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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Plot Thick.. Um, thick... Darn, I'm Drawing a Blank!

I am a planner. I make lists. I set goals. I read maps. I like to have an idea of where I’m going before I leave my house. I'm baffled by people who can't give directions and ready to string up anyone who gives bad directions. Not really. Well, some days. ("Are you familiar with the area?" "No." "Well, you know where the old Bently home was? It was torn down in 1810, but there's this rock by a tree..." "Please, just point in the general direction.")

If I have errands to run, I quickly access my mental map and plan my route to insure the most efficient use of my time. I realize I'm sounding a bit inflexible, and perhaps a lot impatient, but I'm not. At least I'm not inflexible. I am impatient.

Now, I’m willing to accept there are others who are perfectly content with exploring whatever path lies in front of them. They are open to adventure. They want to see where the path leads and what wonders they will discover along the way. As a writer, they are called pantsers. Not being a pantser myself, I have a hard time understanding how anyone can start with nothing, have no idea where the story is going to end up and still produce a story. Yet, there are writers who seem to be able to do this easily.

For me, I need a starting point and destination. I start with who my characters are, how they meet and what puts them at odds. I also know how the story will end. Granted, all of this is sketchy and subject to evolve along the way, but I have something to go on.

Everyone has to find their own way of writing that works for them, but I often wonder if there are pantsers who find they rarely finish stories. Maybe they have a great idea, start writing, find themselves stuck and set it aside, only to repeat the process with another story. While they are exploring different pathways, perhaps they are gaining self-knowledge, building their craft or simply satisfying a need for creativity. There may be lots of value in doing these things. However, it isn’t producing a product – i.e. manuscript – and isn’t that the goal of being a writer?

When I find myself stuck on a story, I try to problem-solve. I make a tentative outline of major things I want to have happen then I start writing, trying to get from one major event to another. I don’t necessarily know what scenes I’m going to write or what my characters are going to do or say, so I get some element of surprise, but I know they are going to do something and why.

Again, not every technique works for every writer, but if you are stuck, I challenge you to try something different, whether you are a plotter or pantser. And don’t stop writing. Creativity and writing skills are like muscles. If we stop using them, they grow weak. Not every word you write has to be perfection, but even writing bad sentences is better than not writing at all.

I would love to hear what techniques you use to keep your stories going, or how you defeat writer's block, so please, tell me NOW! Oops. Sorry, about that. Take your time.


  1. Great post. I am a panster and have managed to finish eight stories, but I also have about 3 where I am stuck. I always have a basic idea of the entire story in my head, but there are times I've gotten tripped up, like putting someone into traumatic shock and not knowing how I am going to get them out of it in 1802. My heroine did eventually recover, with the help of my crit partners. By not plotting, I think a writer tends to paint themselves into a corner more often.

  2. I love your statement "creativity and writing skills are like muscles. If we stop using them, they grow weak." I am probably a pantser (am I Samantha?) and I am most definitely not a writer because I can't even speak what is in my head, much less organize it to write it...BUT, I am creative and love to do other works of creative nature (currently it is baking and trying all whole ingrediants, etc). Maybe I can compare that to a novel? The wheat flourless man was eaten. OK, maybe not. But, I love this post and I love the way you make me think and challenge myself in other ways. Keep up the good writing and PLEASE get that book published!

  3. I'm so much like you its scary. You'd think with me loving adventure so much, I would be the pantser but I am not. Perhaps that's why I love adventures because my life is so organized with lists and whatnot, that I long to run away and just drift to wherever the wind takes me. However in my writing, I'm a complete plotter. I even take it a few steps further than you and make a complete outline. I have three scenes per chapter at twenty chapters equals 60 scenes. In my outline I give a one line to describe the scene. For instance: Hero meets heroine for the first time. First kiss, etc. Just something brief without too much detail and the surprise comes from what I make of that one line. It works and sometimes I find myself veering away from the original outline but that's when I need to rework my outline to fit. I've completed four manuscripts this way and still maintain my element of surprise. Happy writing folks!

  4. Samantha...I love to hear how plotters map out their stories. One of these days I'll do it that way. But I'm a panster. I usually have a general idea where I want my story to go. I have the GMC's of the hero/heroine/villian, and I usually know how I want the first couple of chapters to go. Other than that...I let my characters take it from there. Okay, so maybe I have voices in my head all the time, but they sure make for some interesting stories. hahahaa


  5. Great blog, Samantha. I'm a pantser who's trying to become a plotter. When I'm stuck, I usually ask myself, "What's the worst thing that could happen here?" and then try to make it happen.

    I also like to work in groups of three. I might use the same setting three times, or have the character try to accomplish his goal three times, with different results before he finally gets it right. (Think Goldilocks) And I love to do mirror scenes where everything is the same except the character has changed so everything is different.

  6. Found your site through Twitter! Very nice. I write short pieces but when I get stuck I often open a book and play with the first word that comes up. Or a magazine and the first picture. I prefer not to have a set plan when I write (but I do not write fiction).
    Would love a visit if your have a chance

  7. The way I write is to start with a vague idea of a story and see where it leads. Then, after I have a few chapters and know my characaters better, I plot a little and then go creative some more. It goes back and forth. It's weird, but I like doing it that way. I did manage to finish five small novels that way.

  8. Wow.Thank you all for sharing your techniques. I really do love to hear how others approach writing. It gives me an opportunity to learn and grow. I especially like Gail's habit of asking what is the worst thing that could happen. I bet that makes for great conflict.

    And Lori, all creativity is linked, so keep creating those delish baked goods! If you need a test eater...

  9. I'm a panster, and I don't see myself ever changing. It's like riding a roller coaster blindfolded and I love it! But I write mainly suspense so that may have a lot to do with it. What I love most about the way I write is I'll write scenes out of sequence, not having a clue as to why or where it's going to fit later on, then I come to this place somewhere in the story and a certain scene I wrote way back in the beginning suddenly comes to mind and I know that's where it's to go. Those little voices in my head know exactly what they're doing, I'm just along for the ride :-)

    Great post! I look forward to coming back and visiting.

  10. Oh, Samantha! You know what a pantser I am. I have tried plotting before, but I get bored when I know where the story is going and then I don't finish writing it. I like to be on the edge of my seat, right along with my characters. Not knowing what is going to happen it what keeps me writing and keeps me interested in the story.

  11. I am definitely a panster. I took a workshop which I loved where I plotted out an entire novel. I was so excited because I thought I had made some huge stride in a new direction to make myself a faster writer. Ha, what a joke. I became stifled and chained, literally chained to that plot. I could not continue the story. I buried the planned plot and started over with the first scene in my head, which is where all my stories have started from. I start with a first scene, and I know very generally where I want it to end. Then I try to put my characters through the ringer of life and death situations while they desperatly cling to something which they think they cannot live without, but holds them back from gaining their ultimate happiness. After this, I bend them, beat them and drag them through it until they realize the error of their ways and will now walk through fire to spend eternity with the other. Not knowing is crucial for me. I cannot write any other way.

  12. I confess I am a plotter. I didn't plot my first story and that first draft ended up quite a mess. My second and later stories I plotted from page one to THE END. Even just a rough outline gets me a finished rough draft in the timeframe I want.

  13. I guess the bottom line is finding something that works for you, and that seems to be the case with all who have responded. I had lunch with a friend last week, and I was able to tell her the basic story for my newest wip. At times, I added, "I'm not sure yet how, but here's what's going to happen." But I have to admit that my favorite part of any story is the plot. I have to like the characters, but something intriguing must be happening and it has to fit. Nothing makes me want to toss a book faster than an unrealistic or boring plot.

  14. Pantser, pantser, pantser! I do a little back and forth, like Nancy does, but I never know more than a chapter or two out what's going to happen. And I usually get stuck towards the end, so I end up waiting for a dream or a bolt of lighting to strike to tell me how the book should end. Like the other pantsers have said, I've tried to plot because I thought it would make things easier, but in the end, I get bored or end up writing dribble.

    Great post, Samantha!