#98: How to Write Without Plotting

Dear Story Nurse,

I work in a different creative industry, but books and stories are what that pushed me to pursue it. I want to put something out into the world that resonates with other people the way my influences resonated and shaped me. Something that’s good enough for someone else to care about it. Fantasy worldbuilding and character-making are such joyful exercises of the imagination, and I want to do something exciting with all these fun toys I come up with! But wow, turns out I hate making stories maybe?

Or rather, plots and narratives are agony for me. I thought that since I’m delighted by intrigue and puzzleboxes it’d be enjoyable to construct those things myself. Turns out I’m full of it. I hate scrounging around for premises, I don’t care about the whats and hows and whys of events, and everything is just a thin excuse to make my characters have a Point. All I want are for my characters to Feel The Deep Feelings and for things to have been Very Important because of Reasons. I want to be good at this and to do practice stories and sharpen my skills, but the exercise of the craft never seems to give back even a drop of fun. Trying to force the vague shifting silhouettes of a “story” into a concrete narrative shape is a joyless chore. Why pour my very limited time and energy into something that I seem to hate actually doing?

Yet I’m still never able to make peace with the idea of truly giving up and letting go. I keep burning with the desire to actually Make Something. I believe if this desire exists inside of me so strongly then it must be tied to something real. But it feels like I don’t have any stories in me, just the places where they could happen and the people they might happen to, someday.

Can you bash yourself over the head with something you hate enough times until it becomes fun? Is that possible? Is this all really very normal?

—Not a Storyteller? (she/her)

Dear Not a Storyteller?,

I’m sorry that plotting is giving you such a hard time. It sounds like you’re very clear on which parts of writing fiction are fun and satisfying for you, and which ones aren’t. That’s important! And you’re not alone in loving some parts of writing and disliking others. For some people the struggle is with voice; for some it’s character creation; and for some, like you, it’s plotting.

If your experience of plotting were that it was kind of a grind, I’d point you to letter #49, which is full of plotting resources and tips, and let you go on your merry way. But it sounds like plotting is much more unpleasant than that for you. When words like “hate” and “agony” come into play, then I do think it’s time to consider not doing the thing that makes you feel like that. That doesn’t mean you need to give up on the parts that you do love. It means you need to look for creative outlets that aren’t writing fiction all by yourself.

The first thing I thought when I read your letter was that you might enjoy writing poetry. You get to craft settings and characters and beautiful imagery without necessarily needing any of the linear aspects of storytelling. Strange Horizons publishes a great deal of beautiful speculative poetry; if you’re not familiar with how speculative elements like fantasy worldbuilding can be incorporated into poetry, take a look through their poetry archives. Perhaps you’ll be inspired.

If poetry turns out not to be your thing, consider writing drabbles and flash fiction and vignettes that describe a moment rather than an arc, or working in some nonlinear medium. The Approved News 6 Twitter feed of news headlines and stories from a very strange alternate America has lots of worldbuilding, consistently reappearing characters, and no plot whatsoever. Perhaps a project like that is what your talents are best suited to.

The other obvious option is to outsource. If you find someone who loves plotting and hates worldbuilding and character creation, the two of you could spin up beautiful stories together. You can also write role-playing games, creating worlds and characters and concepts that gamers then provide stories for. Or you could look into video game writing, which is sometimes done by a team of people who split the work up in different ways. Looking further afield, your worldbuilding and characters might be perfect for someone else’s artwork, film, or radio drama.

There’s always the option of lifting a plot from elsewhere, but adaptation requires really understanding how a story works so you can deconstruct it and rebuild it. I suspect that won’t be any more fun for you than doing your own plotting from scratch. But if it sounds like it might be worth trying, then give it a shot.

I don’t think doing something you hate will make you enjoy it. You might get good at it, over time. You might decide that you love the parts you love so much that the agony is worth it. But I would leave that as a last resort, and try these other options first. A good collaborator or games-writing gig could be the path to an experience of writing that is minimally miserable and maximally joyful.

I want to stress that you aren’t any less of a writer for not being able to do this particular writing task. Some people are well-rounded. Some people specialize. Both of those are completely fine. It’s great that you’re listening to yourself and identifying the difference between not being good at plotting and deeply despising the act of plotting. Keep accepting your writing style, taking care of yourself, and looking for ways to focus on doing what you love rather than putting yourself through hell.

Happy worldbuilding and character-developing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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3 thoughts on “#98: How to Write Without Plotting

  1. I’d also suggest approaching it with patience. Keep building and imagining and piecing things together as you go. I have a world and characters that started very much like OP describes, I just wrote blurbs and maps and important info so I wouldn’t forget it, and added to that as time went on. I didn’t have a plan for it, but realized early that whatever I did wouldn’t be good if I rushed, so I kept building and building until I thought it was ready. Now, 10 years (and one terrible unfinished attempt at a novel) later, I’m making a second attempt at a novel and it’s going swimmingly. So, maybe just keep plugging away at those fun little details for now, and eventually, when it’s ready, you’ll find the path to the project it’s best suited for.

  2. Hi Story Nurse, it’s LW! I wanted to say thank you so much for replying to me. Your response was the catalyst for a major emotional shift.

    After I’d sent in the letter I spent a while combing through the posts here (though I missed the one that would be most crucial to turning things around). I went back to my work again and made some progress. It still wasn’t easy or fun, but the problem had changed from being discouraging to compelling. Even though using words like agony and hate had felt absolutely true at the time I was writing it, my letter felt so embarrassingly hyperbolic afterwards that I kinda hoped it’d just slip by and not get posted.

    But I’m so glad you responded. I’ve been doing “freeform” roleplay (written character interactions as opposed to tabletop/D&D style) on and off for nearly two decades. I’d collaboratively created storylines for years! But naturally none of that mattered or was proof of anything meaningful to me until your mention of it shifted my perspective.

    By far the biggest impact was your link to the post about accepting your writing style. Reading “any plot will feel clunky to you because writing it won’t have that natural grace and ease of coming up with grand sweeping ideas” was like lightning. For me, an inspired idea comes with this sense of certainty that the idea itself is worthwhile. It might wear off, but at least at the start there’s such a rush of positive excitement to pursue it. Because I had to actually construct narratives without the reassuring comfort of inspired certainty, everything I came up with felt unsatisfying and flawed by comparison. If I couldn’t be certain of something’s worthiness I became paralyzed and unwilling to pursue it. And I was absolutely filled with frustration and shame over all these perceived dead ends, how everything I tried to create felt broken, how it seemed like making a story was impossible and I absolutely hate this! I don’t care about plots! I don’t care about narratives! I have no stories, rah!

    I thought about your words on acceptance a lot. I thought about your advice to the LW about boredom and inspiration. A lot of introspection was done regarding perfectionism and creative self worth. The moment I gave myself permission to write the janky, unimpressive plots I’m capable of instead of chasing the perfect glittering masterpiece my ego wished I had is the moment that I… well, wrote anything at all, really. Once I released the need to be ~*dazzled*~ by my own work I became more interested in and less resentful of the stories I already had.

    I can’t believe I antagonized myself so relentlessly over what basically boils down to “your work isn’t going to be perfect.” It’s so ridiculous, but so it was. Now I’m actually getting somewhere. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you!

    1. It’s not ridiculous! Lots and lots of people (VERY much including me) have had similar struggles to love or even like the work that comes from the sweat of the brow rather than the glorious rush of inspiration. I’m so glad you’re finding ways to give yourself permission to move forward with your beautiful imperfect stories. I hope they make you very happy. Thank you for commenting—it means a lot to me.

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