The Dreaded Fog

Once upon a time, on April 13, 2020, Writing Cat Lover wrote, I am actually writing a “Hansel and Gretel” retelling, and I was wondering – how do you figure out the plot? Like, I know that Gretel has to find out in some way that she has magical powers and then eventually go on some kind of quest and defeat some kind of witch, but I am still having trouble figuring the plot out and I’m always losing my way.

I don’t know if that was clear enough or not, but basically here is the summary: I need tips on plotting because all I am really doing is stumbling blindly through the fog of writing.

Two of you responded.

Katie W.: As someone who has stumbled through the fog of writing many times before (and who only really figured out how plotting works a week ago), here are a few tips. 1. Plots are the way characters try to reach their goals. So, if you make a list of the character’s goals and the things they do to achieve them (kind of like New Year’s resolutions), you have the bare bones of an outline. 2. Freytag’s Pyramid (the upside-down triangle that shows action rising and falling over the course of the story) can apply to anything from a scene to a series. Everything has exposition, rising action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution, and if you can find your story’s inciting incident (where the rising action starts), climax, and resolution, you can fit the rest of it around those three points. 3. Feel free to stumble, get hopelessly lost, and backtrack as many times as you need to in order to find your story. It’s easier to plot the second draft than the first.

Kit Kat Kitty: I’ve been where you are so many times before. And what really helped was reading a book about plotting. For me, I didn’t understand plots well enough to hit all the right beats without writing out an outline, and I didn’t know how to write an outline because I didn’t understand plot well enough. I was too scared of all the complicated outline methods out there to watch videos or read articles about them. But when I finally sat down and read a book about plotting (Save The Cat! Write a Novel) it helped me a lot. It has fifteen beats that I used to outline my current WIP. Of course, that isn’t the only plotting method out there, but it worked for me because it was simple, and a very universal outline. (All books have most if not all of the beats whether or not that’s what the author intended. The book goes into this more, and I would highly recommend reading it.) So I was able to grasp it easily.

Of course, if you’re not a plotter, being a pantser is perfectly fine! I’d still recommend reading books about plot so you can absorb all the information and subconsciously get to all the places you need to in your book once you understand what they are. This was my main problem when I tried pantsing novels, I didn’t understand plot nearly as well as I needed to.

I guess I’m saying the best thing to do is research about plot structure, and if you want to plot, research different methods. It might not be easy, but it’ll be worth it. For once, I don’t feel hopelessly lost when I’m writing. For now. I hope this helps.

I agree with Katie W. The first draft isn’t supposed to be perfect, or even good. I’m working on a zero draft right now, which is basically just throw-up in word form on a page, but once I’m done, I’ll have something to work with that’ll (hopefully) eventually become a good story.

I love the idea of a zero draft! That takes the pressure off.

In the version of “Hansel and Gretel” collected by the Brothers Grimm, neither Gretel nor Hansel does anything magical, and there isn’t a quest. You can read a plot summary in Wikipedia. The original may make the plotting easier because we can come up with our own complications.

Writing Cat Lover may be working from an adaptation, which can be tricky. If the adaptation isn’t old enough to be in the public domain there may be infringement issues. I suggest checking this out.

The old fairy tales in their original form are in the public domain, but not necessarily adaptations (a Disney version, for example) or translations (because translations are copy protected too).

By now I’ve fogged and stumbled through a bunch of novels. The sweet ones seemed to want to be written. The meanies (The Two Princesses of Bamarre and, especially, my second fantasy mystery, Stolen Magic) preferred to keep their secrets to themselves. They stuck imaginary tongues out and dared me to write them.

Stolen Magic scarred me. It took over four years to write and didn’t become even a first cousin of the story I hoped to write: a version of the 19th century original fairy tale, “The King of the Golden River” by John Ruskin, which I love for its atmosphere but not so much for its predictable plot, which I hoped to correct.

Before Stolen Magic, I believed E. L. Doctorow’s advice that “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E. L. Doctorow wrote a lot of novels, and his advice may work for some, but he led me astray.

Nowadays, I have to have the major kinks figured out before I commit myself to a book, whether it’s a retelling of a fairy tale or an original story. I may write a few pages before then, though, and call a halt to think.

But I’ve never used the inciting incident, rising action, etc. method though I assume my stories have those things. I like to adapt fairy tales or myths because they give me a skeletal plot, or I think they do. Most of them are riddled with logical holes big enough for a dragon to fall through. I have to figure them out before I can get going.

I often find my way by framing my plot as a quest, which, for example, is what pulled me through Two Princesses. I think most stories can be looked at that way. “Hansel and Gretel” can be looked at as a quest for a safe home. Or one to end the witch’s reign of terror. Or something else that we can decide.

To find the quest and our plot in general, we have to decide whose story we’re telling. Take “Snow White,” for example. In the original, the character with the most agency is the evil queen, and her tragic quest, in a way, is to stop time to keep herself from aging and Snow White from growing into her beauty. We have to rearrange things to make it Snow White’s story, which can be a quest for a safe home as it is in my mind for Hansel and Gretel. Or for power. Or for true love. All depending on how we do it.

So when we think about our plot, we need to ask ourselves questions:
• Which character is our MC?
• Who’s telling the story? May be our MC–or not.
• What does our MC want or what caused them to be at risk?
• What are the obstacles and who stands in the way?
• What qualities will help or harm our MC?
• What kind of world is this, because the answer will affect our MC’s ability to act and the sorts of actions that are possible.
• How do we want it to end? What will that look like? How will we get there?

In my case, since I tend to get mixed up, it helps for me to write notes and review and re-review my ideas, because I’m likely to forget about a snag that threatens everything, that will make me have to delete fifty pages–or much more.

Having said all this, though, the fog of writing may be the writer’s curse. Writing Cat Lover may be doing nothing wrong. It may be that, for most of us, if we’re not in some amount of fog, we’re not mining the depths that lurk in our story. A friend told me that Stephen King takes his laptop to sports events and types away, able to write and follow the game at the same time. He must not be an ordinary mortal.

Maybe I’ll be wandering in my fog and bump into you, wandering in yours!

Here are three prompts:

• Write your current WIP as a three-to-five page fairy tale.

• “Before the Law” is a parable within the novel The Trial by surrealist Franz Kafka. It isn’t my kind of thing, but it may be fun to fool around with in terms of plotting. Ask the questions I pose above to write a story that appeals to you. This summary comes from Wikipedia: A man from the country seeks “the law” and wishes to gain entry to it through an open doorway, but the doorkeeper tells the man that he cannot go through at the present time. The man asks if he can ever go through, and the doorkeeper says it is possible “but not now.” The man waits by the door for years, bribing the doorkeeper with everything he has. The doorkeeper accepts the bribes, but tells the man he only accepts them “so that you do not think you have left anything undone.” The man does not attempt to murder or hurt the doorkeeper to gain entry to the law, but waits at the doorway until he is about to die. Right before his death, he asks the doorkeeper why, even though everyone seeks the law, no one else has come in all the years he has been there. The doorkeeper answers, “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

• In case you don’t have enough fog, here’s more! You may know the Greek myth about Demeter, Hades, and Persephone. Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, the harvest goddess, whom Hades (god of the underworld) falls in love with, abducts, and marries. Demeter, overwhelmed with grief, prevents anything from growing. People starve, but Demeter refuses to relent. Zeus sends Hermes, the messenger god, to get Persephone back. There’s more to the story, because Hades does something sneaky, but this is all you need for the prompt. Hermes is your MC. Write his journey through the land, which Demeter has plunged in darkness, to the murky underworld, to retrieve Persephone.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. The prompts you gave are amazing! I’m currently obsessing over the myth of Hades and Persephone (may or may not have to do with any webtoons…) and the fairy-tale idea makes a lot of sense. Definitely writing both of those.

  2. I had a funny conversation related to this a couple weeks ago.
    Someone asked “So, what’s the story about?” and I gave them a two or three sentence summary. (“So, it’s set in a world with A, B, and C, and so the story is about L and how she does W, X, Y, and Z.” They said “Sounds like you have it all worked out,” and I was all like “No! This is all I have.” “Seems fine to me.” “No, you don’t understand. I don’t have ANY of the connecting bits. I know what’s going to happen, but not how they’re going to get there.” They kind of nodded and went on their way, probably thinking I was overreacting. But seriously, I’m a pantster. I come up with the major plot points and let the story take care of the minor ones. Which probably explains why there’s so much unnecessary rambling in my first drafts.

    • Belle Adora says:

      I find myself wanting to be more of a planner… but I hate planning. I’ll set a rough outline then completely stray from it. My brain runs all over the place.

  3. Pleasure Writer says:

    My current WIP has a double plotline. It alternates between the past and the present, following the events of the MC depending on what tense I’m writing in. My present plotline I mostly make up as I go(driving with dim headlights, I guess XD), and the past plotline I’ve planned pretty thoroughly. I think my problem is that my past plotline’s only purpose is to explain a certain relationship that’s active in the present plotline. I’ve been writing a lot of conversations, and I worry that that’s not interesting enough. Any ideas on how to add some spice without making it seem like you have to add some spice?

    • My suggestion (from reading an unpublished book, so take that for what it’s worth) is that the way to make a dual plotlines interesting is to have each of them ask questions that the other answers. For example, if the past plotline is to explain the relationship, then have it explain other things too, and set up “what will happen next?” questions that you can answer in the present plotline. Also putting off the explanation of why a plotline is important will work sometimes, although you’ll probably get readers who start skipping parts because “clearly” it’s not important. So you’d want to make both plotlines interesting in their own right, hence the question and answer concept.

  4. I imagine it must be very discouraging for you, Gail, to have to throw out 50 pages. But hearing that is so, so comforting to me. It’s taken me years to accept, but I’m finally learning that I can’t plan my way past throwing out pages. I still have to write the words that will get deleted or I’ll never get to the words worth keeping. I can’t skip over or around those to get to the keepers, the only way is through.

    • Kate Mazlow says:

      I had to throw out over fifty pages because one of the major plot points in my WIP changed
      because it interfered with what I wanted to happen. So I know what you’re talking about.

    • It helps me to think of it less as “throwing it out” and more along the lines of “looks like these pages ended being a writing exercise instead of a draft.” That way it feels less like I was doing all that work for nothing and more like I needed extra time to get to know the story better.

  5. MissMiddle says:

    I’m curious about people’s word counts. I’ve recently made a commitment to myself to write 2,000 words a day after not paying that much attention to word count for a while. I’ve discovered I’m a pretty slow writer and I’m drained after doing my 2,000 words. What are others’ word counts? Does anybody have any tips for increasing writing speed?

    • Ooh, 2,000. You’re brave. I only try for 550, and even when I get going, I rarely get over 1,100. As for writing speed, I’ll just say that writing speeds and typing speeds are different. Typing speed is just how fast you can move your fingers, writing speed is that plus however long it takes you to think of what you’re going to say. Typing speed can be improved with practice, but I’m not sure about writing speed. It depends a lot on your mood, how interesting you find the story at the moment, and how often you stop to look things up. My personal average writing speed is about 15 words a minute/a 500-word paper in 35 minutes, but that’s probably on the high end, since my brain goes about a hundred miles an hour and I have been repeatedly told I type quickly.

      • Some girl says:

        I normally try to write one thousand words a day of my manuscript. Then I usually write at least another thousand of my fan fic, a script, a short story, a song. Anything I want.

        I have problems with plotting out my stories too! There was a questonare I made for myself several years ago that really helped when I was starting to become a writer, unfortunately I lost the questonare.

    • I have two-paragraph days, and I also have thousands-of-words days. I know common knowledge says to be consistent, but I give myself permission not to stress over it as long as I keep ahead of the one chapter per week that I submit to my writing group.

      A few tips: When I do NaNoWriMo in November, watching the graphs that show the goals is a good motivator for me–and a competitive streak with my sisters. When I get stuck, I like to stop and brainstorm stream-of-conscious style–especially with pen and paper. It also helps to quit if I’m having trouble and go back later in the day.

    • Kate Mazlow says:

      Wait till you know what’s going to happen next, then don’t work on it for a couple days. I find that the longer I wait after I’ve had my idea, the farther I can take it, in terms of word count. Even going past where my original idea stopped.

  6. i💜writing says:

    Totally unrelated query…I want my story to have a theme/moral of sisterhood and family, but I don’t know how to write it in. How do I write a theme in my story…without it seeming like I’m flinging a moral at my readers?

    • RedTrumpetWriter says:

      This probably isn’t helpful, but I’ve found that themes tend to sort of appear and develop from story without having to actively remind the reader of it. (This could be because I’m a panster). If your story focuses on the actions and relationships between sisters or a family, those themes should come through naturally. (I’m assuming family is something that is important to the character, conflict, or plot.) If it’s important to the character, it will be important to the reader too.

      As an example. my book Backbird Pie wasn’t intended to specifically be about finding a family or your place within a family, but because one of the main characters is an orphan and the other struggles to figure out how to respond to his role within the future of his family business, those themes were there. Even the side characters helped push this theme as they also find their own family type units or realize how important their families are to them in the end. None of this was intentional, but because of the nature of the story, the themes appeared.

    • I say this a lot, but KM Weiland has an excellent series of blog posts that breaks this down into manageable chunks.

      In a nutshell:
      Theme is the intersection between character and plot. A character begins with a Lie they believe about the world (for example, your character may believe that their sister/family only holds her back). What they need is the truth, and that truth is the theme. For example, that holding to your family is more important than worldly achievements. Or that the support of your family can lift you to goals you could never achieve on your own. Whatever it is that you need to share.

      In Act 1, the story shows the character in their normal world, a world that helped them develop their Lie and reinforces it. The theme is hinted at, maybe even stated outright, but your character doesn’t get it.
      In Act 2, the story punishes the character for the acting on their Lie, and rewards them whenever they act on their Truth.
      At the midpoint (middle of Act 2), the character discovers the Truth, but they haven’t rejected their Lie yet.
      In Act 3, the external conflict and the internal one (Truth vs. Lie) come to a head. In here, you can say the theme directly, but only once or twice, and worked into the story so that it’s part of the narrative.

      Planners often do this subconsciously. I prefer to plot it out first. Someone has to represent the plotters on here 🙂

    • Song4myKing says:

      I’ve been mulling this over in my mind the last few days. It’s a very good question!

      Theme and moral are not quite the same thing, or perhaps they are two aspects of the same thing. Theme is the author (or characters) exploring particular ideas, and moral is the conclusion they come to, the Truth the character discovers along the way, as Christie Powell put it. Theme is what you want your reader to think about; moral is the point you want them to remember.

      If you want a theme, explore it in your story by bringing up different aspects of it in the events and encounters. In one story of mine, I also have a theme of family, especially sibling dynamics. Several different characters are dealing with sibling issues – pesky younger siblings, separation from siblings, wishing for siblings. Once I realized that the sibling thing kept surfacing, I decided to make it a theme. This helped me in shaping another of my side characters: I knew she would have siblings, but I didn’t need them in the story very much. So, to explore a different aspect of the same theme, I made her the youngest in her family, young enough that she always has felt left out. This not only fit the theme, but also made her a much more layered and realistic character. So be aware of your theme, and let it play out. Especially while drafting, explore your ideas. In revision, you’ll hopefully have a clearer idea of what you want to say, and you can add and subtract and change things to make your theme more cohesive.

      As for moral, handle with care. It can be very powerful when done right. Personally, I don’t like to state my story’s moral, even to someone who asks. It sounds trite when crammed into a single sentence. If I took a whole book to slowly bring my reader to the conclusion I care deeply about, how, or why, should I strip it of all the nuances I built around it and reduce it to a pithy saying that you’ve probably already heard? That said, I do come close to stating the moral within the book – but I don’t tell the reader how it applies to her life. I only have my MC draw a conclusion about her own life and actions. As readers, we tend to feel attacked when it sounds like the writer has started talking to us.

  7. FantasyFan101 says:

    I don’t really focus on themes and morals. I just write to have fun!!! It feels good to see how much I’ve improved, and it’s amazing to realize that you can create worlds and people of your very own.

  8. Fantasywriter6 says:

    Hey! I have a question. My MC in a story I’m working on is basically from a different magical world, but she was banished and has lost her memory of that world. Then she’s taken back to that world(by a guy who’s basically her fiance, whom she also does not remember) and he tells her about the world, but she has a hard time believing that she’s not gone insane. I have two problems that this creates: 1) the plot is really slow and very very boring here- nothing is happening except him trying to convince her that this world is real and taking her to the next place they need to be, and 2) I don’t know how long to draw out her disbelief. One of the things that bugs me in some fantasy books is when people are transported to new worlds, it sometimes doesn’t seem to freak them out at all, they just accept it(for me this is easier to be ok with when it’s kids because children have much more blind faith). My MC is a young adult with trust issues, but I feel like her not comprehending/believing that this new world is real is hurting my plot. Any suggestions to help with either of these would be greatly appreciated!

    • Maybe she tries to escape from the guy because she thinks she’s been kidnapped. Or maybe they run into a group of other people who try to help him convince her. Or maybe the group thinks she’s been kidnapped and call the police on them. I would suggest just making a list of possible complications and seeing what you come up with, including things like having her pet lizard fall in love with a plastic flamingo and insist that they steal the flamingo and bring it with them. As for how long to draw out her disbelief, I would say no more than a quarter of the story after she meets the guy. Also, if you want to have fun with it, you can keep the readers guessing, too. It’s really a question of how reliable you want your narrator to be.

    • Song4myKing says:

      Had she lost all memory of the magical place? Would there be a way to let her have some memories which could help with convincing her? Like if she has some vague memories that she assumes take place in the world she believes in, but something in the magical world stirs those memories, she might be able to place her memories in a greater context that makes more sense, and it could help convince her. Or maybe she could have a scar or something, which a stranger wouldn’t even know about, but the guy does know, and has a story to explain it.

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