Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Birth of a Story

The Beginning

So you want to write a book. Maybe you have the spark of an idea, or characters are talking up a storm in your head, or you can see a specific scene as clear as a movie in your mind's eye.

Okay, so what next?

Today I thought I'd ruminate a bit on the idea of having a plan. But first, a disclaimer!! As writing is a highly creative process, everybody DOES IT DIFFERENTLY. Nobody can ultimately tell you how you ought to foster this creative process. You have to discover what works for you. Now I am going to tell you what works for me, since that's really the only thing I can speak authoritatively about.

To Plot or Not to Plot?

First, my personal experience. I have always loved coming up with story ideas. Since I was about 6 years old, I've been making up characters and situations and scribbling down rough outlines about what happened. I didn't actually start trying to write this stuff out in book form until age 8, and I didn't actually successfully write anything more than a few chapters until age 19. I wrote and finished my first full-length novel at age 21, and that was a huge milestone for me (it was a terrible book, but a milestone nonetheless).

After I'd proved to myself that I could actually write a book without it killing me (I'd had my doubts), I started writing in earnest.

Several years have passed since I finished my first book. I've learned a lot about writing, about myself, and how the two intersect. How do I get from point A, a flash of inspiration, to point B, a finished and hopefully somewhat coherent book with sufficient story arc, dynamic characters, and plot resolution?

Here's How:

Basically, I need to have a plan.

I'll illustrate the point . . .

Learn to get beyond the beginning...
When I was a kid, my book ideas looked something like this:

Guy and girl are orphans, raised by aliens on a strange planet in total darkness. They both have super powers. One day they meet and they form a plan to escape. They escape. There's some kind of cool plot twist, but I haven't figured it out yet. Anyway, um . . . chaos ensues?

And that's sort of it. I never had an end planned. I never really knew where my characters were going, or how their journey would finish, and as a result, I usually got frustrated with the story and quit writing. I enjoyed coming up with situations and characters and I loved writing first chapters, but somehow that was as far as I ever got. I didn't understand it at the time. But I needed a plan, a goal, a destination.

In Short...

Writing is hard. Writing without any sort of plan is really hard. If you are the kind of person who gets easily discouraged or derailed creatively, I think you might benefit from plotting ahead of time.

What I Learned

I have learned to start with the end. Who are these people, and what ultimately happens to them? What is their journey? If I know how I'm going to end, it is a whole lot easier to know how to start, and where to go from that start in order to get to the end.

Since I began putting this idea into practice, it has cut book-writing time in half. Now that I know my destination, I can head straight for it without writing in circles and complaining of writer's block while I bang my head against the keyboard.


If you want to remain somewhat flexible (and I encourage this), think of your plot points as islands, and your spur-the-moment creativity as you write as the bridges connecting the islands.

Final Thoughts

Now, I realize some people just don't like to plot. But for me, it's proven to be much less stressful as far as the writing itself is concerned. Allow a small analogy-- which is the more frustrating scenario?

1) following carefully plotted directions to your destination

2) driving around aimlessly, hoping you'll eventually stumble upon your destination? Or not even knowing your destination in the first place?

I would like to note that there are some very successful writers who never plot and who write the story to "find out what happens." This is a legitimate way of approaching writing. Furthermore, over-plotting could possibly kill the creative drive. And anything that keeps you from actually writing the book is obviously not a good strategy. Find what works for you and do that. Don't let me or anybody else tell you otherwise.


  1. I know some writers use the "find out what happens" method, but either their characters are highly developed to genius levels so it doesn't matter what the end is, it's always entertaining - or the book sucks.

    Us mortals should plan, I think. Good post. :)

  2. I've heard some writers swear by it, but man, they must do like 50 rewrites to compensate. I am interested in economy as well as excellence. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Yeah, I'm thinking of trying to write something for NaNoWriMo this year, and I think plotting out like this will be a big help.

    I think you're right about this helping with writer's block. Good article.

  4. Great post! I like the island imagery.

    Very helpful ideas.


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