Thinking It Out

On September 26, 2012, Courtney Arzu wrote, I’m an extremely young author…But I would like to know how to set up a story/novel. I can begin a story but I can’t seem to finish because I haven’t thought it out. I don’t know what I’m going to do, what the main climax is going to be or how I’m going to end it. I just wanted to ask: What “outline” would be best for creating the plot? I’ve tried multiple things, but I always end up writing halfway through and get stuck at my mid point. I don’t like writing blindly but that’s the only way I seem to know how to do. I have extreme difficulty with plot, supreme extreme difficulty and was simply wondering what to do.

I’ve read your only Planning one, and I don’t seem to click with it. I’m an odd one. As I’m so young, and just trying to kick start myself into writing. I have been telling stories since I was able to talk and I love it. I read everything I could get my hands on. By nine years old, I was in adult fiction. It wasn’t enough. I started to write my own stories, yet I could never finish one because writer’s block would poise itself in the middle of a sentence somewhere.

When I’m writing, I write tons but when I’m not, I have no ideas. A story of mine has fallen into the humor category simply because I’m filling space. I’m going to go back and edit it out but I haven’t a clue how to plan ahead. It’s a bad trait of mine and I do hope I’ll figure it out but to me the light is way at the other end of the tunnel, a couple hundred miles and I can’t quite tell if I’m going to get there before a train comes barreling in my direction.

Courtney’s question spurred this response from Maia: I started loads of stories and then never finished them b/c the plots got too complicated and I couldn’t see where they were going…so before I even start writing now, I write out the entire plot using bullet points. It’s very useful – it keeps you on track but isn’t so strict that I can’t add things here and there and often stories have taken off by themselves outside the confines of their structure.

The light in the tunnel is nearer than you think, and fortunately trains don’t happen along very often.

And this from writeforfun: I always force myself to write a roughly one page summary of the story before I start writing, because once I’m writing, I have to know where I’m going. If I can’t write the whole summary, including the climax and end, then I think about it and write an idea for an ending, even if it’s a bad one, so that I have a road map for what I’m writing. Some things will change, but that helps me a lot. Just a suggestion.

These are great suggestions – planning tips for people who don’t completely outline. But if you’d like to learn one approach to really outlining, you might enjoy Walter Dean Myers’ book Just Write: Here’s How.

I don’t outline, but I usually have an idea of the ending, and I write toward it. Often the golden coin of the ending is clutched in the fist of the beginning. The beginning introduces a problem, which the ending will solve, one way or another, happily or not. In Ella Enchanted the problem of Ella’s curse is introduced in the first chapter, and the end is right there, too, the lifting of the curse, or if the book turned out to be a tragedy, the certainty that Ella would never be free. What I wrote in between were instances, as Ella’s life progresses, of the burden of the curse, her attempts to save herself, and the life she manages to live while her suffering goes on (the budding relationship with Char, her friendship with Areida, the continuing support of Mandy).

So we can look at our beginning and ask what problem it’s posing, and then what the possible solutions are. Say we start with an alien invasion. We need to ask lots of questions about the aliens until we discover what the central question is that the beginning is posing. Are these good or evil aliens? How much more advanced are they than we are? What are their intentions toward us? Let’s say they’re neither evil nor good; they’re traders, and we have something valuable that they can trade. Say it’s lumber. They want our trees, and they have marvels to give us in exchange, but we need our trees, too, and yet the marvels are tempting. Some powerful people will make enormous fortunes from the alien goods if we do trade. Now we have the problem, and the ending is sewn up inside it: whether or not Earth will be stripped of trees.

Suppose we decide that the planet will keep its trees. That’s the way we want it to come out. How are we going to get there? Who’s going to be our MC or our MCs? Who will represent the aliens? What other characters do we need? From this we can build our summary. And then we can start working out scenes.

A fascinating but disturbing tale of an alien invasion is Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, which takes the alien theme in a surprising direction. It’s a book for adults but if I remember right it should be fine for kids twelve and up. Check with a librarian to be sure.

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while you know I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. I set off without much more than a beginning and a dim idea for the end. I’m familiar with the kind of distress that Courtney describes. The difference between us is experience, which may be annoying if you’re just starting out. Sorry! I’ve gotten through getting lost before and I’m pretty sure I can do it again. I cobble a story together from the threads I follow, and then in revision I tighten and tighten. So part of the solution is tolerance for your own writing style, which may be organized or may be messy. And another part may be tolerance for imperfection. First drafts are not supposed to be good. Good comes later, in revision.

As I’ve mentioned here, I’ve been working on a book based on the blog, which I just sent off to my editor on Monday. Much of it comes from the blog, but some I wrote for the book. Below is part of a plotting chapter. Although bits may be elsewhere here on the blog, I think at least some is new, and if not new, it all bears repeating:

Try writing a short summary of each scene that you have on an index card, then spread them out and move them around, out of their original sequence. You can even bring in scenes from other unfinished stories. Edgar in your old story can turn into Garth in the new one with a few personality adjustments. When you think about the characters, do you see new threads that connect them? Does one scene suggest itself as a fresh beginning? Another as the end? If, after rearranging, your story flows except for a few scenes that stubbornly don’t fit in anywhere, you can cut them but save them in case you find a use for them when you revise or in some future project.

If you discover that the cards move you farther along but then you bog down, you can lay them out again starting with the point where you got stuck – you don’t have to go all the way back to the beginning.

And here’s a plot exercise you can do in your notes that comes from What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter (most of this book is fine for kids, but a few chapters aren’t, so before you use it, show it to a parent). You can use this technique on a new story or an old one. If this is a new story, whenever you’re not sure where to take the story next, ask yourself, What if? and write down five options for directions the story might take. Be wild. Be carefree. Anything goes in notes. Don’t even look at what you have till you’re done.

It might go like this: My MC is at a party and feeling all alone. What if she sees a framed photo of her long-lost brother on the mantelpiece? What if she starts writing on a wall of the living room where the party is happening? What if she decides the party needs livening up and starts singing? And so on.

Now look over your list. Suppose two options appeal to you. Write a paragraph about each: what it would mean for your story, how it would take place. Pick the one you like best and return to your story. When you reach the next story decision point, ask What if? again and repeat.

If you write five possibilities and none pleases you, write three more or five more.

In an old story that you’ve given up on, ask What If? after your last sentence. If that spot doesn’t yield anything interesting, go back to a point where the story was still burning in you and ask the question. When you find a new path, start writing.

If you find them helpful, use the plotting strategies above for these two prompts:

∙ Write the story about the aliens who want our trees.

∙ Write five more What if?’s about the MC who feels alone at the party. Then write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Delightful post again, Mrs. Levine! The 'what if' idea struck me as a good way to go about writing a comedy. Maybe it's because the what ifs you came up with were funny. Whatever the case, I think I'll keep this method in mind. 🙂

    • I’m new here, and I’m trying to write a sci-fi, but I feel it’s going along too slow. I can’t remember anything on transitional scenes, can you refresh my memory?

  2. Good Ideas. I have TONS of stories, but they get too complicated or too simple before I reach the end, so they never go anywhere. One thing I do is I always spend a few days thinking on the story before I start to write it. It helps. It doesn't solve my problems exactly, but it helps. In that time I develop characters and places and some of the plot. Also, I think about the story before I go to sleep. My thoughts before bed work their way into my dreams and that helps to. My dreams influence 48.2 percent of my writing. Recently I was writing a book on the twelve dancing princesses, but it was sounding WAY too much like Jessica Day George's book. I was thinking about it before I fell asleep and had this terrific dream that was perfect for my story and now I'm flying through my book. I hope this helps.

  3. I might have said something like this before, but I've found that often my characters can get me unstuck. Ask yourself what they want and how they're going to go about accomplishing that. Once they've achieved their goal, ask how their actions effect the people around them and what do those people want? Often one character accomplishing a goal means another character is thwarted, so now that character has goals.

    Something that I know holds me back is the fear of writing a bad story. But I'm working on my fourth manuscript now and I've found that when I write nothing I have nothing, but when I write badly at least I have clay I can mold into something better, or at the very least, a placeholder. A lot of the time it's only after I've moved on from a sticky point in the story that I can look back and say, "Oh, it would make so much more sense if it happened this way instead!" and I'm able to make a note to fix it during the next draft.

    If you're really stuck you can always throw in something your characters can't control. There's nothing like a flooded river/blizzard/rampaging moose/plague/car accident to get them doing something.

  4. I think I do a lot of What Ifs while I'm writing but I need to be better about writing them down because I often will think of a bunch at once and then forget all but one. Also I tend to shoot my writing down before I even finish it. I've heard it's bad to revise while you're writing because it's better to get a rough draft first. I wish I could do that but sometimes I get too bothered by mistakes that I just have to go back before I can move on. Often this will distract from the story and I'll forget where I was going with it while I'm off perfecting another section which will probably change the whole plot anyway! So frustrating…

  5. do you ever find that you are in that part of the story where you are walking through thick mud, a hundred miles, because you can't find the foot path that would take a few seconds? I feel like that alot. And then I get over that part in the story, and it feels like I am pulling hundreds of strings really tight with them trying to pulkl out from under me, and eventually they disapper.
    What I am trying to say is that writing isn't very fun for me anymore. I just can't get the first few thousand chapters down on paper. E.g., beyond 6,000 words. (And what is written is a total mess, although I can fix that up later.) Sometimes wehn I feel really stressed, i find it good to make something really crazy happen, (like a group of rubber duck safariests finding the exicutioner scene and getting really exicted. It really helps, and lets my mind flow, although sometimes it is annoying. I hope this works for some other people, but while you are at it, any advice of getting past the second chapter?
    P.S. how many words are there typically in a chapter?

    • There isn't really a typical amount of words. I mean, there are books where all the chapters are less than three pages, and then books where there are no chapters less then ten pages. I ten to struggle with chapter length too, but I've just given up on that and now my chapters are whatever length that helps my story along. Forcing yourself to write more is bad for your story because nothing sounds all that good, and trying to write less is almost worse. Just write to where the you think that part of the story should go to, then go to the next chapter. You can worry about chapter length in revision. I hope this helps. I used to have TONS of trouble with chapter length.

    • I know of some books that have chapters that are consistently so and so many pages long, but I don't know how the author makes herself do that! Most books I read have chapters that vary in length. I know my own chapters do. In the book I'm working on, they're usually between 3,000 and 7,000 words long, but in one of my other novels, I have one that's probably three times that.
      I agree with Elisa: don't sweat the chapter length. Just make them however long or short your story calls for, even if that means Chapter One is 100 words and Chapter Five is 10,000. 🙂 (Of course, if you're writing for young children, they may prefer shorter chapters.)
      As for plot threads and thick mud, Aspire, do you have any examples? I'm not really sure what to say about that.

  6. From the website:

    Dear Ms. Levine,
    Have you ever had to deal with a character that is much too much? As on, so completely devolved with plenty of traits that are all central to the story and harmonize with each other tolerably well, but you are not sure what the reader will think of the character when you want to give a specific impression? When the character must be a certain way for the story to turn out?
    In my story there is a young man (MC) who is somewhat naively idealistic, selfish because he doesn't know any better, timid but corageous when it mattered most, condescendingly kind, and who lives in fear of being teased or embarrassed, or of falling out of favor with his friends. Technically, over time he is supposed to become a better person, but he isn't supposed to be villainous. He is not cruel, he does not do bad things on purpose. In the beginning of the story I saw him as 'lovable and slightly loutish'. Now I'm not so sure if this can work. The book is supposed to be about MC Male and MC Female falling in love even though she is very practical and a little loopy and he is loutish. He becomes someone who can fall in love with her by himself, he becomes someone who is kind and still timid, probably still naively idealistic but brave when it matters most, and still has a bad fear of embarrassment, but he is neither condescending nor selfish.
    But he must start out that way, and he starts out deplorable in many readers' eyes by doing all the wrong things in a perticular situation. So really, how can you change a character so completely and totally, from bad to good, without skimping on any badness in the beginning or goodness at the end?
    (So sorry if my question is very long )

    • I think it all depends on the situations he finds himself in and the ones he creates, which can change him, depending on how he interprets what's happened. I hope others will weigh in with thoughts on this.

    • I agree with Ms. Levine about circumstances causing the change. I think if you are showing his bad points in the beginning you need to let those good points-like him being brave when it matters, him showing hints of kindness to a less fortunate person (beggar, servant etc)-show through a bit, to show that he is capable of change. If he isn't doing bad things on purpose, you could have him do something bad and then show the reader his thoughts of doubt or uncertainty, maybe him just not being sure what he did was right. Maybe your female MC that he falls in love with could point out his unkind and 'bad' attitude and that could make him really examine how he had acted previously and make him watch how he acts in the future. Or something could happen to him and a complete stranger helps him and that makes him wonder why someone he had never met would show compassion to him. (or he could get help from someone he had previously mistreated and then he is confused why someone he had been mean and rude to showed kindness and consideration for him). Also, if he is supposed to be very rude in the beginning you could make him be purposefully rude to someone he deemed beneath him, not worthy of any kindness.
      Or maybe he keeps trying to gain female MC's approval and after some incident she tells him he will never have her approval if he stays as inconsiderate as he is now.
      I don't know if any of this is helpful at all, but I hope some part of it is useful to you in finishing your book. Best of luck to you, and I hope you figure it out!

  7. I've struggled with this for a while, and haven't really come up with a good answer. My MC is literally inhuman, and in the beginning, he's not especially likeable. The main point of the story is how he becomes more "civilized."
    Agents have told me "This is well written, but I just don't relate to the MC." The character gets nicer later, but agents and editors seldom read that far if the beginning doesn't grab them.
    So far I think my options are: Tone down the unpleasant traits, boost the positive ones, and/or start at a different point.

    • I have that problem too. Quite often in fact. Reforming a character is HARD. You start out with this, and then you have to end with that. But you have to make it believable, and you have to make it interesting. Is your character crazy? If so, when he is inhuman in the beginning, it would be understandable. Is he just uncivilized to be rebellious? My advice, (Mind you. I am not published or anything, so I know next to nothing about editors and agents, but I know what I and my friends think.)is that you show a little goodness in him. Not a lot, but a subtle little bit. Subtle, yet easy to recognize. I'm not sure what he's like so I can't really help much, but that would be my idea. Also, maybe give him favorite colors, or something he loves and is never without, like a favorite jacket (My brother is inspiration for that one), a pen, a pebble polished by decades in a fast current, a knife (Though, on second thought, maybe not that one, if you're trying to tone him down a little.) A coin that he wears around his neck. Just itty-bitty little quirks that don't change his character much, but make him more relatable. I hope this helps.

  8. I let a very close friend of mine read a story I wrote and she has recently gotten back to me. One of the things she mentioned was character development, she says I could go a little deeper. I totally agree, but I'm not sure how to effectively and smoothly to go about adding deeper details about my characters. The story is in first person present tence, and it switches between two different characters. I've tried to tell the story in easier ways (3rd person, 1st person past only one character, etc) but I keep coming back to the way I've got it. Very much like your story EVER which I hadn't read when I first started but have read since (I must say, it's pretty awesome) Can you give me any help? It'd be much appreciated.

    The problem is with my other characters, my friend said that my MCs came to life very well, but that the others were still just words on a page. My story is a flip off Robin Hood, my MCs a female Robin and a boy who joins the band. The story jumps between their points of view. My trouble is in working character descriptions into the story through them. If that makes any sense what so ever…
    Anna Marie

    • I'm adding your question to my list of questions for a future post. In the meanwhile, you might make sure your MCs are noticing and thinking about the other characters, which may help bring them to life. Anyone else have suggestions?

    • Anna Marie: This is a lot like what Mrs. Levine suggested, but I think character interaction is a great way to work in descriptions of people other than your MCs. You know, throwing in snippets of an MC's thoughts (about other characters) between dialogue and action.
      For instance, let's say your female Robin Hood and her band of merry "whoevers" are hanging around camp one evening, and as she talks to the others, she thinks/notices certain things about them. Whoever #1, an egotistical sort, always leans back and raises his chin whenever he's talking about his successful steals (which he does often.) Whoever #2's eyes are constantly shifting, giving him a nervous, edgy look even when he's with friends. Whoever #3 seems to think life is one big joke, and whoever #4 doesn't know the punch line, she gets bristly around #3. As Robin interacts with the band, she can mentally react to the characters' quirks and various qualities. Thoughts and little actions (like rolling eyes, sighing, smirking, etc.) can easily communicate Robin's viewpoints on each of her friends.
      Hope this helps! (By the way, I like the sound of your version of Robin Hood!)

  9. From the website:

    I've loved writing stories for as long as I can remember. Even before I could write actual words, I'd draw pictures and make up stories to go along with them. I've always hoped that one day I might be able to be an author.

    Now, I'm in high school, and I still love writing. I'm getting to a point where I need to begin thinking seriously about what I want to do. I'd still like to be an author, but I'm not sure that's possible. I write all the time in a journal, and love it, but I'm hesitant to share my writing with anyone else, because I'm scared of what others might think. I know that when someone sends something to get published, it's very likely to be rejected. I guess I'm afraid to persue a career where I might never get anything published and never be successful. So, my question to you would be, do you think I should persue a writing career, or continue to enjoy writing for my own enjoyment but look into a different career. Any advice you could offer for an aspiring writer would be much appreciated. Thank you!


    • One of my writer friends says "Rejections are trophies. They're proof that you're trying."
      I have over 600 "trophies." Good thing they don't need to fit on a shelf!

      Here's my 2 cents, but it's different for everyone:

      I've been writing for as long as I can remember too. Originally I wanted to be an author. I've been writing for publication since 1999, and now I think of it as a lousy career, but an awesome hobby. A big reason is that most writers don't get health insurance. I'm big on security. Writing also doesn't come with a guaranteed income. (2011 was the first year I made over $1,000 from writing.)
      OTOH, looking at it as a hobby, I've gotten to go to conventions and meet some of my favorite authors, gotten lots of autographs and free books, and gotten to be part of the magic of writing. (And I get some nice pocket money.)

      I think people who write for a living need to be motivated risk-takers, who are willing to pour their hearts out on paper and send them out into the world with no guarantee of reward. Not everyone is like that, and that's ok. People write for all kinds of reasons, but we're all making magic.

  10. I have a problem with having too many ideas. I try to just write a little bit about my new idea and then continue with my old book, but I always think my new idea is better than the old one. I can never finish a story because halfway through a new idea pops into my head and I can't forget about it. Is it better to start writing a new idea or forget about and keep working on the old one?

    • Kate, I think a lot of us have the same problem! Something that works for me is keeping a notebook of all those ideas. Sometimes I write down an idea for a character, sometimes a cool title, and other times a full-blown premise for a novel or even a series. But they're all in one place, waiting for me to finish my current work in progress.
      I'd say you should jot down your new ideas and save it for when you're done with the old one. But if the ideas pile up, you could always work on two at once. 🙂

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