(for the non-outliners among us.)
Hello, world! I’m having a pretty intense lounge-about day, and I thought in the midst of lounging I could do some blogging as well. I got insipred by a Writing Excuses podcast to discuss the concept of controlling your plot without outlining your plot.
Pause for a moment. Most people talk about either being outliners, or “Pantsters,” people who write by the seat of their pants, on the fly. But most writers confess to falling somewhere in the middle. These middlers tend to have starting points and ending points, and even important plot milestones in between, but with lots of flexibility on how all those milestones are reached. I like to call them “headlighters” because of the E.L Doctorow quote that goes, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
The casuality of writing with lots of plot flexibility is that your plot can wander. A lot. I’m experiencing this with SHUTTERBUG right now, and I find I have to be very conscious about staying on task.
So first lets discuss a few reasons your plot can wander.
While writing you’ll come across lots of possibilities and what-ifs. Exploring all those possibilities can make the scope of your story creep bigger and bigger. In the first draft, there’s more wiggle room for this, but at some point, you’ll need to start being choosy about which ideas are worth exploring, or not.
This is a big one, especially for pansters, or folks who struggle writing beginnings. When you don’t have a good sense of what your story is about, the plot has no sense of focus, and so it tends to wander. This wandering is, in effect, you as the writer struggling to figure out where the heck all this is going–and this is why having a starting premise and some major milestones, like an inciting incident and climax, are so important.
What Have I Gotten Myself Into?
This problem has less to do with wandering, and more to do with waffling. When you’ve written yourself into a corner, it’s easy to blow huge amounts of wordcount on trying different ways to solve the problem. It’s like thinking aloud, except that thinking is happening on paper, and translates as a plot that doesn’t know what to do with itself.
Lack of Excitement, Interest, Stakes, Motivation…etc.
One of the last reasons a plot can wander is when you as the writer just aren’t that interested in what you’re writing. Maybe the story shifted gears, somehow, and you’re not so interested in the new direction it’s taking. Or maybe you’re bored with the plot elements you’re supposed to be working on. Often this translates into writer’s block, but when you push through it, you might find the next sections of story to feel fragmented and unfocused. Either you wrote the boring parts and they came out, well, boring, or you threw exciting elements in there for the sake of interest, and they don’t relate well to the rest of the plot.
So here’s how we go about fixing a wandering plot.
If your problem is over-exploring, try: Focusing.
If your story has gotten swamped with too many possibilities, you’ll need to cut some back. It’s way too easy to bunny-trail in a novel where you have so many delicious things that can crop up in a single scene of dialogue. Focus by going back to what is important for your plot. What is important for this next section of story? What does this scene need to communicate? If ideas suggest themselves to you, make a note if you can, and move on.
If your problem is uncertainty, try: Brainstorming & Planning.
Basically, you need a sense of where the story is going. So brainstorm. Run yourself through some basic exercises. What’s your premise? What’s your plot, in a nutshell? Go look up a detailed version of the 3 or 5 Act structure, and try to compare your story to those plot movements. Janice Hardy has an incredible set of blog posts (part one, part two) about plot movements. And even when I don’t follow them strictly, they make great benchmarks to compare my story against.
Because what you really need to do here is nail down where your plot ought to go next. What have you done in terms of plot movement, and what needs to happen next? You’ll have to do a lot of brainstorming to come up with the milestones that will help give your plot a sense of purpose, but once you do, it will be a lot easier to know where to go next and how to get there.
If you’ve written yourself into a corner, try: Re-evaluating.
There are a couple reasons we write ourselves into corners. One is that we’ve come up with a problem we don’t know how to solve. Another is that we followed a bunny-trail, and now it dead-ended. Another is that the plot took a wrong term somewhere, and we don’t know how to get it back on track.
So take a step back. Re-evaluate. And do some brainstorming. If it’s a problem you can’t solve, but you know it’s vital to the main plot, do some serious brainstorming; share the problem with other writers; ask people for advice. Even non-writers can be helpful, because talking about it might be the breakthrough you needed. If you followed a bunny trail, though, or your plot took a wrong turn–and you may have to do a lot of re-evaluating before you decide this–you may need to back up. Way up. Back to when the plot seemed like it was going strong. And then…start over, from there. This one HURTS, because it means losing precious wordcount. But sometimes it’s easier (and better) to start over right, than try to figure out where you went wrong.
If your problem is boredom, try: Writing Something Exciting!
This one is deceptive. I don’t think anyone sets out to write a boring story. So when we get bored, we think, oh, this is writer’s block; I need to push through. But if you’re bored with what you’re writing, it’s likely because you’re writing something boring. I’m not trying to be pithy. It’s just, it’s true, isn’t it? The book won’t be exciting if you’re not excited in it.
So switch it up. Do something interesting. That could be something small, like moving a scene to a new setting, or swapping out a character. Or it could be bigger. Cutting old characters. Making new ones. Switching the POV character or the main plot goal. Even changing the season or city/town/area your story is set in can help, because these have a huge effect on ambiance and mood, which can really darken or lighten the story your telling, and thus, the type of story itself. Maybe you were writing the wrong kind of story all along.
So there are my tips and tricks. I’ve definitely struggled with this before, but never so badly as I have with SHUTTERBUG (in this case, I’m over-exploring. Waaaaaay over-exploring. Focusing has been TOUGH.) And if all else fails, pass the story along to your betas, and ask, do you have any advice? Chances are they’ll have enough different ideas that it will jog something loose and give you a sense of where to start.
And if even that fails…you could also try outlining.
sincerely and always and sarcasm,