#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.

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#80: Adaptation and Creation

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m in the planning stages of a trilogy adapting my Dungeons and Dragons character’s story to a novel format. It follows my character through her training as a knight, her fall from knightly society and loss of her homeland, regaining her honor, gathering allies and assets, and reclaiming her homeland from the rule of her half-brother and stepmother.

The first and last parts were left up to my imagination so I’m having an easier time outlining them. But the “regaining her honor and gathering allies bit” which will make up the bulk of Book 2 was played out in-game. And I’m completely stuck on how to adapt it.

I don’t want to use the campaign story because it belongs to the Game Master and my character didn’t really have a connection to the central conflict besides that fighting the bad guys was the Right Thing To Do. But I can’t think of new villains and new tensions for my character!

I have a feeling that brainstorming, developing my setting and side characters, and reading other fantasy novels for inspiration will help, but if you have any other advice, I would be most grateful.

Yours,

Book 2 Blues (she/her)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#59: Accepting Your Writing Style

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m a fantasy writer currently trying and failing to kick my brain into producing a novel. The problem is that I have lots of story ideas, but no plots. All of my ideas are for cool settings and themes and imagery and emotional beats, not plots and conflicts and scenes. Even when I force myself to come up with a problem in my world and a character to solve it, I am immediately unenthused. I’ve tried to write through my boredom before, and I have three documents full of irredeemably listless garbage to show for it.

I think one of my major problems is that all of the problems I want my characters to solve are enormous and complicated and vague. For example, I’m currently kicking around a fantasy idea where a corporation-run government has driven everything it considers useless or harmful to extinction, and has sterilized and leashed magic to specific words and gestures. Now magic is striking back, choosing prophets to speak for it and worming wild roots into the cracks of buildings to shatter them. It’s SUCH a cool idea and I’m so excited about it, but there’s no really concrete beginning and end and one thing that one character can do with a satisfying ending.

How do I take a messy pile of colors and feelings and turn it into a thing with bones in it? Please help, Story Nurse!

—Perplexed Plotter (she/her)

Dear Perplexed Plotter,

That does sound like a challenge! Fortunately for you, it’s a challenge that many other writers have also faced, and there are some good resources and time-tested tricks for you to try out.

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#56: Showing, Telling, and Tension in Romance

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m doing Camp NaNo this month with a goal of 30K words which translate to about a thousand words a day. I’m writing a romance novel, but the problem is I’m having a hard time developing romantic tension. I’ve thrown my heroes in a perilous situation, so right now I’m filling the word count with them planning on their next move, and worrying about the situation back home. How do I develop the romantic angle when they have moments to breathe and aren’t running from danger?

To add a layer of complexity, Hero B has been badly burned in the past and is in denial about his growing feelings for Hero A because he doesn’t want to get hurt. How do I show rather than tell that?

Finally, do you know of any good examples of this romantic tension building that I can be inspired by?

Thank you for all you do!

—Hopefully Romantic (she/her)

Dear Hopefully Romantic,

I’m sorry I didn’t get to this letter during Camp NaNo, and I hope you found your way through and made your goal! But romantic tension is one of those things that’s often better managed during revisions, because it’s all about pacing, so I think this advice will still be relevant to you.

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#53: Avoiding Repetition in Episodic Work

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m working on a series of short stories that follow the same set of characters. Each story is about 5,000 words and needs to stand alone as an episode: a conflict needs to be introduced, the characters need to react to that conflict, and some kind of resolution should happen by the end of the story.

As I write more stories, I’m noticing that the way I introduce the conflict of the month is getting repetitive. Since this series follows the crew of a spaceship as they do odd jobs across the galaxy, each story starts with them either getting a new job or picking up a distress call.

I feel like I’m endlessly repeating the scifi equivalent of “So this dame walked into my office…” How do I vary the way I introduce the conflict that sets a new story in motion?

—Keeping It Fresh (she/her)

Dear Keeping It Fresh,

This type of challenge crops up a lot in episodic work. Fortunately, that means there are some well-established ways to handle it. Continue reading

#49: When Settings Are Fun and Stories Are Hard

Dear Story Nurse,

I love developing settings, but once I have my stage set, I find I have no idea what to do with the characters. Unless I force myself with NaNoWriMo or a similar challenge—and even then, I don’t often like what I came up with—my inclination is to circle the worldbuilding stages forever. For example, my current project is geography-focused, because I’ve been having a lot of fun researching historical cartography. I have kind of a unifying myth for my island nation, and now I want to explore this space through the lives of the people living in it, but I can’t seem to make a story happen. How can I come up with ideas when that’s not the part of the process that interests me?

Thanks!

—Masamage (she/her)

Dear Masamage,

When I first read your letter, I thought I’d answered it before, or one very like it. I looked through my archives and realized I was thinking of these letters from writers who find world-building easy and character development hard. You’re in a similar position, but facing a different challenge (though my response to them may still be of some use to you).

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#38: A Plotless Novel

Hi Story Nurse,

Up front, my question is: what is the best way to go about a plot-less novel? Is such a thing possible?

Meaty details: the Most Important project that I’m working on right now is best described as a postmodern epistolary (anti-)bildungsroman. In simpler terms, it’s a collection of letters written by a shut-in. You can imagine that nothing much happens. Or maybe more precisely, nothing really resolves in any kind of traditional storytelling way.

I have personal reasons for wanting to finish this sucker and put it out into the world more or less as I’ve envisioned it, but I obviously would like it to be readable (and, ideally, marketable). I’m at a loss for other works I can use as an example for what I want to accomplish.

Any protips?

—An Unfunny Seinfeld (she/her)

Dear Unfunny Seinfeld,

It is certainly possible to write a plotless novel. You’re demonstrating this by doing it. If you want to entertain yourself by writing a book where not much happens, plot threads don’t resolve, and characters don’t grow, there’s no reason not to do that.

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#26: Maintaining Story Momentum

Dear Story Nurse,

You mentioned in #22, Passion Projects and Practice Projects, that you felt plotting was one of your weak points. I wondered if you had any anecdotes on how you work to overcome this and any advice for the bare bones of creating a plot that keeps moving?

I’ve been told that my writing is best when it focuses on characters and my most successful stories have been tight 1,000 word flash fiction competitions with a time limit of a weekend. I seem to be able to craft memorable moments and interactions pretty solidly. When it comes to working on bigger projects I tend to get stuck because I don’t know how to turn a solid character-based idea or series of moments into a plot that moves along.

It’s not that I don’t have ideas for plots, and I have two longer stories I’ve stalled at. One is a horror story at maybe 4,000 words that is effectively a possession story, but with a past life rather than a demon. The second is a novella or novel length story with an English-village-comedy genre about a flower seller who gets an unusual side job that lands her in trouble.

They have a goal and end point and characters that have good voices and interactions. They have (I hope) decent enough concepts and opening paragraphs to hook in a reader for the ride, but it’s how to add in the turns and beats you need with the plot that trips me up every time until my anxiety makes me freeze up.

In the past I’ve tried the Stephen King approach of ambling without much direction until a plot happens, which didn’t help. When it comes to the opposite approach of plotting in detail I often feel lost as how to begin but for “Start. Middle. End. Some sort of drama somewhere.”

Any advice is much appreciated!

All the best,

Leanne (she/her)

Dear Leanne,

This is a great question and one that a lot of people struggle with (definitely including me!). You ask for the bones of plot, but it sounds like you already have those: start, middle, end, some drama. What you need are the muscles and tendons of plot, the pull and thrust and tension that turns a skeleton into something that moves and breathes.

Continue reading

#23: Constructing a Satisfying Mystery

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m writing a short murder mystery story, ten people trapped in a house style. I want the murderer to turn out to be another person who was secretly hiding in the house the whole time, but… if I overdo the hinting, it’ll be pretty obvious, and if I don’t talk about him at all it’ll be cheap when it’s revealed at the end.

The main characters are all friends and knew the murderer personally before the story, so there might be good reason for them to mention him casually. I just don’t know how to do that without letting out huge warning bells! Especially since he has the most clear motivations to do the dirty deed, and there aren’t any other (living) outsider characters.

The murderer is the twin brother of the victim, so the characters toss around a few “maybe they swapped places”–style theories, which wouldn’t really work if he was right in front of them. I suppose I could do something like have him be in the house, but in such a state of “shock” that the characters can’t tell which twin he is or extract any information from him? But I don’t know, it still feels like as long as he’s directly around, he’s the most obvious killer.

—Clued Out (she/her)

Dear Clued Out,

You’ve painted yourself into a corner by eliminating all sources of tension from your story. Fortunately that’s pretty easy to fix.

Here’s the setup you have right now:

  • Someone was killed
  • By the person most motivated to do it
  • Who is so obvious a culprit that if he appears in the story he will be immediately identified as the killer
  • So you leave him out of the story

That’s not the setup of a murder mystery, because there’s no mystery to it. You need multiple plausible solutions and perhaps some implausible ones as well. And you’re right that if there’s only one plausible solution and the only reason characters (and readers) haven’t figured it out is that they’re missing information, the revelation of that information will probably be unsatisfying.

Satisfaction comes from sustained tension leading to a climax. The tension in a mystery is usually an unanswered question: whowhy, or how. It sounds like how isn’t so much the issue in your mystery, and right now who and why have only one possible answer. So you need to set up some alternatives. Continue reading

#19: Love After Angst

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m writing a fan fic as a low-key side project to keep writing fun, as opposed to the writing that I do professionally, which is of course work.

It’s a modern-day, angsty romance, where two people from totally different worlds fall for each other even though they don’t fit well into each other’s lives. They figure they can’t be together, but finally the tension gets too much and they have a wild night together. Then they spend some time angsting and avoiding each other. Your standard piece where the agonizing is part of the appeal.

But I can’t figure out where they go from there. Where should I take it next? I think I’d ultimately like them to get together (though I’m not married to it) but I can’t figure out what new element to introduce to change things. Any suggestions? Thanks so much!

—Beautiful Mistake (she/her)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!