For today’s post, I’m going to do a jumble of various ideas about plotting. As you probably know by now, I do not usually plot a whole story or novel out ahead of time. I come up with an idea, start writing, and plot as I go. This generally works well, but sometimes even I get stuck.

Those who plot ahead swear by it. At a conference I attended, one famous writer told about his advance plotting, using index cards, and never, ever beginning to write until the whole story is tightly laid out. I listened to him wide-eyed, wondering how much he enjoyed writing the actual story after all that. He writes suspense, so I can see the advantage. Plotting out a mystery with clues and suspects can be useful. Another writer I know used to be a “panster”—doing what I do by coming up with an idea, then just winging it. She is now an avid plotter. Go figure.

There are many books and articles out there about advance plotting. Since I don’t do it, I don’t have any real advice about doing it. (I know, big surprise there.)

If, like me, you’d rather be a panster, here is my jumble of thoughts about how to save a manuscript when you get stuck.

  • Make notes as you go, even for a short story. List your characters, their ages, description, occupation, and anything else you think is important when you first put them into the story. I do this by having an open document called <Title> notes.doc. Also put in place names for spelling purposes and other details such as the car someone is driving, with the year, if applicable, and all such details. If you don’t want to interrupt your flow while writing, when you’re done for the day, pick those details out and get them (by copying and pasting) into that notes file.
  • If it’s a novel, when you’re done for the day, do a timeline (day of week, time of day) and a short description of each day’s work. If you get interrupted in the middle of writing the novel, this will be very useful to get you back on track. Also, there’s not much of anything harder to do than fix a bolloxed-up timeline after the novel is written.
  • Be aware as you write about setting each scene, having conflict in the scene, and ending with a small cliffhanger. Read your favorite author of mystery and suspense and see how this works.
  • If you get stuck, simply throw something interesting into the mix. Or ask yourself what if? Or what could possibly happen next? List ideas, then pick the most surprising, weirdest or interesting one and go with it.
  • Trust yourself. Let your subconscious take over. You know, that part of you that has strange dreams. The only time I try to force anything is when I’m stuck. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen to me very often. I believe that’s because I trust my subconscious to come up with something.
  • If all else fails, do what is called an overlay outline of someone else’s book. Take a novel you think is one of the best or the best you have ever read. Put down how it starts (probably not with someone alone, getting up in the morning, unless a bomb has gone off). What about the first few paragraphs draws you in? Write it down. Next put down the inciting incident. What page did that happen on? Outline the whole book or story, scene by scene. Then use that framework for your work. This is particularly useful if you’re a beginning writer. And even more useful if you do it with several books/stories. Then try it with one you didn’t like very much. Can you see differences and patterns? I bet you will.

So, those are my tips for the day. Good luck. Anyone have other tricks to get themselves going when they’re stuck?


  1. For my first novel, I used index cards and arranged and rearranged them numerous times. I did have a rough outline for the plot, and notes, as you mentioned, for character names, etc. That method worked well, especially for a longer novel and I still do it sometimes for short stories. I’ve never been able to do the “pantser” thing because many times the ending of a story comes to me first. Now, I have more luck just jotting down notes, bits of dialogue, descriptions, etc. in a long list, then eventually rearranging them until they morph into a story. Of course, that’s easier to do with a short story than a novel.

    Your “overlay outline” method was very helpful to me to actually learn how a book was organized–the loose formula they used to get the sleuth from one place to the next. I can’t even remember which book I analyzed, but can still remember the moment when I “got it” and saw clearly how a book was plotted. Tricks like that are invaluable when you’re starting out, especially, and when you get stuck. bobbi c.

    • It is amazing to me how different we all are about the mechanics of getting a story in a form good enough for others to read it. I never heard of the overlay idea until this past year. How great you did it on your own. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Bobbi!

      • I’m sure I didn’t come up with the idea on my own. I probably read about it in some “how-to-write mysteries” book or other. Or maybe somebody taught it in a class. Either way, like you said, we all use the tricks and tips that work for us. And the same trick might not work for every story.

  2. I noticed that I make mistakes when I change character names. So now I too keep detailed information on each character. I also like the idea of timelines rather than plotlines. Again fewer mistakes. The one thing I’ve learned is that even when I do an outline of a novel in advance, I need to be flexible. Writing is fluid and it comes alive as we flesh out our scenes. Great advice as usual, Jan.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Jacqueline. So much trial and error at the beginning of our careers. And as I said in an earlier post, advice, even good advice, doesn’t work for everyone. We have to find our own way. But some basic stuff like keeping track of character names and the timeline can be a huge help. Glad you found that out, too.

      • Jan: I like your ideas for plotting. I tend to have so much fun making up funny names then I lose the details that make tropes tropes. Thanks for the advice.

        • Hi Barb–somehow I missed your comment yesterday. So sorry. Thanks for coming by and hope you don’t run out of funny character names.

  3. Love your plotting ideas. I know I should make a plot chart and a timeline chart, but I usually forget. Being a short story writer, I usually plot backward for a mystery but I do all the plotting in my head, then write the first draft. The second draft is when I go back and add anything I need in the way of red herrings, suspects, etc. Sometimes I surprise myself with a twist ending I never thought about and have to adjust things to fit it. If all else fails, I like you play ‘what if?’

    • Pat, I know a couple of other writers, especially mystery writers, so decide on the ending before they begin to write. I find that idea fascinating, but have never tried it. I think I will for the next short story I write. I love writing short stories because you can try things like this much quicker and find out if they work for you before doing it with a whole novel. And like you, I sometimes have to go back in and put in clues and red herrings. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Useful ideas. Years ago, I read an article in The Writer (can’t remember the good author’s name anymore) about writing an “afterline,” a timeline or outline, if you will, that has all the detail you’ll need to keep straight what day, time, place, and point of view you’re in, scene by scene and chapter by chapter. It has saved my sanity to be able to check this short summary of a book in progress for who’s present, anything special I need to know (boots on, or flipflops, for instance) for continuity. I once heard Tony Hillerman talk about how in Fly on the Wall he let his hero go in sock feet for chapters after the one in which he removed his shoes for good reason. (True–read it yourself.)

    • Sara, laughing about the Tony H. story. If I switch POVs in a story, I also keep track of them on the timeline. A big help to see if they’re balanced. The outline part of the timeline is also helpful if you’re interrupted or if you’re writing a series and need to quickly check something in an earlier book. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Hi Sara/Jan,
      Yes! My husband (a big HIllerman fan) told me about this just yesterday, when I was complaining to him how difficult it was to keep up with all the little details in a story or novel. In my recent story, the character had a flashlight and batteries, and I had to keep up with where he put them. LOL.

      • Bobbi, all I can suggest for the little details is to always have a firm picture in your mind of your character–what he’s wearing or not (shoes), carrying, and especially where he’s positioned. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read of a character sitting down, then suddenly he’s standing next to the fireplace without ever having gotten up again. Not good to have your reader wondering about those details instead of being immersed in the story. But it happens to every writer eventually, I think.

        • Yes, that’s what I do—I’m a heavy visualizer, and the characters walk around in my head, sometimes in slow motion. My experience writing plays helps with that, too, since you have to keep an eye on the way props and such are used. Also, another one that I have to pay attention to are doors or windows–are they open/closed? 🙂

  5. Speaking of Hillerman, he was also a pantser and said he’d have been bored and stopped writing if he knew too much ahead of time. My method is similar to Jan’s, though I’ve been using a notebook for the character list and time chart. Many good ideas in this blog.

    • Ah, J. R., before computers, I used a notebook, too. LOL I switched over to the computer for notes when I got my first laptop. Harder to juggle the notebook with the computer in lap. Thanks for the compliment about my blog. I write it the same way I write my stories–I wing it. Seems to work for me.

  6. Great stuff, Jan. I tried outlining once. It lasted about five minutes. It’s much more interesting to turn a story loose and see where it runs. I usually have a good idea where it’s going, but that’s always subject to change.

    • I actually love not knowing what I’ll come up with next, Earl, like you. It’s like reading a book. But it might be reassuring to know the ending or have one in mind. Sometimes I do come up with one 1/4 or 1/2 of the way through, but more often it’s 3/4s of the way. For whodunits, this works well, I believe. Just lay everything out, pick the most unlikely suspect, do a little fixing of clues and such, and there’s your story.

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