Dear Story Nurse,
All my writer friends talk about plotters vs. pantsers. I seem to combine the worst of both worlds. Whenever I go to outline a large project (anything longer than a short story, even if it’s just a mid-length novelette—but most notably novels), there’s always a hole in the middle. It usually says something like “more plot here” or “book goes here.” I know what comes before it. I know what goes after it. But not only is there this hole, I almost always find that I have to write a bunch of prose and then put the file away for months before I find what goes in it.
How do I fill in the map sooner? What is my brain even doing here? This has been okay, if frustrating, when I was just writing for myself, but now that I’m facing actual deadlines it is terrifying. I can always finish things eventually, but eventually is not always soon enough! Do I just have to build “2–3 months fallow period” into every contract? If so, can I ever make anybody else understand that?
—Here There Be Dragons (they/them)
I’m going to get a little Freudian on your choice of pseudonym. When cartographers of yore wrote “Here There Be Dragons” on a map, what they meant was “DON’T GO IN THERE!” Whatever was in that place was so terrifying and fearsome that it couldn’t even be named. That region of the map was not for exploring; it was, to quote a very obscure Monty Python sketch, for lying down and avoiding.
So what are you avoiding in those dark regions of the plot map? What’s hiding there that might look like a harmless bunny but actually has big sharp pointy teeth? (It’s Monty Python day today, apparently.) It sounds like you’ve successfully filled in some plot holes in the past. Take a look at those and see whether there’s something they have in common—something that makes you want to run the other way as fast as possible. And remind yourself that you’ve gotten through this before and can do it again.
Book middles frequently involve beloved characters being in serious peril or coming to harm, a proliferation of plot threads that can feel out of control, or a mess of problems with no apparent solution. These are things that can be genuinely hard for writers to face, just as they’re hard for characters to face. It’s so much easier and more enjoyable to focus on the beginning, when everything’s fun and exciting, and the end, when all the questions are answered. If this sounds like it might be your problem, then simply acknowledging your emotions around writing those difficult scenes is the first step toward being able to outline them.
Another possibility is that this is just your process, and not a thing that needs to be fixed. It does eventually result in a book, after all. And trust me, your publishers have seen many weirder things in contracts. So for your future projects, see if you can build in at least a few weeks for idea maceration. It may not be as long as you like, but it’s better than nothing.
If you are on a desperate deadline with the current project and you just don’t have three months or even three weeks to spare, here are three techniques for filling that plot hole one way or another.
1. Darn the hole in the fabric of story. Darning is a bit of a lost art, but the gist is that you weave a new bit of fabric that more or less looks like the bit that’s been torn or worn away. It may not be quite as good as new, but it will hold up under the strain of connecting the two edges of original fabric together, and that’s all that’s needed. You start by stitching some straight lines between the edges—nothing fancy, just some parallel threads—and then weave thread across those to make sturdy fabric. So to translate this analogy explicitly, you need to first connect the beginning and the end somehow, any way that you can, even if it’s just with a single thread. That’s the writing part. And then you go back and fill in the gaps with a revision pass or two.
Start by making a list of things that possibly could go in that gap in the plot. Remember that as the author, you have the power to remove things from that list, so it’s fine to start with some silly things and then gradually narrow it down. For example, if your farm boy turns out to be a hero, any number of adventures could happen along the way. It’s up to you whether to go with “goes on a magical quest with a diverse group of companions” or “joins the rebellion against the interstellar empire.” You could even combine the two. Even if the brief summary isn’t exactly right, that’s fine! You can fix it later. You just need something, anything, that will go between points A and B.
That’s your thread. Now anchor it: write a scene connecting it to the beginning, and another scene connecting it to the end. Outline what happens in the middle. So you might write the scene where your farm boy embarks on his first off-planet adventure, and the scene where he does his grand final heroic deed, and then at least jot down some of the things that happen in between. If you have trouble with the jotting—if the plot hole is still there but smaller, now less “book goes here” and more “adventures in space go here”—then repeat the process recursively. What happens in space? He undergoes magical training and learns how to fight. What does the training entail? And so on.
Create threads for any additional plots, like the one about the farm boy’s sister rising through the ranks of the rebel fighters and the one about his father being Darth Vader. You don’t have to link them all up yet. Just get them to the point where you have a solid set of scenes and outlines and jotted notes bridging the big plot gap. Once you have that, you can revise the hell out of it, correct the errors, connect the plots, and have something that looks very like the story you would have built if you’d had three months to let your subconscious chew on it.
2. Work backwards from the end. Luke’s getting a medal. What for? He blew up the Death Star. How’d he do that? He used the Force. Where’d he learn to do that? This is a bit trickier because there’s no guarantee you’ll end up at the beginning you have planned out. You may find yourself on a desert planet with a couple of uncommunicative droids and no idea how you got there. Some of the questions may get handwavy answers like “I don’t know how the hell he survives, Han puts him in a tauntaun carcass or something” or “midichlorians.” But it has the advantage of giving you a nice clean linear story to work with. If a nice clean linear story isn’t what you want, you can make it a nice complicated tangled story in revisions.
3. Borrow from the best. Take a familiar plot and use it as a skeleton to build your story on. If you’re writing a thrilling adventure, you might start with Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey or Martha Alderson’s “universal story.” If you’re writing a tragedy, pattern it on Carmen or Romeo and Juliet. If you’re writing comedy or anything episodic, try Dan Harmon’s plot embryo.
If you’re writing in a specific genre, pick three similar books in that genre that you admire, chart their plots out in three columns, and see where the beats land. There will be plenty of similarities that you can condense into a single generic story (which will probably look a lot like one of those plot skeletons I linked to above). Or pick a turning point from column A and a climax from column B and so forth to make a story that’s both solidly in its genre and uniquely your own.
You may find these purely technical, 100% perspiration 0% inspiration approaches frustrating at first, but there are actually many opportunities for your hindbrain to steer you around. Whenever you try something and it feels wrong, ask yourself what makes it wrong, and then use that information—that nudge—to move in the right direction. Using Aahz’s Law on yourself is a great way to make your subconscious talk to you when it would rather be sulking in the corner. Just remember to go back and revise so that Leia was Luke’s sister all along. You wouldn’t want to leave in some embarrassing scene of them kissing.
It can feel like what you come up with this way just isn’t as good as what you can come up with if you have time to go through your usual process. That may be true, or it may be your perception. But if you’re on deadline, what matters is having words on the page. And if you’re writing a novel on contract, presumably that contract has revision time built in. So tell your editor that your first drafts are rough, and then make that rough first draft happen, by hook or by crook. I promise you can fix all the problems down the road.