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?
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).
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.
—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.
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,
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.
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: who, why, 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
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)
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Dear Story Nurse,
I’m currently working on the third draft of the first novel I’m seriously thinking of seeking publication for, and it’s giving me no end of trouble. The characters have been in my head a lot lately, bugging me to finally get their story out the door, so I was wondering if you could help me out with at least one particular issue I keep running into again and again.
There are several scenes in the novel that I felt (and others agreed) didn’t quite work in previous drafts because of wonky character motivations, general lack of momentum, etc., and I’ve been finding that I’ll rewrite one of those scenes, feel much better about it, but then realize that I’ve messed with the continuity of the story (for example, by screwing up the timeline or eliminating a problematic/semi-useless character). Then when I’m patching up the continuity in another place something ELSE will change, and I end up caught in a seemingly endless cycle of narrative whack-a-mole. Do you have any suggestions for taming these pesky contradictory story elements?
—Revision Wrangler (he/him)
Dear Revision Wrangler,
This is a very common problem around draft three or four. You’re having a classic “can’t see the forest for the trees” moment, where the forest is an actual ecosystem; cutting down one tree turns out to disturb a vole habitat and fewer voles mean the owls go hungry and so on. But don’t panic! Just take a deep breath and step back. No, further back. Zoom all the way out. You want to see that forest as a forest, or maybe even as an irregular green shape on a map with lots of other shapes around it.
Dear Story Nurse,
My problem in a nutshell: I don’t know what kind of climax my story needs!
Details: I’m working on a fantasy novel, mostly secondary world with a little magic thrown in. It’s between 80k and 90k long. This is the first novel I’ve really plotted out seriously, and I can tell that it helped a lot in keeping track of the threads and in keeping the story moving when my tendency is to stop and gaze for way too long at the scenery.
A little bit about the story: There are four (thinking of cutting it down to three) POV characters whose plots intersect and come together toward the end of the story. There’s one character in particular who is sort of central to everything, and everybody else’s arc in the story is directly or indirectly pulled by her—some to help her and others to potentially harm her. Of all the characters, she probably has the most growth as a character.
So here’s a longer version of the nutshell:
I’ve reached the point just before the climax, which has all of the POV characters converging together, along with a detachment of soldiers who are in league with the antagonists. The characters who are not bad guys don’t have any such armed support on their side, although one of the POV characters has some experience in a fight.
I even have an ending in mind, which is mostly a happy one: the antagonists are defeated or at least prevented from maximum antagonizing. I just can’t figure out how the characters get from the climax set-up to the denouement! For some reason, the only options that come to mind are (1) a battle—which is not really in keeping with the rest of the novel, which is mostly women of various ages moving through the setting, doing what they do—or (2) an involved conversation, which seems a bit underwhelming.
One thing I’ve thought about is that, throughout the story, the central-most MC has been yanked this way and that by good guys and bad alike. I feel like the climax is her opportunity to assert herself somehow. All the other MCs have had to make choices throughout the story, but she’s been pretty passive.
So if you have any thoughts as to how I can think through this, what some options outside battle/conversation are, and what you’d want to see in this kind of scene, they would be most appreciated!
Thanks for writing in with such a classic concern! A lot of authors face similar problems. You are definitely not alone. And I’ve got a few different sets of suggestions for you to try on for size. Continue reading
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.