QOTW: Plotting a Story

7 May

This week’s QOTW comes from Alexandra Axellson who asks:

When you’re writing, how do you plot out how your story will be written? Do you come up with things as you go or write down everything in a list or plot list?

~~~

I’m a fly by the seat of my pants sort of person. It’s more fun for me to discover the story as I go. There’ve been projects where I wasn’t even sure how I wanted it to end until I got there. There’s a saying that “writing a book is like driving a car at night– you can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” And that’s me– when I’m writing, I only know as far as the chapter or two I’m working on, but eventually it becomes a whole book.

Of course, the “business” side of writing has changed that quite a bit. Now a days, I get to sell books on proposal, and then write them under contract. That means I have to know up front where I’m going so that I can submit the book as a partial (50-100 pages) and synopsis (5 pages detailing the beginning, middle, and end to my story.). So I guess I’ve learned to brainstorm the projects in advance, but if I had it my way, I’d just sit down and write, write, write, until I figured out how it would unfold.

Although, either way, I do like to brainstorm the next scene as I fall asleep at night. It makes it easier for the words to flow as soon as I sit down the next day.

-The Writer and Literary Agent Working on a Book Deal

~~~

My plotting is a bit haphazard, which works sometimes and doesn’t others. At the beginning I always try to be organized about it–I outline, create character profiles, keep a list of dialogue/descriptions I want to include, etc–but eventually I wind up getting really disorganized.  The happy medium I’ve found is writing what would look like a Sparknotes summary for my chapters: a few paragraphs explaining the main events. “X then goes back home, only to find his wife cheating on him, and lashes out in a rage. In his anger, he kills the family dog and flees the home when his wife dials the police,” for a rather short example. In fact, this is how I outlined one of my fanfics back in the day, but sadly I lost the book I kept the plans in, which was extremely frustrating since they were so detailed. (This is where the new program we linked to in our mash-up, “Evernote” should hopefully come in handy!)

I write out the events exactly as you would see on Sparknotes, in dry paragraphs that are mostly just explanations of the action. Occasionally, I’ll add in something specific if I don’t want to forget it, like a great piece of dialogue.

This planning only works for so long, though, before I get tired of it. Eventually I get too impatient to start writing, bullet point a few major events, and get started; unlike some of the other girls here on LTWF, not knowing where I’m going is more exciting than hindering to me, though it makes writing good endings a bit tough.

-The Writer Interning at a Local Newspaper

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I think I’m a bit of a weirdo when it comes to planning out my stories. Usually, after I get the initial spark of inspiration, I figure out two things: the beginning and the end. Once I know those things, I’ll plan a little bit, but then I’ll just let the story take me where it wants to go (while herding it towards that ending). However, I try to figure out the details of my characters and world before I begin writing, though I always leave some room for new stuff, and always remind myself to be flexible.

Until QUEEN OF GLASS sold, I never outlined–for some reason, it seemed like it would kill the surprise of a writing story. But the circumstances under which my book sold required me to produce a fairly detailed outline to my editor, and I quickly changed my tune. My outline was SO useful–not just in keeping track of what I needed to accomplish in every scene/chapter, but also in getting through the manuscript quickly and efficiently. It really makes the writing process much smoother.

-The Writer With Her First Book Deal!

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Of all the LTWF contributors, I am probably the most obsessed with outlining.  Before I begin my first draft, I create a skeleton of the story that consists of a breakdown of each chapter made up mainly of bullet points.  I may also include bits of dialogue or some description.

Like Sarah, it’s important to me that I know my “world” before I begin to write.  Even before the outline stage, I create characters and setting.  If the setting requires a fictional history, I’ll work that up as well.  These character studies and histories become something resembling miniature essays.  It’s surprising how, once I’ve gone through this creative process, the story seems to come to life on its own.  The outline is easy to write once I know all the background.  I just throw obstacles at the characters and they react, and before I know it, the outline is written.

Having an outline also helps a lot when it’s time to begin a new chapter and I can’t get started.  When that happens, I just copy and paste the bullet points from the outline and begin fleshing things out from there.  It puts words on the page, and sometimes that’s all I need to kick-start a chapter.

-The Other Writer Out on Submissions

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I tend to not really do much plotting, believe it or not. I write as I go. So long as I have something to work from, be it a character who pretty much demands to be written, or a place I can clearly visualize in my mind, and a rough sense of where the story might go, I’ll just start writing. Sure, I take a while to let it sit in my head before beginning; but I could never sit down and plot out my story. For me, it makes everything feel more forced. Sometimes, I don’t even know where I’m going with the story! I just write as I go, and end up surprising myself! Of course, this also means I end up having to revise a lot afterwards, but it’s just the way my brain works. It likes to keep secrets even from me! But it certainly makes the writing process extremely exciting.

-The Writer in Publishing Working on her First Book

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When I’m writing something new I tend to know the beginning and the ending. I liked to also have a few scenes in the middle though I’m not always sure where they fit. I don’t do much by way of outlining, and when I do outline it tends to be more a list of important events in order so that I know who to move towards. I like being surprised when I write and coming up with new situations as I go. This tends to lead to long and sometimes meandering plots that have to be heavily edited to get them in order, but it’s a fun way to write. They way I write it still evolving so I’m trying to be better about outlining, which lets me cut superfluous scenes before I take the time to write them. This isn’t to say I make up my world as I go, I have maps, a sense of history, and which real and fantastic animals inhabit certain regions (I had to do some research on desert species before writing PRISCILLA even though they don’t get much mention in the book). If I know where I am and who I’m dealing with the story tends to fall into place.

-The Archaeologist Currently Querying

~~~

I kind of plan… I always have a general idea of where I want the story to go, and I always have an ending in mind. I’ll think of certain events I’m sure I want to have happen, and sometimes the order of the events changes, but I’ve never been able to plan from start to finish.

But, I do start planning when I’m well into whatever I’m writing; usually something like a third of the way through. By then I’ll have a clear vision of exactly what I want and the idea will have been explored, the characters fleshed out, and the plot probably radically different than what I initially imagined. I’ll plan the rest just to organize my thoughts and (try to) get rid of any plot holes.

It works for me. Even though the plot ends up different, it’s always better than what it used to be, and so far I haven’t been disappointed. I need as much spontaneity as organization, the latter so that I don’t end up screwing myself over with multiple gaps, and the former to keep myself from getting bored with the project.

-The Writer Revising Her First Novel

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I don’t like writing a story without knowing where I’m going. That’s why for my first and second book I outlined the major points in each chapter. I haven’t gotten far with my second book so I can’t say much about it. But for my first book outlining helped me a lot. I would plan out the major points in each chapter and add or omit certain points as I went along. Of course, looking back on that outline, I haven’t followed it at all. However, it was like a map to me, telling me in what direction I should go to get to the major scenes. Also, another reason why I like to outline, is that outlining helps me view my story in a more objective manner. I can keep a better track of the story’s pacing and the character’s development.

The Writer Who Got A Full Request

~~~

For my first five books I wrote as it came to me. I could always tell when an idea would ‘stick’ because it felt different… more real in my head. Then things would happen in my life that could instantly link to my story and it felt like magic. Writing that way was purely magical.

But, it can also be slow, fraught with distractions, and detours. For my sixth book, A Clear and Beautiful Lie, which I stared after a 2-year hiatus of not really working on anything, I decided to try this outlining business. And I loved it! I really wrote more of a synopsis, and right now that’s with my agent waiting on approval. I’m enjoying having it so far because now I don’t have to wonder and worry where I’m headed; I can just enjoy the journey. There are still enough gaps in the story that I’ll fill in when I get there, so its not like a synopsis took all the fun out of it. 😉

-The Writer Waiting on Submissions

~~~

How do YOU plot out your story?

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28 Responses to “QOTW: Plotting a Story”

  1. Samantha W May 7, 2010 at 12:20 AM #

    Back in the days of fanfiction, I didn’t outline at all. I liked to just let my writing taking me where I wanted.

    This worked out really wonderfully, considering that a story which started out with nothing but 1 chapter’s worth of an idea, evolved into something exciting, breath taking, and tragic. But at the same time, letting the writing “take me where it wanted” also resulted in several ugly, useless, omg-why-did-I-write-that chapters. Which now embarrass me profusely.

    Now, I’m trying my hand at outlining. Maybe not chapter-by-chapter (yet) but something more structured. And it’s working out great! The story and the plot feel so much more meaningful and directed now, and I love it. 🙂

    • svonnah May 7, 2010 at 3:29 PM #

      I’m with you; I’m not ready for chapter by chapter, but 4 pages of plot summary was immensely helpful!

  2. Aurora Blackguard May 7, 2010 at 3:31 AM #

    I write when I get inspired by a scene. Usually it’s something that inspires the ending. Or the beginning. Then I’ll plot out where I am going. Thing is, sometimes I lose my road map and end up asking for directions at the gas station in the middle of nowhere (this is where the writer’s block comes in). In the end, I really end up just winging it. Meh. Figures really. Nothing ever really follows the plot.

    In one story my main character ended up dying instead of staying with her one true love. Go figure, right?

    • svonnah May 7, 2010 at 3:31 PM #

      I love to write like this, but I’m finding that in my current lifestyle I just don’t have the time to wait!

      • Aurora Blackguard May 8, 2010 at 11:47 AM #

        Really?? How so??

        I’ve always found that sometimes this method also has a gigantic fail button: if it so happens something unexpected happens, the plot has a very huge probability of blowing up in my face!

        • Biljana May 9, 2010 at 11:57 AM #

          Ahhh but that makes it so much like life, doesn’t it? Lol but who wants to read about that? 😉

          I think what Sav means is that’s it’s more time-consuming without some kind of outline because you spend so much time wandering. I agree, but I also think it can be more fun to wander. Provided you don’t get lost.

          Great gas station analogy :).

  3. Rachel Simon May 7, 2010 at 8:51 AM #

    I don’t outline at all. I’ve tried and then by the time I get to the actual writing (even though I have mapped out everything), I am bored with the story idea.

    • Vanessa May 7, 2010 at 9:17 AM #

      Yeah, outlining just kills the whole thing for me. I just can’t do it. Going with the flow is just how the creative process works for me, I guess.

  4. Rowenna May 7, 2010 at 10:59 AM #

    I didn’t outline my first one…but I outlined the second. It was mostly a product of the storyline. Story 1 was straightforward, two main protags, simple plot arc. Story 2 is more convoluted and has more characters, so I needed something to keep me straight. Still, my outline was more of a series of notes, nothing like those regimented outlines we had to write in elementary school! It was organic and changed as I deviated from my original plans, so it was a guide and a helper, not the driver of the story. Plus, I tend to write a little out of order, so an outline/haphazard collection of notes made it easier to do that for me.

    • svonnah May 7, 2010 at 3:31 PM #

      I love that; making it work for you. 🙂

  5. Myra May 7, 2010 at 2:42 PM #

    I used to be deadset against outlines, thinking they would restrict my creativity–that is, until I tried them. Now I’m a firm advocate of outlining.

    I think, really, that was the problem with my many unfinished novels: because I had no tangible outline, I didn’t know where I was going. Writing without outlining, to me, is like following the promise of a story thread while walking through fog. You can only see a little bit ahead of you; everything else, ahead, around and in the back of you, is impossible to see. The string you’re adamantly following starts to unravel as you become more and more lost. Then you stop, because the fog makes it impossible to see where you’re going, and it seems like you’ll never get to the end of that string.

    And if you have no idea what your novel is about, it’s even worse. I was hit with this idea the other day that, before, I would have started to write straight away.

    But when I actually thought what it was about, I had no idea. Sure, I knew it had necromancers, Grimnir who is really Odin in disguise, a high fantasy setting with magic and Gothic architechture and cathedrals and maybe some technology thrown in, a secret society whose headquarters are in a broken-down cathedral, a character that wields a scythe… but what is it really about? Where’s the conflict, the characters to drive the plot forward? I have no idea. Though I know the setting and the event that will set the plot in motion, I don’t have plot, character, or conflict. If I’d started it two days ago I would probably have shelved it by now.

    Outlining takes care of the problem of not knowing where you’re headed, which is the biggest problem that I face personally. Doesn’t mean Invisible Brick Wall can’t pop up, but at least I’ll be prepared then.

    Either way you might feel about outlining, it’s a tool that gives you an advantage when you don’t know where you’re going. And you don’t have to follow it down to a T. You can always ignore it and take a left turn instead of a right to spice up your story.

    • Myra May 7, 2010 at 2:48 PM #

      Oh wow, leave it to me to completely avoid the question while writing a novel-length comment, hah…

      I outline every story differently. Some are chapter-by-chapter blurbs in the style of “A goes to X, sees B do Something Bad, fights with B, leaves in a storm”, some are just bullet notes with character names, settings, andbits of dialogue, and some are PowerPoint presentations with images of characters/settings/etc. and extensive notation… it depends on what the story requires.

      It took me the longest time to figure out how to outline, because writers always advocate writing but they don’t tell you how. That’s another reason I was against it, I think; I didn’t know how. Lol. But there are millions of different ways to outline. You just have to figure out what’s right for you/your story, I guess.

      • Biljana May 9, 2010 at 12:07 PM #

        Yeah, like I said in my answer, I always end up outlining later on. I find that it starts like Rowenna’s Story 1, but finishes up like her Story 2, you know? My initial idea is really simple but a once I get into it it gets so convoluted that if I didn’t outline I’d be screwed :P. But by then I’d have everything in my head.

        And that idea does sound really kickass! Keep at it!

        Oooh and good point about nobody telling you how to outline. I agree with you there. I always thought outlining was what they made you do in middle school with planned templates of Main Character; Sex; Age; Eye Colour; Blahblahblah…

    • jenn fitzgerald May 8, 2010 at 7:11 PM #

      i have to say that idea sounds amazing and i hope you outline as much as you need so you can write it!

  6. Judy May 7, 2010 at 5:06 PM #

    Interesting post! I’m currently at the stage of brainstorming and outlining my project, so I was curious to see what other authors were doing when they were at this stage.

    For me, I attempted outlines before but never really followed them. Now I’m finding it helpful, but I feel like I’m spending too much time on it instead of actually writing my story! I hope that investing this time will end up beneficial in the long run though. I guess I’ll just have to wait and find out.

    • Vanessa May 9, 2010 at 9:18 AM #

      I’m sure it will! You’ll have so much detail in your outlines, so I would imagine it being easy when you get to writing it. Good luck with your writing! 😀

  7. Sammy May 7, 2010 at 10:27 PM #

    Copying and pasting 😉

    I am the worst outliner in the world. I can’t do it. I’ve tried many a
    time, and every project I’ve outlined has died after chapter two. It seems that the more I outline, the less I end up liking the story. I’m definitely someone who likes to go into a story blind. Other than a really basic idea and a character or two, I have absolutely no idea where they’ll take me, and I find that really exciting!

    Still, I can see how outlining would be helpful, especially when
    writing a series. Lately I’ve been testing outlining methods and
    finally found one that actually works for me. I wrote the entire novel first, then went back and titled each page in my notebook with chapter titles. I’d write down what happened in that chapter, and then began moving things around in the story based on my notes. It was easier to see where I’d made mistakes, if things were inconsistent, or if information or scenes needed to be moved. I ended up rearranging a lot of my novel based on this kind of bizarre form of outlining, and I
    think it definitely turned out better because of it.

    Still, I doubt I’ll ever be able to outline a book *before* I write it!

    • Sammy May 7, 2010 at 10:28 PM #

      Apparently copying and pasting messes with the formatting. BOO.

      Anyway, nice job, ladies 🙂

    • Vanessa May 9, 2010 at 9:21 AM #

      Sammy, that is BRILLIANT! I think, in a way, I do that as well… but I just read through the MS a bunch of times and move stuff around. But I LOVE the idea of writing the chapter titles and writing down what happened after you finish writing. I can’t outline when I write a story, so revisions are always super important. And that is such a great revision trick! I am definitely going to do that! 😀

  8. SusannahEJ May 7, 2010 at 10:41 PM #

    I’ve definitely considered outlining – it really might help me stick with a story when I’m having trouble finding time – but it’s hard for me to imagine writing that way. In my past writing, my characters have never failed to surprise me as long as I let them guide my story as I wrote it. In one story, partway in I realized that I hadn’t introduced the main character yet. In another, I discovered that a pair of my characters had the exact opposite intentions I originally thought they had. My mind follows really odd paths and, so far, I’ve relied on that to make my stories go in creative directions. I’m not sure I’m quite so creative at the “sit down and think” part.

    But it sounds like this is where a lot of you guys are coming from, and that outlining hasn’t slowed you down or changed your stories for the worse. Perhaps if I got to know the characters and world better first, my mind’s crazy ideas would come before the moment of writing?

    • Vanessa May 9, 2010 at 9:27 AM #

      I think the writing process is different for a lot of people. It’s always a good thing to test out what works, and what doesn’t work, for you. For me, outlining doesn’t work. But for others, it’s the way to get their stories to work.

      I think if you’re unsure, try it. But if you find yourself struggling and frustrated, it might not be for you. And you could also always try writing down key elements to your story to start the outlining process; write down who your characters are, what the world is like, and little historical details. World-building is always important, as is character development; and sometimes just mapping out your world and your characters can be really useful.

      I hope you find something that works for you! Good luck in your writing endeavors! 😀

      • Biljana May 9, 2010 at 12:15 PM #

        I agree with Vanessa. World building can be a really good creative excercise. See if you can come up with the history of where the story takes place. With what I’m writing now, I didn’t come up with the history till almost near the end, and now, in revising and rewriting it, it keeps popping up and making good conflict and so many more interesting things are happening. It’s becoming really grounded to the point where when people ask me what it’s about, I find myself telling them about the backstory instead of the plot; the history.

  9. Kayleigh May 8, 2010 at 4:50 AM #

    My very first story had no outline and I never finished it. My second had a complete outline and I finished it, but despite having outlined the sequel, that never got finished. I moved on to a third and then fourth story: neither one had a outline but one got finished. After that came a series of stories I NEVER outlined and NEVER finished writing. Except for one, but it took 8 months to write and was fairly short (50 000 words more or less).

    Now the one I’m working on has several plot lines, 50 characters (not all of them important, maybe only 24 are main characters, kinda…) and I knew that I HAD to outline it from start to finish, chapter by chapter, something I’d only done once before. I ended up having fun outlining and writing. The characters changed the plot a little, so outlining didn’t kill the fun for me.

    I’ll probably outline all my novels from now on, since I’ve got plenty of proof that not outlining has only worked for me two times out of a THOUSAND tries.

    • Vanessa May 9, 2010 at 9:29 AM #

      Have you made a character list? That always helps when there are a lot of characters!

      It’s great that you’ve tried both, and found something that works for you! Best of luck with your story! 😀

  10. gwenm4 May 9, 2010 at 10:17 AM #

    It’s amazing how different the writing process is for every writer. With my first book, I didn’t outline at all. With my second, and current WIP, I drafted a loose outline, but more important (for me), I did very detailed character outlines, including photos of all of my characters. A story board, you could call it, of characters. I know everything about them, and it helps to move the story along, even though I’m not entirely certain what will happen next.

    • Biljana May 9, 2010 at 12:21 PM #

      Knowing my characters really helps me as well. There’s no end to the possible conflict when you have two clashing personalities.

      And pictures are a great idea! Sometimes I catch myself not knowing the hair or eye colour of a character. Kind of embarrassing :P.

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 10, 2010 at 8:58 PM #

      Hi Gwen! I whole-heartedly agree with you about the importance of character outlines. And I love your idea of a story board of characters. If you really know your characters, they lead you through the story. 🙂

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