All of my attempts at writing devolve into overthinking plot, characters, and motivations, and the result is always burnout. I've yet to go deeper than a handful of chapters into a book.

Perhaps "overthinking" is not the right term and I'm simply a pea-brained dum-dum who gets overwhelmed at the slightest hint of struggle, but either way, it's not working—and I've been at it for years. So, I'm trying to switch tracks by lowering my expectations and "pantsing" my way through a story.

At least, that was the idea. But I just can't bring myself to write something half-baked. As I write every sentence and paragraph, every line of dialogue and description, I ask myself, "Is this necessary? Does it serve some purpose?" Usually, the answer is, "No, and no," and I kill my darlings.

That takes me back to the planning board. What does this character want? Why? That leads to philosophical questions I'm not nearly equipped to answer, and at the end of the road, as always, lies exhaustion and the loss of interest.

This is not a question of, "How do I write the middle part of my book?" To get to the "how", first one must walk past the "what" and "where". It's not that I need to add conflict—I know that—but that I don't know what the conflict ought to be.

Neil Gaiman, in his course on writing, says (and I paraphrase), "You've got an idea for a story. Now you've got to figure out what it's about." In a nutshell, that's my problem. Trying to solve that mystery ends up with me lost in a forest at night, so I decided to take a time out and try my hand at something simple and lighthearted; pictures and ideas I want to flesh out into stories, no matter the length; things that I think I'd enjoy reading, not because they would inspire me or teach me something, but just because they'd be fun. In other words, because the journey would be what's important, not the destination.

However, without a sense of direction, the words I type feel like fodder, or lard or filler or whatever you wish to call it. So, here's my question: can one write an unambitious story without it feeling like a waste?

I believe it's possible because I've consumed—and enjoyed—many works that feel that way. Maybe it's one of those things that I like reading but not writing, but I'm hoping that's not it, because that would mean I'm staring at a dead end.

5 Answers 5


You don't have to do that, or "know what the character wants."

IMO, you aren't doing "pantsing" (a less derogatory term is "Discovery" writing) correctly.

In Discovery, the plot is discovered by the author as the story progresses. Stephen King is a Discovery writer, and begins his stories with no idea of how they will end. He writes horror, so often the answer is "not well," but that gives him the freedom to do anything to the character.

I am a discovery writer, I tried plotting the same as you, and hated it. It sucked all the joy out of writing, the plots seemed trivial, my characters felt like robots forced to follow the iron plot.

Discovery writing begins differently, it is character oriented, not plot oriented. Instead of figuring out the plot, you first invent your character(s), their personality and attitude, their current situation, and we want the reader to like this character. They are a good egg. Forget your plot, you need to know what's important about your main character, your Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. How they deal with minor problems, perhaps how they deal with family and coworkers and strangers on the subway. That is the introduction (10-15%) of your story, is this character: and that should be easy to write. Give them some minor problems to deal with (a nighttime power failure makes them late for work, whatever. Show their problem solving approach. Show their normal life, they work, they interact. This is their "Normal World." We (the audience) like them.

Then, as King says, you throw them in the cooker. This is the Inciting Incident at the 10-15% point in the story. A problem for them that is not so easy to solve. And they try to solve it, but fail, and it grows worse. This is the 2nd half of Act I in the three act structure; the Inciting Incident grows to the point that your character is, either physically or metaphorically, forced to leave their Normal World.

Perhaps King's most famous book, The Stand, began with his simple premise: What if a virus killed 99.9% of the world population?

The inciting incident was, like any pandemic, the initial discovery of the virus, it infects just one person to begin with, but is hella contagious and spreads like fire in dry grass plain. But about 1 in a 1000 people are naturally immune. We follow Stu Redman, a small town guy, who watches and tries to help as the virus kills everybody he knows and loves, his entire town.

Discovery writers write characters, and let the characters do and say whatever they would (in the author's mind) realistically do or say. They come into conflict with other characters, and either compromise or struggle against each other.

The story feels realistic to you. The only thing you must protect against is stalling, your characters cannot dither long or end up in a cycle where the story does not progress. Every scene should move your characters closer or further from success, and you cannot just alternate these.

Personally, I use the Three Act Structure (with ACT 2 split into two equal parts, IIa and IIb) as a guide to the type of story I should be writing. Each of these 4 parts is 1/4 of the story, and each has a midpoint.

Complexity increases for the first half of the story, and then we start resolving problems and complexity in the second half.

At about the 3/4 mark, we should be at a point where things look very bad, but our hero must, out of desperation over their failed plans, overcome any fear or doubt and try one last thing to succeed, risking complete failure (and possibly death).

The first half of Act III is them trying. The second half is them succeeding (at least to some extent), and either returning to their Normal World, or we see clearly they are in a New Normal.

By "some extent" I mean they may have lost everything but they have defeated the problem that began with the inciting incident that began at 10%-15%, in a mirror image fashion, they defeat it with 10% to 15% of the story left.

Stu Redman doesn't defeat the virus, the virus dies out because it already killed 99.9% of the world. Stu Redman and his good friends, after horrific losses, defeats the supernatural evil that unleashed the virus in the first place.

And then we see his New Normal, the thousands of people left starting to rebuild society.

This approach requires a lot of rewrite. The Stand is about 700 pages; but in the middle, King got stuck for weeks, his story had stalled. After weeks he deleted about the last 200 pages he had written. Because just letting the characters (all individual people in his mind, with their own personalities) do as they would, they ended up in a stall. After deleting 200 pages, he put the evil guy into action, and in a sneak attack with a bomb he killed half the good guys, and jump-started the story.

Also, in a story, you don't want to introduce any deus ex machina moments. If you need your character to have some particular skill, you can go rewrite something in the first half of Act I, to establish that.

It is why Harry Potter opens with magical stuff from page 1; if you want magic in your story, establish it early. Evidence of magic might be the inciting incident, for example. If you want Aliens, don't wait until the middle of the book to introduce the fact that Alien life exists. In the movie Contact, Jodie Foster is convinced of this nearly throughout the movie; and learns the fact of aliens fairly quickly. The All is Lost moment occurs when it seems her only chance to meet them is destroyed.

Her New Normal is, she knows they exist, she met them, and she knows the world is changed now, we are not alone. Even if it will take more than her lifetime for the world to accept this.

You can find many pictorial representations of the Three Act Structure broken down, but here is a typical one with turning points labeled and described, in 16 equal parts. I don't use all 16, I find just the 8 equal parts enough to guide me. Sometimes the lesser divisions end up in my story and sometimes not.

But the trick in discovery writing is, do not plan all these in advance. Use this structure as a "compass", that tells you the type of writing you should be doing when writing a section. Complicating things, or resolving things. Adding problems or solving them. Headed for disaster, or not.

For me, knowing that, as I am writing one section, I am getting ideas for the next section. By the time I'm at the 3/4 mark, I know for sure how the story will end.

I cheat a little on this approach, in that I usually have some rough idea of my ending early on; but I seldom go with my first ending idea; as the story develops and reveals more of itself, I tend to come up with better and better endings. But if I change the ending at any point, I make sure that is consistent with what I have written already, and if it isn't, I have to rewrite to allow my new and better ending, or return to my previous ending. I still consider that part of the discovery process.

I usually start my stories with a few well-defined characters in my mind, and I know the inciting incident. Much as King thought about a virus wiping out 99.9% of humanity; that was his inciting incident. Somewhere in Act IIa, I start to get ideas of how the story might end. And I always write "success" endings; my hero might be bloody, bruised, and have lost people they loved, but they do always defeat the villains.

One version of the Three Act Structure in 16 equal segments


Start with their naive goal

A character wants something. An antagonist is preventing it. This dynamic IS the story, over and over.

We generally don't get the character's 'want' spelled out in bold type. At the start they usually have a naive idea of their goal. This naive goal is easier to ret-con after you know what the bigger conflict is about.

As an example, the Character is about a smalltown girl who wants to go to Hollywood to be a movie star, and the Theme will be whether (or how much) she will compromise her values to achieve fame. This Thematic conflict isn't apparent at the start of her journey, so we give her a naive goal instead: she wants to be 'just like Lana Turner'. In her mind that means being a movie star, but she doesn't really understand how to get there.

Of course the reader knows she can't literally become Lana Turner. It's not a bait-and-switch goal, rather we see instantly that this girl's desire is a) not that realistic, and b) kinda immature.

We also know (outside the story) that this is a goal lots of girls have but can't/won't do anything about, so she isn't even special. This 'inertia' and the doubters in her life are her first antagonist – the thing preventing her from becoming Lana Turner.

The combined conflicts and resolutions create the Theme

She needs to overcome this first obstacle, the first step that sets her apart from the wannabes. Let's say she tries to convince the doubters but they dismiss her actress dreams, so the only alternative is to get around the smalltown inertia. Somehow (perhaps a small moral compromise for ticket fare) she hops a bus to California and the adventure begins. She has defeated her first antagonist with many more to come.

As author you need to 'dramatize' each conflict according to character and theme. How does this conflict make her behave? Is she resourceful? Bull-headed? If the theme is about compromising for fame she will be buying into this theme from the start. Each conflict is overcome (somehow) according to the theme's premise.

Stories are about conflict.

All of my attempts at writing devolve into overthinking plot, characters, and motivations...

Perhaps "overthinking" is not the right term and I'm simply a pea-brained dum-dum who gets overwhelmed at the slightest hint of struggle

Very quickly, she's been confronted with her first roadblock (if a bit abstract) and overcomes it. The story has begun.

When the character figures a way around all her antagonists, or she loses the want, the story ends.

You don't need to struggle, but your characters do. She has a vague goal in mind, and in trying to align herself with that goal she is coming across new obstacles, new antagonists preventing the goal.

With each step she is 'leveling up', getting closer to her goal and becoming less naive. There might be enough story/conflict just trying to get to Hollywood. Most of us start with naive dreams that got derailed by life, but we're rooting for her now because she won the first battle. How far can this contender go?

Without a conflict/antagonist there is no character dynamic, no story. Antagonists can be abstract, conflicts can be small, but without them characters are just people who exist. There is no fuel to keep the story going.

Characters get a naive goal at the start. It doesn't matter if they 'earn' that goal by the end, but it will be recognized as naive by the end (assuming it's remembered at all).

If you know the Theme and Character, you can plot anything

I just can't bring myself to write something half-baked.

How refreshing!

But to go with your analogy, there needs to be ingredient prep for something to not be half-baked.

That takes me back to the planning board. What does this character want? Why? That leads to philosophical questions I'm not nearly equipped to answer...

It's not that I need to add conflict—I know that—but that I don't know what the conflict ought to be.

Neil Gaiman, in his course on writing, says (and I paraphrase), "You've got an idea for a story. Now you've got to figure out what it's about." In a nutshell, that's my problem. Trying to solve that mystery ends up with me lost in a forest at night

M'kay. I'm going to poke a hole in this analogy. No one (except maybe Bambi) 'wakes up lost in a forest at night'.

They walked willingly into the dark forest, step by step, because they had a naive goal that brought them there. Maybe the forest is bigger than thought, or the day was wasted and now comes the night, but there was a setup that got that character here. The pay-off is a new conflict.

This 'forest at night' is an antagonist. What does it have to do with the goal of being Lana Turner...? It doesn't. But her goal (and moral compromises, if that's the Theme) led her here, so now what?

Go back to the Character, how do they behave with this latest antagonist?

Go back to the Theme, how does this conflict get 'resolved'?

There are writing tricks to keep this setup and pay-off going. 'Resolving' a conflict doesn't mean it was solved, it just means the conflict concludes and the story moves to a new conflict.

Scene-Sequel, No-And/Yes-But, out of the frying pan into the fire, Accept/Deflect/Reject (attack/parry/block).... Plots can always keep going, but characters and themes can be stretched past credibility.

There are story structures innate to certain themes. In Comedy it's an escalation of the ridiculous, in Horror its diminishing resources and isolation, in tragedy it is hubris leading to a fall, Adventure relies on coincidences and seat-of-the-pants escapes....

Endings don't really matter – you can tack a happy ending on a horror story and it's still a horror story. Specific plot points probably only matter a little, but how all the conflicts are resolved along the way accumulates into the Theme.

In other words, because the journey would be what's important, not the destination.

The 'journey' is the full-realization of Character and Theme. The 'destination' is the story's ending. So, yes, journey is more important than destination but it's not some aimless walkabout until it all falls into place.

But isn't 'Theme' just some mystical mumbojumbo that springs naturally and unattended without any guidance, like weeds and serial killers?

However, without a sense of direction, the words I type feel like fodder, or lard or filler or whatever you want to call it. So, here's my question: can one write an unambitious story without it feeling like a waste?

I hear you. I'm not a fan of pantsing the theme.

Stephen King's stories go nowhere, he just sets up a cast with interpersonal problems and interrupts them with a monster. There's no meaning or realization. No one grows. There's no purpose or reason for the menace. He makes bank and has fans, and wrote 700-page novels on cocaine. He is a publisher's dream. I personally can't get through his books, they all feel the same. Same characters, same conflicts.

And no theme. It might as well be D&D to me.

I use to 'discovery' write, but it was meandering and repetitive. It had setups without pay-offs, and empty characters that were there to be stooges and villains for my Mary Sue over-powered anti-superheroes. I had nice language skills (privilege of education and geologic location I suppose), but the plots were silly and lacked depth. I tacked them out on generic 3 act structure, which forced certain plot beats and I felt it had improved, but then I did it again with another project and it became the same story. lol – not sure why I thought a formula would preserve what's unique about my stories, it's literally a formula.

The real problem was no theme, so I couldn't finish them. They were just words, and plot beats, and action stuff that happened (maybe I lacked the cocaine budget to stay motivated).

For people who discovery-write (and the fans who read them): cool. It's not for me. I recognize it when I see it, it does seem to enable more finished/published works, but I think there's a lot more pushback than acknowledged when plots go off the rails breaking their own premise, and lead characters are sidelined by manipulative plot-twist hi-jinks. It all feels like Shaggy Dog stories to me.

Theme and Character drive the conflict (which is the story)

You don't need to know the ending (some stories can keep going forever), but if you know the Character then you know how they will act in a conflict and this should change over time as they become more experienced. Their arc will compliment the overall conflict.

If you know your Theme you know how each conflict should be resolved – not specifically in a plot-way, but you know what kind of story mechanism resolves the conflicts: perseverance and bravery, guile and wits, self-sabotage and disaster, comedic surprises.

It's a lot easier to write when you understand the goal. I thought my old plots were great, but reading them later they didn't go anywhere. There were nice moments, but the tone was all over the place, and characters acted inconsistently to make the plots happen. Since I switched to Character and Theme as the main drivers I don't really have any problems writing. My plots didn't become less intricate, but they hold together better, with longer, better setups and pay-offs.

Imho Themes, like character arcs, build over the course of the story but it's essentially a 'worldview' or an in-world dynamic I'm trying to convey. When characters buck against the Theme, the Theme should impose corrections on them. When characters work within the Theme, the Theme should re-enforce them. Therefore, in a "Theme arc", the theme will be tested by characters who want to defeat the theme or prove it wrong, they will be the outsiders in their own story, effectively the Theme itself is the final antagonist that's been there all along.... When they've finally resolved the theme, accepting, deflecting, or rejecting it, they have conquered this world.

What happens to smalltown girl who wants to be Lana Turner? Does she make it as an actress? Does she meet the real Lana? Does she have a final confrontation where her fandom is somehow useful...? idk, that's all plot, just another setup and pay-off. It doesn't tell me who she becomes as a Character and it doesn't inform me about how she resolves my Theme. Working the other way however, knowing the character's arc and theme, the plot (almost) writes itself. Story beats aren't about arbitrary time-ratios, they are the natural and deliberate moments where character collides with theme.


There's your problem:

pictures and ideas I want to flesh out into stories, no matter the length; things that I think I'd enjoy reading, not because they would inspire me or teach me something, but just because they'd be fun. In other words, because the journey would be what's important, not the destination.

Most stories worth reading have some point that the author was trying to express. You may read it and only register the "it was fun to read" aspect, but if the story has direction and flow, then it is because the author had a goal and worked to reach it in the story.

Here's a solution:

pictures and ideas I want to flesh out into stories, no matter the length; things that I think I'd enjoy reading, not because they would inspire me or teach me something, but just because they'd be fun. In other words, because the journey would be what's important, not the destination.

Write a story about how the journey is important, not getting to the end. A character who is locked into the ratrace of "do more to have more to do more to have more" who learns to relax and break out of the ratrace.

From your description, it sounds more to me like you start with characters and a setting and a story line of some kind and then you try to shoe-horn a point and a reason into it.

  • Find the end point - what you want your readers to experience.
  • Invent a character who will experience the thing you want to express to your readers.
  • Invent a world that consists of the end point of the story and the starting point for your character.
  • Place obstacles and guides in that world that will lead your character to the point you are trying to express.
  • Plot a line from the character's starting point, through the obstacles, to the goal your story is trying to reach.

The goal doesn't have to be stated anywhere at all. The character doesn't even have to be aware of the goal.

If it's a short story, one goal may be enough. For a novel, you may want to express more than one concept, with one long range goal that ties the intermediate points together.

The ultimate goal that you set for the story doesn't have to be some Earth shatteringly important philosophical point. All it has to be is some concept or feeling that you want to readers to experience or consider.

"Look at this wild world I constructed" doesn't cut it. "Wow, verified_tinker has a good imagination" isn't a goal that the average reader will appreciate.

Your story's goal has to be something your readers can relate to or dream of.

Think of your plot line as a string. You can stretch it out and lay it on a map, and make it show how your character gets from one point to another.

If you don't stretch it out but just rattle it around in the box of your mind, it'll tangle up in knots - and some of them will be so knotty that you'll never get it untangled.

Provide your plot line a beginning and an end so that it doesn't tie you in knots.


Could it be that you are an overthinker, perfectionist and lose yourself in preparations?

Because I was like that in the past. And if this is true you need to get the idea out of your head that the first draft of your book needs to be perfect. Or even good. My advice to you is the following:

Write a shitty book!

You have an idea of conflict but it does not feel completely right? Perfect! Just go for it. Spelling errors? No problem, remember, we are writing a shitty book. Your dialogue theoretically gets the point across but it feels sloppy? Good enough!

After you have finished your last chapter you are left with a shitty book. Great. Now turn it into a good one. Read through it and think if the overall plot could be adjusted slightly. Rewrite chapters completely if needed (some chapters, not half the book). Fix spelling mistakes. Fix the dialogue. Cut unnecessary chapters. Add chapters if you feel something is missing. Make any changes you think will make the book better, even if this changes the plot. And by changing I mean changing the plot. Not completely disregarding it and writing a new one.

Repeat this process a couple more times and you will have something you are proud of.

You can break this down to smaller pieces if you want. You don't need to write the entire book and then go through it. You could do the same for chapters. The important part is that there is a phase where you create and a phase where you question. And these phases should not be mixed. When you create you don't question as this stops your flow.


I think your problem is that you misunderstand what Neil Gaiman is saying.

You've got an idea for a story. Now you've got to figure out what it's about.

If you're at the stage of story creation that you have an idea of the critical moments in your story, then you have the idea for your story. It's when you write that you figure it out.

That is, planning to write a story can only take you so far... sometimes you have to write the story to realize some of these things. In my own personal writing, I've noticed a lot of my books tend to explore themes in the vein of "What you are in the dark" but that's mostly because my characters' motives are not revealed to the audience at the same time as they are to others within the story world. But I only got to that theme by writing my stories, and taking them from story concepts to actual stories is when I come up with ideas.

But it's not just that, sometimes the things I think are mistakes at first will actually change the nature of my story so much that I can take it in a completely different direction than the initial intent. And sometimes the answer to an innocuous question is phrased in such a way when I write it that it works to new meaning and becomes more important than it ever was meant to be when I initially wrote the dialog.

But I'm not yet published, let alone successful; but I know enough to know that writers who are proven successes had similar dramatic changes from merely writing the story.

The one who always comes to mind is George Lucas. When he was writing "A New Hope," he had no idea what was going to happen in Empire, let alone Jedi. And there are several glaring examples in "A New Hope" and "Empire" that would be contradicted by later films because the story took a new direction. In "Hope" when Obi-Wan said that Darth was a pupil of his who turned to the Dark Side and killed Luke's father, he wasn't lying... At the time the dialog was being written and spoken and filmed, Lucas had intended Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader to be separate characters entirely. It wasn't until well into the scripting of Empire, where Darth was intended to reveal some information about the death of Luke's father that would shake his faith in Obi-wan and his original story, but Lucas had a hard time figuring it out... but slowly he started to piece together that the real truth was Luke's father was alive and Luke had a sibling or half-sibling with the father as a common parent. But Lucas realized with all that he had to do to get to this point, he was having trouble establishing why Obi-wan would lie to Luke... and more importantly why Vader would not only know this. After all, it had been decades since Darth and Obi-Wan communicated with one another and Luke would have been a small child. And how, then, would Lucas find the time in all the things that had to happen in Empire to get to this point? How would Lucas find the time to introduce a new character AND explore backstory for the villain? But as he wrote, it became clear to Lucas that... maybe the new character wasn't a new character. After all, he could kill two birds with one stone by using an established character to fill the role of this new character, and most of the dialog from the first film could work to support this explanation, and the dialog that didn't could be acceptable if the audience was asked to think of it from a certain point of view.

Of course, we did get dialog about "the other hope" still out there, which was implying the sibling that Luke had was still going to be intact, you might ask why Leia was permitted to kiss Luke early in Empire... to which I say, "well, Lucas had a similar issue in how he was gonna resolve all the plots in Jedi AND introduce the sister character and found a similar solution... but that only when he was well into writing "Jedi". When Empire premiered, the character of Luke's sister and Princess Leia were still two separate characters (it helps that Luke and Leia's kiss wasn't in context intended to be romantic. She did it because she knew it would piss off Han who was winning in their argument up until that point. Look at how Luke reacts after she leaves the room... he's more amused by the conclusion of that bout of Unresolved Sexual Tension between Han and Leia).

Again, I am no published writer... but I do write a lot and have written novel drafts on more than one occasion. The trick to writing... is to write! No one is expecting you to get the best possible story on paper the first time. And 9 times out of 10, when it's done, people who proofread it will think more highly of it than you. But every writer is their own worst critic.

You're not a bad writer because you're not satisfied with what you're writing. But you're not even a writer if you let that stop you from writing.

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