You can write notes to explore the possibilities. If you get stuck, go back to your old story for more bits you can use.

Here are two prompts from this post:

Rewrite the story of “The Little Engine That Could.” Make it more complex by changing the engine’s character or its situation.

Have one character ask another about his or her thoughts. Create some kind of disaster – interpersonal or global or intergalactic – as a consequence.

Save what you write and have fun!

  1. Not all stories have a crisis. Some books are a chronicle, held together by the charm of the characters or the fascination of the subject.


    Most of my novels are hard to explain to others because when they ask all I can say is "They're about so-and-so and their life." They ask for the plot, and I tell them it's just about their life! I like those novels I write though – I can explore the different periods of someone's life, the challenges the character faces and the outcomes of decisions made. Sometimes I struggle with the fact that I don't have a "good" story because I don't have that rising action and climax, that big event that the story is building up to. But you're reassuring me that the stories I am writing are ok!

  2. i love all of your books, they amaze me.
    Here is a small beginning of my book, its not finished yet, but this is just a small clip:

    “Alicia…” She started hesitantly. “Don’t you feel really cold?” Alicia looked at Vanessa like she was crazy.

    “What do you mean cold? We are sitting in front of a fire and roasting marshmallows!” Alicia laughed, not completely grasping how serious Vanessa was.
    Then the fire blew out. It became pitch black and Vanessa couldn’t see. She didn’t want to seem scared of the dark, but she had to admit she really and truly was. She felt a cold, clammy hand wrap itself around her neck. The iron grip became tighter and tighter every time she tried to struggle out of it. A pair of cold lips lowered themselves to her left ear.
    “Hello Vanessa” A hoarse voice whispered. “I hope you enjoyed your smores. You will never eat them again”

  3. This reminds me of something I was told when I was researching how to write a query letter. 'Start with the character's goal'…

    I don't know very many stories where the character understands their goal to begin with. It's all very formulaic, and I wonder how useful all-encompassing guidance is.

  4. Really interesting and helpful! I agree that even the smallest things can be used as a crisis. And that there should not necessarily be action…that's a helpful tip. I mean, nothing should be dictated in the writing world!

  5. Thank you so so muh for answering my question! Your advice, as always, was super helpful. I'm going to look back at my stories now, and try and make some drama.

    PS: I'm actually I junior in high school. I accidentally put "get" instead of "got". (I need to learn how to proofread things before I post them.) I'm really sorry if that caused any confusion

  6. I agree, anger shakes things up a lot. If my dialogue's dragging on, I like to add a bit of conflict, to get the characters' tempers to rise.
    Actually, though, I recently realized I'm putting in so many arguments it makes my main characters seem very hot-headed. I've been working on balancing it all out.
    Thanks for your helpful post! 🙂

  7. Your writing is so open, it's like we are invited to be with you, almost to be you, having your knowledge and experience, in a special state using all parts of my brain. In this state, I learn as I teach. I weave together the strongest possible observations with phrases and timing that illustrate my recommendations and at the same time show who I am. Part of the fun is reading your words as testimony to your intense yet confident presence at the keyboard.

  8. Hi Gail
    For school we had to interview our grandparents, and then turn it into an article. My teacher says its like dressing up the questions, but i dont know how to do that. Any ideas?

  9. Lizzy–I don't know what your teacher means. If I were reading your interview I would want to know what your grandparents' answers meant to you, how the answers agreed with the way you see them, and how the answers changed the way you see them.

  10. Thanks for this! A couple of people in the critique group I'm in keep telling me I needed a crisis but my novel is character driven. The turmoil is mostly what's going on the the narrator's head.

  11. I noticed that you posted this entry on a Tuesday (I'm always eager to visit this site every Wednesday evening) and I was curious if this had to do with the title of the post. Were you invited to a potluck on Wednesday, and instead of disappointing your fans, rewarded them with an extra 24 hours to mull over your words?
    Detective work aside, I liked your suggestion about the dialogue driving some of the excitement, but do you have any help for those of us who seem to live in Dialogue Land? I know you have touched on this a little before, but do you have any suggestions on how to convert a conversation-heavy scene into more action? My book is starting to look like a play (which I do not want) with bits of narrative strewn among a majority of conversation. Thanks.

  12. Boy, do I feel foolish! Your title was a play on words! But it still doesn't explain the Tuesday post. However, unless you were at a potluck, you may retain your privacy. I am just grateful that you share your knowledge with the public. I have learned immensely from your blog and I can't wait to dive into Writing Magic (which I just ordered). Any help with the question I posed above is appreciated.

  13. Inkquisitive–The reason this post is dated on a Tuesday is both boring and complicated. No potlucks with dwarfs and elves. As for your question about too much dialogue, I'll think about it and put it on my upcoming posts list.

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