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I have great openings with (I humbly feel) unusual and unique situations. But after the first few pages to support the beginning, bam...no plot! It stalls and don’t know where to go with it.

I’ve researched on plot development but have found that everything is about how a plot is ‘structured’ and the elements that plots are made of (conflict, change, etc). I have been writing for years and finally have the discipline of writing daily, but am hitting a wall. Is this chronic writer’s block?

I have a strong imagination, but I have come to the conclusion you can’t just teach someone how to write a plot. An example of one of my situations in older work:

When I was in highschool, a family of albinos moved into the house next door.

Then I’d write some set up, the narrators descriptions, then BAM... total stall. I know what to steer clear from, obvious cliches etc. In short, I’ve got the creative idea FOR a story plot, but can’t come up with the story. This feels like ‘duh, how do I write a story?’

4

I just posted this as a comment on another question and was immediately reminded of yours.

I find that different writers have different strengths. Some are great at imagery, some are great at creating three-dimensional characters, and some are great at plot.

If you are able to surround yourself with the company of other writers, you'll (hopefully) find one who's great with plot. I love to plot, it's definitely my strength but I still don't plot alone. I have a writer friend who is also strong on plot and we work together on our novels.

When I have only the nut of an idea (as you do) I run it by him and ask for his thoughts on it. He'll ask me probing and interesting questions like, 'Where did the albino family live before and what made them move?' 'What's the father like?' 'What does he do for a living?' 'How do his work colleagues react to his pale skin?' and so on. And in being forced to answer his questions, I really have to work through my idea and mine for details.

We do this over a period of months, getting together every few weeks to discuss the idea in more detail and each time, we come up with new ideas and new directions the story could take.

It's such a useful process that I plot EVERY story this way. I never plot alone.

I would highly recommend trying to find another writer who's in the process of plotting their novel and do it together. Help each other.

Good luck!

  • This is a great suggestion. I wish I was the plotter, but coming up with the odd, off-beat stuff comes naturally. Weird things or people I run into everyday inspire ideas. I’m a found-object sculptor as well, and creating works are much like creating ideas for my writing. When I stroll through a flea market and see random objects, I don’t see them for what they are; I see them as what they could be, what their potential is. Unfortunately, writing is not nearly as easy, but I love the inventive process and hope to be published before I die or grow too senile to put three words together. – Christopher Meck Jun 5 '18 at 0:44
  • @ChristopherMeck You will get better at plotting the more you do it, especially if you practice with someone else. But it takes time. It is very much like your sculpting. The tiny nuggets of ideas (the random objects you're inspired by) need to sit in your subconscious for a while before your conscious mind can fathom what to do with them. Natalie Goldberg describes the process beautifully as composting: facweb.northseattle.edu/cadler/resources_writing/… – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Jun 5 '18 at 9:20
  • What also helps me is to go down the 'rabbit hole'. If I have just a nugget of an an idea but don't really know where to go with it, I just follow link after link, allowing the internet to take me where it will, as I read around that idea. It's amazing what new truffles of ideas I dig up along the way and begin to see links and possibilities between them until a plot starts to come together. Good luck! But most importantly of all - have fun! Plotting, spinning yarns should be fun! – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Jun 5 '18 at 9:23
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I'm a discovery writer; meaning I write without a plot, and see what happens. I don't have written character histories, or back stories, or a laundry list of traits or descriptions. If I need a physical trait, I invent it on the fly (and keep character notes so I stay consistent). I don't believe in being explicit about a theme, or grounding the story in some central moral dilemma, or any other "Meta" story or "higher purpose"; to me the job is entertainment and what is entertaining is a reader that wants to turn the page to find out what happens next. Their anticipation of the coming good or coming evil or coming action.

The truth is, ALL writers are in the "discovering the story" phase at some time or another, while they are inventing and outlining their plot, or if they just start writing from a blank page; it is just that the discovery writers (I object to the term pantser, it sounds pejorative: If they use pantser, I'll use plodder) believe the story feels more realistic has fewer problems if we let the characters become real people in our minds solving their problems intelligently, while plotters prefer to make their characters puppets doing what was planned for them.

To me, the latter too often feels unjustified and out of character, because it is: When the plotter finally gets around to dialogue and descriptions and feelings in their characters, actually starts writing the story the readers will see, this increasingly crystallizes the character and over the course of chapters they can grow (in my mind when I tried that approach) into a person that just would not do what the plot demands of them in Chapter 10, whatever act that is, it is no longer consistent with what she said and did in Chapters 3, 7, and 8.

In order to write a story this way, however, you need problems for your character. It is generally not enough to just have an image of somebody partially submerged in a bathtub. That image can help you define a character, or introduce her, but you need a reason for her to be there. Were I writing, this would not be a routine bath, but a bath that solves a problem for her; what was the problem this bath solves? Did she kill somebody? Is she masturbating? Is she crying? Is she tired and this is comforting? Is she hiding from her husband? Is she clothed and the house is on fire and she is about to wrap a wet towel around her head and run through the flames? Is this her way of recovering from a rape?

How did she come to be there? What happened before? Is this the opening scene, or is it whatever caused her to be there? Or should the opening scene be something in-between the cause and effect? (Probably so, if the cause is a lot of action; I don't want to open a story with extreme action, because readers typically won't care if they don't know who the characters are).

When I write, I generally have been thinking about a strong character with a BIG problem she is not sure how to solve. That problem will NOT appear at the opening of the story, but the end of ACT I (20% to 25% through). The beginning is composed of smaller problems, the first page is a "throwaway" problem she must deal with, a minor conflict of some sort that won't change her in any way, one of the many we all find in life. The car won't start. We wake up and the power is out. Or there is no hot water for the shower. The throwaway is not about the plot, it is about introducing our character being active and in conflict so we can see what she is like; not how she looks but what she does.

by in conflict I don't necessarily mean a fight or argument (although those are instances of conflict), I mean any situation in which the reader wants to know what happens next. So we give our girl X (no power AND no hot water AND she has to get ready for work), so the reader wants to know "what does she do about it?", or "what happens next?"

That is why people read, to find out what happens next! When they lose interest in that, they put down the story.

As an author, my job is to devise such conflicts, one after another (and hopefully one leading to another), and let my characters decide, based on who they are as they develop in my mind, what they must do next. Their story grows that way, through cause and effect. Each decision they make puts them in a new situation that should have another problem, another reason for the reader to wonder "what happens next?" in a chain reaction to the final resolution of the major dilemma at the end of Act I.

Typically, a "formula" for a discovery writer is to open with the status quo world of the main character, one they are used to, and also open with a minor, everyday problem in that world, something that will pull the reader (by wondering 'what happens next') through the character building and world building that must be done in order to ground your story in some imaginary time, place and culture. This problem can be an excuse for the character to do something minor and out of the ordinary: Her car won't start, she is going to be late to work, so she calls an Uber to bring her to work (or some made-up competitor of Uber). Or she had to skip breakfast, so she stops on the way to work at a pastry shop.

That out of the ordinary act can snowball. She can meet new people, for example. It does not have to snowball, this problem can just go away: She called the Uber, got to work on time, and will have to call another to get home. Or a coworker offers her a ride, and that does lead to something.

But the ordinary problem has done its job if it lets you introduce your character and world. You can introduce a completely different problem after that, one that can lead or snowball into your big-ass conflict that will drive the story. Whether that is her falling in love or trying to find and kill somebody is up to you.

Before I start putting words on paper, I have in my mind my character, her big problem, and her sidekick. About the time I have written ACT I, I will have some quarter page to half page description of an ending that will work, but it is provisional and subject to change. If my characters develop in a way that makes this ending not work, I must come up with another ending. I don't really worry about how to get there, this is always the problem they want to solve so I let them choose how to get there and what to do.

Stephen King is also a discovery writer, and one of the top 5 best selling authors of all time. I'd suggest you read Stephen King's book, "On Writing". It is how a best selling discovery writer approaches the profession, without plotting. This technique works, and anybody that says they just can't plot, can still write great fiction.


Edit to clarify, in response to Galastel's comment about "needing to know where I am going..."

The biggest problem plotters have is the middle; not so discovery writers; their biggest problem is endings, wrapping things up.

I always keep some ending in mind that will work, and if I feel I must write something that makes my ending no longer work, I must also find a better ending I can make work. So I never write myself into a corner, never take a lesser ending, and if I don't know the exact path to get where I am going, I at least know the place and a compass direction to get there.

For me, my ending typically changes two or three times in the course of writing the story; usually the final change seems to be around 50% of the way through the story. For that reason, I don't try to come up with a killer ending before I begin writing, my first ending can be clichéd. I don't write unsuccessful endings (I write endings that eliminate the main threat but may be costly to my MC or leave her with much to DO after the ending, but I leave no doubt the story-driving problem is over). So I won't begin writing unless I can think of some half-ass solution to the story-driving problem. I'll likely improve on it later.

Also, for knowing where I am going, I subscribe to the rough percentages in the Three Act Structure, where turning points are, reveals are, etc. So the first 10% of the story is intro; at 15% we should see a turn into the main conflict area; by 20% it should be clear, etc. These were derived from successful stories, and I consider them a structure descriptive of successful stories. Take note the stories in question existed before the authors knew of the Three Act structure; it just turns out that these are the proportions people happen to like in their stories. So I don't have to plan these milestones, but I know if I am telling the story right, they should appear, or I should be leading into one. In that sense, I know where I am and where I should be going; and I know if I am running too long in a part or need another scene, etc.

I don't necessarily know how LONG my story is, but I can judge from the intro: If that is 10%, then an equal amount is what is needed to end Act I with a big problem. After the fact, I can edit to bring my story closer to the Three Act structure; but I don't adhere to it down to the page, just roughly within 5% or so.

  • Ooh, I've been meaning to ask how discovery writing actually works. That's a great explanation! I'm sort of in between: I don't do very detailed planning, but by the time I sit down to write, I have the general shape of my story (in extremely broad strokes), the MCs, some key scenes. I shape them together in my mind, as one sort of necessitates the others. It's very hard for me to write without knowing where I'm going and why I'm going there. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jun 3 '18 at 15:23
  • @Galastel I added some info on how discovery writing works (mine, anyway). – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 3 '18 at 15:56
  • Thank you! This is really useful! Unfortunately I can only +1 once. :) – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jun 3 '18 at 22:26
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I'll give my version of Mark Baker's answer and if i get it wrong someone can correct me.

You may have an idea for an interesting scene, or an interesting interaction. But an albino family moving in next door isn't enough for a novel, and that's why you are stalling.

Every story at its heart is a moral choice between what the protagonist wants and what the protagonist loves.

You have an idea. Like a cool snapshot of something you thing would grab people.

But, what you need is a protagonist in a dilemma - between what she wants and what she needs. Put another way, your protagonist has a goal and something stands in her way. The story is her moral journey, reaching for a goal and hitting hurdles at every step - sometimes she overcomes them, sometimes they set her back. Overall the tension rises and there is a climax near the end and she either reaches her goal or fails.

Let's take the albino neighbors that just moved in.


Act I Your protagonist is a normally pigmented fifteen year old named Sydney. She goes by Syd. Syd likes to think that she's wise beyond her years - She thinks she smarter than her parents and she runs the school paper even though she's only a sophomore. Why not? She's brilliant. She plays the trumpet and is pitcher on the high school softball team.


Act II The albino girl named Cameron (she goes by Cam) joins the paper. Cam's a senior and she doesn't have a lot going for her but she's a fantastic writer, page designer - when it comes to school papers she's done it all.

The journalism teacher tells Syd she's off the editor desk for the rest of the year. The teacher knows Syd has way too much going on anyway, Syd's work on the paper has been mediocre at best even though Syd doesn't believe that for a minute. Anyway, it's good for Cam to have something to sink her teeth into, because she's new at the school and journalism is what Cam wants to major in, in college, and being editor can help with those scholarship applications.

Now, Syd, your protagonist, doesn't want to give up the editor desk. See, she thinks she's all enlightened but really she's ... fifteen. She's proud of being the youngest editor in school history. Why is it being taken from her? Here's the thing. She's connected. Her friend Maddie is a computer genius that can hack past Cam's family's firewall and get into their network. Maddie can cause all sorts of problems that would make sure Cam never sees the editor desk at all.


Act III This is the moral dilemma: Does Syd do something unethical to keep the editor desk and hurt Cam in the process? Or does she take the hit, and be good team player? The final conflict and choice is the climax of the story.


Albinos moving in next door ... isn't a story by itself. I'm certain you have more to it than that, but it may be that you are thinking in terms of cool ideas, rather than moral arcs. A story is a character (or more than one) with a moral choice to make. Usually between something they want and something they love. Usually they need to give something up, in order to get something else.

  • 1
    Thanks so much DPT. Well that was an amazing demonstration. I see the arc. You’re right, albinos moving in next door isn’t a story, as you know. But it’’s joining your example of that process to my opening springboards. What tends to happen is just a stream of insight/observation by the narrator in 1st person. I also read a comment someone else’s question that stories are character driven not story/ situation driven. I would think they’re actually both, right? Thanks you SO MUCH for your advice.Extremely needed! Now to brainstorrm. – Christopher Meck Jun 3 '18 at 10:14
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A start, a setup, is not a story. Consider, for example, how many different adventure stories start with "enemies" attacking the protagonist's home town, forcing him to leave home. From the Wheel of Time series, to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. There are infinite possibilities of where you can go with any given setup.

Here's an exercise I was once offered at a writing seminar, and since then found very useful whenever my story stalls:

You've got a situation. Your "start", for example. What conflicts can arise from this situation? Take a pencil, write down about 5-10 different possible conflicts. Now pick one conflict - the one that feels most interesting to you, the one you want to write about. How do your characters attempt to solve the conflict? Write down 5-10 possible solutions. What complications arise? Write down 5-10 complications for each of 2-3 most interesting possible attempts to solve the conflict.
Rinse and repeat.

A story is not just a string of conflicts, attempted solutions and complications either. Eventually, as @DPT points out, you want a story arch, a moral journey, an overarching dilemma. This overarching dilemma would eventually influence which conflict, out of those you've written on the page, you choose to write about, which solutions, which complications. But start out with brainstorming on paper, creating multiple ideas. Choosing between them comes next.

  • WOW! Now I get it, the process of coming up with the direction the story arc needs. And that exercise is a wonderful and fueling idea assignment. It makes so much sence! In previous classes, my writing would burst, but when I’d get home (these were working vacations, I’d lose that momentum. And the exercises usual focused about a situation. Like the story has to include a gun. Or a story in which a person is partially or totally in water, be it bath or the ocean. So my focus was a ideas and a short exercise. (Week-long short story class) Love the advice and will do your exercise! Thanks! – Christopher Meck Jun 3 '18 at 10:22
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I struggled mightily with this question for a long time and I finally stumbled upon the fantastic book, Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham. Of course, plotting is still a challenge, but that book opened my eyes to the fact that there is a process to plotting fiction.

Is It Possible There Is A Process?

As soon as I mention process many pantsers (sit down and spill words) may believe I'm saying that you must outline everything out there and may instantly question the idea since creativity cannot be limited to a process. (I'm a pantser myself really.)

I'm not saying that. However, I do believe there is some guidance that helps and as Bickham shows in the book you can implement a process that will guide you into being able to determine if a thing can be a story or not.

Short Story, Novella, Novel?

As a beginning part of understanding the basic process consider the fact that not all ideas can become novels. One idea may only be a short story, another a novella and yet another a novel. Some ideas aren't even stories.

I Bought Celery Today!

We've all met those people who try to make everything they do into a story.

"I was at the grocery today and I was looking over the leafy green vegetables when I noticed the celery. Now I haven't bought celery in many a year. I started thinking back to times when I was a kid and mother would give it to me with peanut butter on it..."

We all know that is not a story. That is energetic rambling.

That's why this is such a good question. It leads us to to the fundamental question:

What Makes Something A Story? What makes an idea a short story? What makes an idea a novel?

That's where having a process and an understanding of what really makes a story becomes so valuable.

Here's A Thing: Have A Point

The first thing to do in our process is to summarize your plot. Any great story can be summarized. If a story cannot be summarized it is likely it is not great.

Star Wars : A New Hope Farm boy sets of to talk to an old man and becomes involved in fighting to gain freedom from the Evil Empire. Ending : Boy learns he has a place in helping the rebellion and he has special skills.

Jason Bourne: The Bourne Identity Man rescued by ocean fishing boat discovers he has amnesia but soon finds out he has special skills and people want him dead. He must learn who he is and why these people want him dead. Ending: Man learns more about who he is and the people who are chasing him and what his real purpose is.

Probably Know The Ending Too

We all know that we must have at least the nugget of an idea to begin with. And very often we need to know how the story ends too. If you don't know the ending then it may be indicating that there isn't a story here. Instead you may just have a concept.

After you have your basic plot you need to break it down into scenes.

Think Of A Story As A Series of Scenes

In the book, Scene & Structure Bickham explains that you must think of all your stories as a series of scenes.

Scene Result: Further Behind Goal

Each scene must have a result. For fiction, to keep your readers engaged, the result is often something that sets your protagonist further from our ultimate goal. That creates tension and conflict and that is the driving reason people keep read fiction all the way to the end.

This Is Where You Can Determine If It Is A Story

If you find that you cannot figure out why your protagonist would keep moving forward then it may be indicating that you have a concept and not a story.

Example Concept

Main character is in prison and can't seem to communicate with the creatures who have imprisoned him.

Each day they come in and give me food. The first day I refuse it. "You can't keep me in here," I scream. They do not respond. Day two. They come in to feed me and I refuse it. "I'd rather starve than live as a prisoner." I knock the food into the floor. I cannot discern what my captors want. Day three. I 'm starving. I have to eat. I'm weak. The guard opens the door and puts my food in. I run to it and eat. Day four. I see my chance when the door opens. I scramble and fly out. I fly up and up and up and I'm free sitting in a tree. You can't catch me! I flew right by into the tree because I am a bird and birds are meant to be free.

That's terrible. It is not even a short story. It's a concept. It's just a trick story to make you think it was a person being held captive and then some cheesy ending to trick the reader. Terrible.

What Main Things Will A Story Always Have?

It will always have:

  • main character striving for an important* goal that is just out of his/her reach
  • A number of scenes showing the character striving toward the goal.
  • A conclusion of the character obtaining the final goal or an altered version of the goal or failing to obtain the goal.

*Important is based upon the protagonist. It has to be important to her and the reader has to believe it is important to her.

What Makes A Story More Or Less Satisfying A few things that will make your story more or less satisfying are:

  • how good your writing is (do people like your writer's voice?)
  • how interesting your characterization is
  • is there conflict and tension throughout (is the story exciting?)

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