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?


I’ve read a few books lately where I feel used.  Manipulated.  Tossed around like a puppet on a string. Actually, the last three I’ve read have made me feel that way.

Why?  Because of three things–shifts in time, placement of the inciting incident, and very fast shifts in viewpoint.

One book’s Chapter One starts in September.  The next chapter starts in April of the same year.  Of course, we quickly realize Chapter One was a prologue.  But the common wisdom, the heck with the timeline, is to call a prologue Chapter One.  Next in this novel we have other chapters going in the right direction, but with back story, of course–always needed, but it IS hard to keep track of what happened when because the story didn’t start at the beginning–I mean the beginning of THIS story.  Sure, the characters have back stories and those need to be told.  But when the author also fools with the story’s timeline this way, it’s confusing—I don’t know if the flashbacks relate to the fake Chapter One or to Chapter Two. I know the reason for this is because the current wisdom is to start with something exciting.  The heck with getting to know the characters and setting first.  Start with a fascinating action, and then fill it all in, going backwards, then forward.  Is that really a good way to tell a story?  Obviously, I don’t think so. 

And this thing about inciting incidents?  My books have more than one.  I hope most books do.  Part of the excitement should be the build-up to the incident.  Anyone can put a dead body on page one.  And go backwards.  For a police procedural, I expect that, because it’s the police’s story.  For almost all the other sleuths, I want to know a bit about him or her, the other people in the story, and the setting before someone stumbles over the body.  I wish I had a library full of Agatha Christi’s books so I could see how they start.  The few I’ve read haven’t started with what I would call an “inciting incident.”  And she’s sold more fiction books than anyone else, right? She’s still selling.

The next problem is the shifting viewpoints.  I’m fine with that–do it myself.  What I don’t like is whiplash.  We have two pages with VP #1, then ten with VP #2, then four with VP #3, then we get into just sections where they go from one to another.  How can a reader feel as if she is getting to know the characters in this mishmash?  I like to spend some time with each one.  And I hate it when the VP shifts right in the middle of a scene.  There might be two people on the planet who can do this well–the author of the book I’m reading while writing this is not one of them.  So, again, I feel manipulated. 

Of course, it’s entirely possible that readers who are not writers don’t notice any of this stuff, or if they feel uneasy about the way the story is unfolding, they don’t know why. And there are good reasons to start with a big inciting incident (I do in my current work in progress), to play with the timeline, and to shift viewpoints rapidly (near the end of the story is better, though, in my opinion, than at the beginning). But we need good reasons for any of these tricks, and we have to be good enough writers to pull them off.

Yes, I know we manipulate the readers all the time–we hope to make them laugh and cry.  We hope to make them want to not stop reading until the very end, then be sorry it’s all over.  That’s good storytelling. 

The manipulation I object to is mechanical.  The scaffolding is showing, then falling, my  friends, in a lot of current novels.  And as it’s falling, I’m getting bruised and whiplashed.