I've been working professionally as a part-time freelancer journalist for the past couple of years. Over that time I feel I've got a good grasp of how, technically, to construct an engaging piece of writing and how to shape a story. I'd now like to try my hand at some short-form fiction.

When I sit down and try to plan something out, however, I hit a snag. I find myself able to see vignettes - characters, scenes, briefs bursts of plot - but I cannot seem to string them together into anything resembling an overarching plot.

When I write journalism I am lucky enough to be able to start with an idea and, once I have an opening paragraph, I find myself able to flesh out the piece as its written. Then I just go back and re-edit it until I'm happy. I suspect this happy knack has left me clueless in how best to go about pre-planning things in detail.

Are there any techniques I can try to flesh out my vignettes into something with enough body to pass as a short story?

4 Answers 4


Stephen King doesn't plan his plots; at least according to his book, "On Writing." Perhaps that is more your style (and is what I like, too). King's approach is to write about a problem and do exactly what you said: imagine characters, and scenes, and get in the head of the characters.

The "Plot" is just the story line; you may need to learn some things about that, but basically (in this approach to writing) what you have in mind is the "Big Problem" to solve. You may have some vague ideas about how characters will solve it; for example "eventually Bill kills his best friend to stop him", or "I know Marcia will be raped, shot, stabbed and set on fire at various points in this story, but in the end she wins."

Those can change as your story develops; maybe Bill finds a clever way to neutralize his best friend without killing him. Maybe the gauntlet Marcia must soldier through involves a near drowning instead of being raped.

This approach is to first see the Big Problem, then see Characters and how they discover it, and what they then do about it (or because of it). Then write the scene, here is what they were doing (playing with metal detectors in a field); here is what they found (a buried Army duffel bag full of thirty million recent-issue dollars and a bloody knife).

Think about your characters; get into their head. Make them different (of course if they are friends or lovers they probably have some things in common). What does each of them do next? Of those, What is THE most interesting next scene that is going to alarm or provide some force to make other characters move? Are there hidden characters (who buried that Duffel?)

Don't fall in love with your scenes to the point you can't bid them a fond farewell; this approach can take some backtracking and discarding. But do remember that in real life, we cannot do that: Sometimes, what seems like "stuck" for a character is an opportunity for desperate action: Self-sacrifice, murder, deception, coming clean, surrender.

Don't be afraid of correcting course (or putting some foreshadowing) in earlier scenes: For example: Joe didn't tell Charlene the knife was bloody, he lied.

Also, the characters will take on lives and personalities of their own in your mind; so as you read earlier scenes you may feel like they are acting out of character, and rewrite a little to put them in their more developed character.

The plot will emerge as the characters take their actions to deal with it; just make sure the Big Problem is enough to motivate them until some sort of conclusion is reached.


Since you already have a process that works for you in journalism, why not adapt it for fiction? Just divide your writing into two phases:

First, write all the scenes and vignettes that you can think of. Then go back, and craft a story out of them, as if you were building a non-fiction story from your raw notes.

The main disadvantage is that you'll produce a lot of work that doesn't end up in the final version, but that's actually the case for everyone.


I think plot is overrated. My focus is on the characters. I put them into situations and write the scene, waiting for them to do something interesting. Sometimes they do. I keep doing this until the characters develop and a storyline starts to emerge. (See? I can't even call it a plot.) Only then do I start writing the story. Some of my vignettes make it in, but most don't. I treat the vignette writing as exploration, as getting to know my characters, as tweaking them into their more-interesting forms. It's necessary, and it's not a waste of time. That's how you discover your story. That's the process.

That is, keep writing vignettes until your characters and the storyline emerge.

Good luck.


The mainspring of story is desire. What drives your hero on from one scene to the next? What shapes their actions in a consistent way? It is their desire, they thing they are driven to attain. The desire can be anything that reasonably drives someone to action: love, lust, greed, revenge, the desire to save, the desire to return. But you have to find the desire, the want that is strong enough to drive the character forward in the face of mounting opposition and disappointment.

And then you need to manufacture the opposition and create the disappointment, and drive the character on toward that point where they have to make a fundamental choice about their values, either recognizing what their values really are or making a change in their values.

The key elements, in other words, are force and resistance, rock and hard place, devil and the deep blue sea. Once you find those you have the mainspring the drives your story from one scene to the next.

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