Lost in Story Land

First off, a message from the sponsor (me): Amazon is promoting The Two Princesses of Bamarre e-book with the low low price of $1.99. The promotion runs until August 5th.

Now for the post. On June 19, 2013 Athira Abraham wrote, I have a problem. With the story I’m writing, I haven’t created a plot but I want to because I don’t want to be lost in my story. But at the same time, I don’t want to create a plot because then I’ll have no fun writing it and will get bored. But without no plot, I’ll end up nowhere. Please help!

This generated a big response.

unsocialized homeschooler wrote, Athira, I have this problem a lot. Some of what would be my best stories disappear forever because each time I plan it out, it gets really boring.

First, are you sure that if you don’t create a plot you’ll end up nowhere? Sometimes the best plots and stories come together when you just wander around in the wilderness of your story for a bit. Maybe you should try writing it freestyle with no idea where the story is going, and see where it takes you. Because, if plotting out a novel makes it boring to write, why do it? (Okay, I realize that logic isn’t very sound, and there are hundreds of authors who will tell you that you have to be bored with your writing for a while to finish it–But that seems a little pointless and ridiculous. Write because writing is enjoyable, fun, creative, and all that good stuff!)

And Caitlyn Hair wrote, I plot my story in segments. Maybe that would work? The one time I tried plotting out the whole thing I ended up so far off my outline that I had to redo it anyway. 
I usually do three big chunks: beginning, middle, and end. I usually go off my outline by the time I get through those too, but not as badly. By outlining a little at a time I can incorporate the ideas I come up with while I write and not stress about it not fitting in to my plan.

Elisa chimed in with, Athira, do you have a favorite scene? In one of my stories-to-be I created a random scene where my heroine completely neglects the guy who traveled across two countries and 892 hundred miles to beg for her hand and leaves him living in a tent outside of her moat. I built a story from that. What I picked up is that she was independent and headstrong, also a little mean. Figure out your characters, then make more scenes. Do this, and then figure out how to link the scenes together. That’s how I set up plots for my stories. If you’re basing it on a fairy tale or something, it’s easier, because the plot’s already laid out.

Finally, Jenalyn Barton contributed this: I have two suggestions. My first is to just go with it, see where it takes you. Then, when you’ve finished it and know where it ends, go back and rework it so that your plot better fits where you’ve ended up. This way of writing is fun, because something that starts out as random may become a major plot point.

My other suggestion is to take a look at your story idea and ask yourself, “Where do I want to go with this? Where do I want my hero(ine) to end up?” Once you’ve answered that, write your story, keeping your end in mind. This way you can have a game plan in mind without having to give up the fun of discovery writing, as Brandon Sanderson calls it. You’d be surprised at how flexible you can be even with some major points plotted out beforehand. But, when it comes down to it, it’s really up to you and what you’re comfortable with.

Wow! These are great! I agree with unsocialized homeschooler and Elisa that in art accidents often lead to great discoveries. I’d even say that without the looseness that allows accidents writing can turn out stiff.

And I like Caitlin Hair’s practice of plotting in big chunks, which I think may make the task manageable. We don’t have to deal with the whole thing, just this beginning segment. And we can start to ask ourselves questions. What will get the story started? Who am I dealing with? Where? I do something like this, but in smaller bits, when I plan my scenes out before I write them.

I’m also in synch with Jenalyn Barton’s suggestion that you imagine an ending and write toward it, as I usually do. In fact, the ending often comes to me as a package along with the idea that gets me started. For example, as soon as I thought of Ella’s curse of obedience, I knew that the book would have to end with the lifting of the spell, although I had no idea how that would be accomplished.

However, these comments come from writers who don’t do close, detailed outlining. I’m in that camp, too. Is there anyone out there who can weigh in about creating complicated plot outlines and staying excited when the time comes to expand into a narrative? What are your strategies?

Some of you know that it took me a very long time and a lot of wrong turns before I finally figured out Stolen Magic. So I resolved to plan out the next book before I started writing. And I failed almost immediately. After five or six pages of notes I itched to begin the story, which I did. I’ve written only two pages, and now I’m revising a manuscript for my editor, and it will be a while before I get back to it, but I’ve been laughing at myself. We may gravitate to a certain process, in my case winging it, and be stuck with it unless something forceful intervenes, like an amazing teacher or a how-to book that we follow to the letter. Or a magic spell.

Getting lost in a story doesn’t necessarily mean disaster. When I get lost I often backtrack to the point where I still had my bearings and strike off again. Sometimes that point is 200 pages ago. I may repeat the confusion a few more times; still I’m learning about my characters and the final story shape. It’s possible I couldn’t have found my final book without meandering.

Both Athira Abraham and unsocialized homeschooler mention boredom. When I was writing the languages in Ella Enchanted, coming up with each one and figuring out how they sounded and looked on the page was fascinating, but once I had the scheme, inventing each new word was dull, necessary but dull. Other than that, when boredom sets in, it means I’ve gotten lost, and then I have to do what I talked about in the last paragraph. I don’t think boredom is required for finishing a story, although it may be a necessary sign that what we have isn’t working.

Here are three prompts about being lost. Of course, there’s a third possible ending to each beyond finding the way or being lost forever. A character can wind up in a better spot and not care about reaching the original destination.

• Take a true experience from your life of getting lost. Write about what really happened and how you felt and, if you weren’t alone, who said what.

• Now put someone you know in your place and fictionalize the memory. You may have to try out several people in your imagination before you find the right player. How would this other person handle what happened? How does the story change?

• Now make getting unlost much harder. Introduce obstacles, weather events, a villain. If you like, put it all in a fantasy world. Change your MC so that she becomes entirely fictional.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thank you SO much for this post!!!

    I have been having trouble getting myself to start with my story, because, unlike the other times I have written, I made up my mind I would try outlining, and then I got REALLY, REALLY bored. This helps a lot!

  2. This post is so encouraging. I think one of my main struggles in writing is knowing how much I should plan beforehand. I'm trying to find the right balance of planning and winging it, but it has been a lot of trial and error so far. Last year, I started a novel without outlining or plotting it in any way, and about two hundred pages in, I got hopelessly stuck. Now I'm starting over, but I am at a loss as to how much outlining I should do. I think I'll try your suggestions, Ms. Levine, and those of the other commenters. They sound like the right balance between winging it (which is my favorite way to write) and outlining (which keeps my story from being aimless).

  3. I LOVE your suggestions Mrs. Levine, and the other commenters. I think you are right about planning out segments or chapters, so that way you have a lot of space for imagination! And you are right. Sometimes the biggest mistake, can turn out to be the best thing you could have done. Take the process of the first chocolate chip cookie. It was an accident, but now everyone loves them!

  4. You asked about us crazy complicated outliners. Guilty. I find that I outline too much, if that's possible. When I started my last story I knew exactly what was going to happen and when and where and why. My outline was so detailed I noticed that I wasn't showing the characters as much as I should have and what had once seemed like interesting plot twists became dry. So I stepped out a little. I put more effort into developing the characters and crated more jams for them to get into. I also had to reevaluate how they felt about certain things, and their feelings didn't match my original outline so that had to change. Now my MC is ending up in a different place than where I had planned but it WORKS. So an outline was great to get me started but it ended up needing just as much editing as my story did. I'm a little scared to jump into no-man's land and wander around in my story but maybe I need a little bit of both worlds.

  5. Such good advice, and I realized something about myself from unsocialized homeschooler's response. I can plan myself out of a good story. See, I spent so much time editing my previous novel that I wanted to save time on the next one before I really started writing. But that didn't work. I got bored, which was sad, because it was a legitimately good story. Thanks for this post…I think I'm going to let myself get lost now. 🙂

  6. I tend to write the parts where I know what I want to happen with just bullets of detail in the parts I don't know. But then what usually happens is when I go back to fill in the blanks I can't weave it in because it might change the plot. Lovely post!

    Question: Has anyone ever read a book where the villain or someone rather unlikable is the MC? I'm trying to see if it can be done without people hating the character or the plot.

    • Oh, boy. This one'll be hard. How about you just make him (her?) subtly bad. And slip in some good, redeeming qualities. There are lots of types of redeeming qualities. It's kinda hard to decide what types of redeeming qualities to use, because if one reader likes, I dunno, knitting, if the villain (Or Slightly-Unlikable-Character) knits, then his (Her?) knitting will cause the reader to be sympathetic towards the villain (Or SUC). Find something lots of people like. Like animals, sports, kids, stuff like that. They'll be more sympathetic and less likely to despise your character if s/he has something in common with them. Hope I helped.

    • The second book in the Emily Windsnap series called Emily Windsnap and the Monster From the Deep, had exactly this. Obviously, Emily is the main MC, and then it switched from her POV to Mandy Rushton's, a girl who bullied Emily in the previous book. In this way we find out how Mandy feels might be different how Emily felt about being bullied by her. If you can switch POV's with a good character and the subtly bad character, we can get further insight about the "bad character". Maybe there is a reason why Mandy bullied Emily. She sort of connects this with the reader. Echoing Elisa, maybe the reader will be sympathetic with the "bad character" if they have something in common. Sorry if I confused you!

    • I agree with Elisa.
      Nothing is coming to mind right now (about books with likable villains as MCs), but your question did remind me of Gru from the Despicable Me movies. Although in the second, he's not bad anymore… Anyway, his role as villain in the first movie started to reverse when he began developing a soft spot for three little girls, and when another villain became a threat. I don't know if any of that was relevant, but oh well!

    • Thanks everyone! Also, as soon as I posted that question I did actually find the Likable Villains post. Oh well. Think I have everything sorted now.

  7. My husband and I were just talking about that this morning. One of the things we noticed, which hints that Gru isn't as bad as he seems, is that even though his minions are all variations on 3 patterns, so that 1 in 3 look alike, he recognizes individuals and greets them by name.

  8. This sorta ties in with my problem.
    I'm having an issue with my pacing. You see, I know there's going to be a battle at the end of this chapter. I wanted to have it tie in with a shorter scene just before it. My current scene is long, rambling, and dialogue-heavy. I feel the need to extend it even more. But by the time I tack that battle scene onto the end, it's going to be a ridiculously long chapter. I suppose I should cut it at the end of this long scene, but… I just feel like that ruins the flow, somehow. But on the other hand, I have readers waiting on a chapter. Any chapter!
    …I suppose I'm lost in this long scene. Just meandering around while my plan is proving useless.

    • What's wrong with ridiculously wrong chapters? Dickens had them, Hugo had them and Charlotte Bronte DEFINITELY had them. The only scenario that that could be a problem in is if someone reads your book aloud. You could split it up with those little star things like many publications I've read do. But, if you really want to make the chapter shorter, than finish the 'chapter' and split it up into two or something like that if its possible. If not, then personally I don't think that many readers will care and ditto for publishers.

    • Are you sure that writing the battle into another chapter is THAT bad? I mean, battles are long (Normally, unless it's a duel or something) and nasty. So, unless you think it would hurt, I'd say make it a second chapter, and build up the tension in the first, and then, just before the first two swords (Or whatever it is in your story, spears, light sabers etc.) clash together…start the new chapter. It would build up the tension wonderfully. I love it when that happens, personally, I have a few seconds of absolute terror, before I turn the page and actually find out what happens. Tension is normally pretty good at hooking readers into your story. If this doesn't help you with your particular problem, feel completely free to throw this into the sea of your forgetfulness (If you have one).

  9. This very helpful comment came from Deborah through Goodreads:

    Because I'm an outliner and not many of us are weighing in on this discussion yet, I thought I'd give this a shot and mention how I work. Hope it can be helpful for somebody. 🙂

    I have a hard time writing unless I've outlined, though I do wing it sometimes if I haven't had time to plot it (like for NaNoWriMo) or for a change of pace/exercise. But I always reach a point where if I don't plot it, I'm stuck. So I'm definitely in the "detailed outlining" camp.

    I also outline in chunks–maybe a very rough outline for the entire thing, and then I break the story down into pieces and focus on one at a time before I get there. Normally my stories seem to break nicely into three parts, and each of those into another three, which leaves 9-10 manageable parts.

    A suggestion for not getting bored when outlining: I don't always even outline in full sentences. When I'm outlining a large section, I sometimes just do brief partial-sentences, a word or two or dozen here and there to remind me of what's going on. That way, it seems looser and less formal; less set in stone, if you will.

    Even something as simple as
    -continuing/problems/jungle/reach bay
    -meet up again/stronghold
    -set out for the Island"
    can help keep in mind a rough idea of scenes and yet you can expand within that, and I'm still excited about it when I get to that part of the story. That could help for people who get bored after writing the plot down.

    Before I write a scene, I like to outline it with more detail, but I still use that rough unstructured partial-sentence approach. If it's in full sentences, I sometimes feel like the story is already told–which might account for the boredom some people experience–but if it's just "jots" as I call them, it's still waiting to be told.

    Other outlining ideas: I was having a hard time outlining a story recently because I really had no idea what was going on, but all my characters were going around being cryptic, so instead of outlining like I normally do, I took a big piece of paper and wrote down all of the characters and places, drawing lines between each one that was linked somehow. That was very helpful.

    But outlining isn't for everyone, and I think a lot of people write some fantastic stories without having a clue where they're going. Winging it can be very fun, and I've found a lot of my favorite parts of my stories that way. But eventually, myself, I need to draw myself a road-map of some kind, or else I get lost. 🙂

    And… wow, I didn't mean to go on so long! Sorry for the rambling and that this is in the wrong place…

    • I'm an outliner too, and my outlining, which isn't super complex, looks quite similar to Deborah's. I don't break it into chunks like she does, though. I just break it into chapters, but sometimes I have to rearrange the order of things… and sometimes I discover that I've got way too much planned for one chapter, so I bump some parts down into the next one.
      My outline is in phrases too. I didn't really realize until reading Deborah's comment that doing so leaves the story to be told, but it's true. 🙂
      I started my first novel (STILL a WIP after 5 years of on-and-off writing/editing!) without an outline, but promptly got stuck. So I outlined the rest, which took some effort at first. I even tried making a color-coded diagram of all the aspects of my story-so-far, including things like traveling, fighting, tension, calm, etc. That did not go well. All I ended up with was a colorful mess!
      Not sure if there's a whole lot more I could say on this topic. Hope that was helpful!

  10. Hello! I have a writing question for you. 🙂

    As I'm wanting to indie publish I've been mulling over the whole "do I hire an editor to proofread or not?" question. Now I don't think I will (this time), but that's not my question. I sent my first chapter to one lady (wring coach, freelance editor, traditionally published author) and she edited it for free as an example of her editing style.

    She said the chapter was, for the most part, very well written (It's been edited and revised twice through a writing course I took), but pointed out two flaws in my writing voice. I over-use em dashes (who doesn't overuse the pesky little things?) and I repeat myself far too much, especially using the same words over in the same paragraph. She thought it was a stylistic choice, something I meant to do, when really I just had failed to notice and fix most of them. I did have one instance where I purposely repeated "perhaps" at the beginning of a few sentences. This she had no problem with, though she suggested I delete a couple perhapses!

    I don't know if you've actually done a post on repetition or not, but I think it would be very interesting. When is repetition (words, phrases, ideas, whatever)effective and when does it get just plain annoying?


    • It depends on the character, if s/he continually repeats his/herself, then I'm good with that and any time I hear him/her I know instantly who it is and giggle. I think it adds to charm and uniqueness in a character to do things like that. If it's your writing stile that is repetitive, I, personally, don't mind it, much. It depends. I mean, say, twelve sentences starting with "perhaps" or one sentence with it then one without, then one with (etc.) would start to bug me, then again, if your "voice" is bouncy and funny, I wouldn't mind it very much. I think it depends on your voice, your story and your characters as to how much repeating you do. As to em dashes, I used to do that too, I just use more comas and semicolons if I find myself doing this. (Or parentheses). P.S. Please forgive me if my spelling and grammar are off (more than usual) on this comment, we recently acquired a new keyboard and it is driving me BANANAS!)

  11. This came in to my website:
    Hello Ms. Levine – This is a question for your writing blog which I read weekly, but I'm not able to comment directly on that page. Often when I start my stories, I know what my beginning is, and then explore it well enough to have met and understand my characters, and I also know what I want my ending to be. For example, in my current story (in whose beginning I have muddled around in for what seems like ages) my heroine starts out at an orphanage in our world, but as a teenager is "called on" by the guardians of the world where she was born and is taken back there (not like another dimension, more similar to Lewis's Narnia). This is all, I think, in order to free it from some evil power. Beyond that, I can see in the far distance a foggy ending where the world celebrates their new found freedom after the heroine's triumph. My problem is that despite all the time I've invested in it and all the people I've bounced ideas off of, I can't figure out what's in the middle. What's the obstacle/evil my characters are facing and what on earth are they going to do once they arrive in the other world? So, really my question is, what do you do when you know your beginning and you kind of know your ending, but you have no idea how to traverse the middle in your story? I guess this combines idea and plotting questions… Thanks a million!! 😀

    • I've written a post about middles, which may help. You might try asking questions about your heroine. Does she have any powers? Any weaknesses? What does she want? What are the obstacles to her getting it? Same questions for the evil power? Then think about how to use the answers to move your story forward. Please write again with more questions if you're still stuck.

  12. I think I've talked about this before, actually, but I'm actually both an outliner and a non-outliner. I tend not to outline my short pieces, but I can't write a novel without an outline. I like outlining in "steps" rather than specific scenes or chapters; each step is an event that needs to happen to move the plot forward, and under each step I'll often add notes about important character introductions and developments, things about the setting that need to be stressed, etc. Outlining this way allows me to see the general shape of the story while giving me the flexibility to add any new scenes, characters, etc I need to get my point across. In fact, my favorite part of novel-writing is the way the story will often veer into new directions, into unexpected characters and locales, because I discover better and more efficient ways of getting to my point as I write.

    An example of how this works: in the outline of my current novel, the protagonist needs to help her sister raise an army; she gets an idea, does some politicking, attends a convention of fellow conspirators, and convinces them to fight. However, when I wrote the original outline I hadn't given as much weight to the fact that my MC is struggling with PTSD after a traumatic event at the end of the last novel. I also hadn't fully worked out her backstory. I had by the time I got to actually writing, and I realized that if I had her reflect on her past pain, that would in turn move the plot forward by giving her renewed motivation to do what she needed to do. So now I'm taking a huge detour by writing a flashback chapter, within which we get a glimpse of the MC's deceased parents and bodyguard-companion, as well as the MC and her sister at a younger, happier, more naive age. I also started slipping in references to reforms that the MC's mother had been planning to advocate which were buried by her death, reforms which the MC needs to dig up and put into action if she wants her army. These are all unexpected pleasures to write, but they don't impact the overarching plot, merely the pacing and clarity of the story. The "reforms" (political subplot) in the flashback will hook us straight into the A-plot of the present. This is what I mean by efficiency: finding ways to kill two birds with one stone (flashback covers character development, fills in exposition, AND impetus for plot).

    Also: Recently I've been making a study of the way serialized television dramas (Star Trek DS9, Game of Thrones, Avatar: The Last Airbender–the first two not for kids, btw) are written. I picked those shows because they, like my current novel, have an ensemble cast and I was having trouble juggling all of my characters. I realized that many of these shows' characters had distinct arcs that we touch-based with on a basically rotating basis, so now I've started working character arcs into my outlines, figuring out what moments and circumstances are the best times to show how my characters are growing and changing.

    …I'm so sorry for the long post. As you can see: I have a lot to say on this topic!

  13. Wow! It's neat to see all the different ways people handle this! 🙂
    I've been on vacation in Wisconsin, at a cabin without Internet, so I didn't get to see this post until just now. Thanks for the post! That balance is so hard for me to find as well.
    @Elisa and Michelle Dyck: Thanks for your encouragement last week! There was a LOT of down time on our vacation, and I spent the greater part of it writing… and I am now within just a few chapters of finishing the first draft of my book!!!!!!!! I'm really excited, because I've never finished a novel before. 🙂
    Incidentally, I had to use a style of outlining very similar to Deborah's to figure out how many chapters were left.

  14. Guys! I have a problem.

    I'm writing a story, and it's a mix between Jack and the Beanstalk and the twelve dancing princesses (kinda hard to explain, but if you need me to clarify to explain, I'll attempt it later) and I have figured out Jack's part in the story, but I can't figure out why the princesses go to dance. I decided I would out a curse on them, but now I can't figure out a good curse that would make sense.

    Any ideas?

    (I know someone else is doing a princess story, but don't worry! I'm pretty certain I'm not copying you. I was reading a book of fairytales when this idea came.)

    Please help if you can! Thank you!

  15. So are they trapped in the giant's castle? That would make sense to me. If they are, they could have been kidnapped by him and forced to dance for his pleasure. Anyone who resisted could be eaten.

  16. No, sorry, I should have explained more. So, this takes place AFTER Jack's killed the giant. He finds out that the giant's wife is an evil, scheming giantess who really just helped him because she wanted Jack in her debt. (Like in Harry Potter, how if you save someone's life, they owe you? Along those lines.) Her daughter is the queen of a kingdom that is at war with the kingdom the princesses are at. He has to go and spy. The giantess can't interfere because of magical something (figuring that out) and so she sends him. So, it is at the Princess' own castle.
    That's a good idea, though! If I can't figure anything out, I may do that!

    • Ooh, Bug, my favorite and sixth favorite fairy tales! I wish I'd come up with it. (However, I promise not to steal your idea, I never steal other people's ideas, I wouldn't want it to happen to me!) Maybe instead of cursing the princesses, you could curse the princes they dance with. I thought about doing this myself, but with the way my two particular twists on the tale are set up, it wouldn't work. I suggest, before you start that you read several other books that are twists on The Twelve Dancing Princesses and Jack and the Beanstalk. For TTDP, I'd say look up The Thirteenth Princess, by Diane Zahler, Entwined, by Heather Dixon, and Princess of the Midnight Ball, by Jessica day George. For JATB, I know only one, and I think it's only an e-book, because I bought it on a kindle, but haven't been able to find it anywhere else. It's called Once Upon A Beanstalk, and it has three fractured fairytales, the last one a twist on Jack and the Beanstalk and Hansel and Gretel. If you have a kindle, you should be able to get it, it's only $0.99. (Or, it was last time I checked) It's good and clean too, no swearing or anything more disturbing than an evil stepmother trying to destroy her former step-daughter. (And a creepy looking fountain shaped like a dragon devouring a knight). Hope I helped. If you like, I'll hunt up some of my old ideas for TTDP when I have more time. (I've got a stash half the size of Australia. And I will NEVER be able to use them all.)

    • Thanks, Elisa! Good ideas. I actually would like to hear some of your ideas from your half-continent– I would really appreciate it! THank you!`

  17. Shew. I've just finished my fifth typing lesson. I'm making myself dizzy, looking back and forth between the screen and the keyboard. Honestly, typing is HARD!!! (And yet, it's easier than I thought it would be.) Let's just hope I don't pass out while I'm finishing up this comment!

  18. Awesome tips, as usual. I always get excited when I see that you have posted! I am a definite outline kinda gal…but that being said, I always allow myself freedom within my outline, and almost every book I have written has taken a different twist (I hope a better one!) than I originally planned in my outline because of this. If I keep my outline loose, I never feel constricted or bored. I actually feel that, for me, an outline is more freeing in a strange way than the lack of one would be. How can I take a fun turn of inspiration off course ir there is no course to begin with? I like the safe feeling of knowing where my destination is, while at the same time giving myself permission to follow my insticts if necessary. Once again, Gail, thanks so much!

  19. This is a really helpful post! 🙂
    I think one thing I've found to be important to remember regarding outlining/planning ahead is that sometimes it depends on the style of book I'm writing. For instance, in a modern-day, fantasy-type story, I've done much less outlining than I have in my historical fiction project set during World War II. Sometimes the very nature of the story you're writing will lend itself to more planning or less planning. It's one of those things that I think you have to feel out every time you start a new project.

    Thanks again for a great post!

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