Dirty Little Secrets About the Story Development Process

This just happened.

In the January issue of Writers Digest magazine, the cover article interviews a bestselling author on how she writes her novels.  She’s billed as an “overnight success,” which of course is a deliberate irony, because that really never happens when you throw in the unheralded years before a breakout novel takes wing.

As the visuals illustrate, if not the copy.

There are ten of her previous book covers – from before the overnight success breakout – featured on the first page of the article, spanning ten years.  Thus proving this to be true.

A great talent, no question.  Delightful and humble, too.  If I said she was also quite pretty I’d get hate mail from the misogynist police (I’m not that guy; hey, David Baldacci is pretty cute, too), but I will say this about that: her agent would undoubtedly say she’s the perfect storm from a PR standpoint.

Her first novel was published in 2002, but her “breakout” hit didn’t happen until 2013, which sold five million copies worldwide.   For her, “overnight” took eleven years.

She must have learned a few things along the way.

So we should listen closely to what she has to say about the writing process, right?

Here are a few highlights from just that:

… she is “relearning to write a novel with every story…”

… “I wrote the first three chapters again and again…”

… “frequently I write chapters that I end up having to ditch…”

… “I think it gets harder…” (after you’ve published your first novel)

… “I do outline.  I’m always amazed by these people who say that they just start and see where    the story takes them… I couldn’t do it…”

“… then I had to replot the entire book…”

… “Every time I start a book, I think, I have no idea how I did this the last time.  No idea…”

…  The words “What is this really about?” are taped over the top of her monitor…

… The Interviewer suggest this: “It seems fortunate if a writer can hit on concepts from which to   grow a story rather than a single plot idea, or even a character, because there are so many ways you can approach them.”  (This one gets a massive gold star from me.)

… Her response: “Since I’ve really been thinking it through in that way – and in quite a calculated way – before I start, either my books have really improved or people have just responded better to or people have just responded better to them, I’m not sure.”

“Fortunate.”  Perhaps the understatement of the writing year.

My money is on the improvement option.  Maybe she has learned something along the way.  Maybe she just has trouble summarizing what that might be.

What will writers learn here, and adopt as their own process?

We can be sure that some writers will believe they’ve learned something from this interview.  They may accept and try to emulate this author within their own writing process… because hey, this multi-million-copy bestselling author says so.

In my opinion much of she says is indeed good stuff, worthy of attention (because we can learn from both sides of an equation, especially if we take the time to really dissect it).  And yet some of it is inexplicable, because while this author acknowledges what works for her, she goes on to say she hasn’t really learned much of anything from her writing experience, even when most of it occurs as a published author.

Scary.  Do this for ten years, publish ten novels… and you still aren’t sure how this is done.

Broad statements and truisms about process are everywhere in the writing conversation, many of them fuzzy, just as many contradictory.

Leaving us with only one conclusion (so glad this works for them) and a seductive lie that manifests as self-delusion (oh, THIS is how it’s done, I’ll do it just that way).

Consensus is nowhere on the horizon.  And yet, we are faced with these choices every time we stare down a blank page.

Good thing that horizon is peppered with plenty of bonafide knowledge about craft, specific principles and tools that apply to and stand ready to help any and every writer.

Because it’s about what the story must be, not about how you get there.

You think all the elephant versus donkey noise is loud and obnoxious out there? 

Put your ear to the writing rail, and you’ll hear an equally biased and under-informed blah-blah-blah on the issue of how a novel should be written.

That’s the wrong question, in my opinion.  The better question is this: what are the criteria and benchmarks for a story that works?

There are answers to that, too.

I keep posting about it, it seems (here and on my own website), because just when I think I’ve contributed something to this clarity, I’ll find myself referred to on various corners of social media as “the formula guy” or “the guy who hates pantsers.”

Story structure and formula… NOT the same thing.  I’ve never heard a professional make this claim, though I have heard a lot of under-qualified writers make the converse assertion.

And that’s the problem with the writing conversation out there.  A significant percentage of it – at workshops, in forums, even in keynotes and interviews with bestselling authors – is toxic, because it is misleading for newer authors and stubborn authors who can’t whittle through the proper context.

For example – when Diana Gabaldon tells you she begins her novels without knowing what the ending will be (which she has, many times, in magazine interviews) – sounds great, doesn’t it? Just keep going and the ending will save you – know that the drafts she writes early-on are there to search for and discover that best ending… and then when she finds it, the subsequent draft that works, the one she submits, is written in the full and functional knowledge of what the ending will be.

Because the ending is one of the things that informs and empowers all the narrative that precedes it.

This is true for almost any and all published novels, regardless of the writer’s process.  This isn’t process, this is outcome.

And despite my best efforts across three (and counting) popular writing books, there is always some highly credible bestselling author completely confusing the issue in an interview or behind a microphone.

Not because they are confused – on the issue of what works for them versus what other writers should do – as much as because they aren’t telling you the whole story of how their book came to be.

But rather – and this is worse – because they don’t seem to be confused at all.

It is the pinnacle of hubris to say you don’t really understand how you do what you do, and say it in the wake of some huge success, thus leaving us with only one unspoken conclusion: Gee, this writer must be a natural-born freaking genius!  They just sit down and magic happens, what a gift!

And so the star-struck crowd buys what they are selling.

To be honest, I used to be pretty hard on one end of the process continuum. 

Not on pantsers, per se – though this was the perception – but on a story development preference that urges you to just start with very little, write what you feel and follow your instincts toward a gloriously functional outcome, without knowing or caring how it compares to the accepted standards of craft.  If you are a literary genius, then you can have abundant fun with this… but if you’re not a practicing prodigy or learned master of the form, then there are less-than-mysterious principles and tools that will help you write a book that is – get ready for it – just as good.

Just listen to your characters and don’t worry about structure or arc or anything that smacks of, well, the dreaded “formula.”  Do this long enough and sooner or later you will find your story, and hopefully, it will resemble what the market expects from your chosen genre.

That’s certainly one way to go about it.  And a wildly popular one, at that.  Due in no small part because some really big names say this is what they do.

I’ve never said this doesn’t work, or that it can’t work.

It’s just one end of the process continuum. 

One that pre-destines you to a longer story development process.  If you can’t do any planning of your story ahead of time, which is the antithesis of pantsing, that means one of two things: for whatever reason you actually can’t, in the same way that some people can’t learn by reading, they must learn by doing… or… you aren’t aware of and honoring of the principles by which a story that words is assembled.  The more you know about that, the more likely you will be to engage in some level of story planning.

All perhaps because you heard some author you admire claim to do it this way.

Rest assured, those highly skilled authors who lay claim to being a punster are informed pantsers, and they actually do engage with story planning in their minds, leveraging an advanced sense of story to lead them quickly to what works while avoiding what doesn’t.

Which is impossible if you don’t know these aspects of craft in the first place.

This is irrefutable: when you face the blank page, be it waiting for your narrative or your outline, you are engaged in a search for story.  And your story won’t work, at least as well as it could and should, until you find it.

Not everyone agrees.  And so the debate is launched.  And so some careers advance while others remain fixed and flat.

There came a point in my own journey when I realized that it isn’t a debate at all.

Because neither side is talking about their novels, from a context of how they end up.  No…

They are talking about their process.

It’s a bit like losing weight.  You can diet, or you can sweat off the pounds.  Both approaches have their advocates, their success stories, and an assumption of pain.

Truth is – for the pantser/planner brouhaha and the exercise/diet trade-off – each becomes a sum in excess of the two colliding parts, both of which offer many options and variables, which in itself can complicate the whole proposition.

Both sides depend on the manner in which either approach is undertaken.  And manner is informed by knowledge.

Ultimately, pretty much everybody who ends up succeeding adopts varying degrees of both processes – pantsing, and story planning.

Bottom line: avid and vocal pantsers – like Stephen King – succeed at it precisely because those principles and tools and models… the very thing that lesser pantsers decry as formula or simply don’t know at all… reside in their head.  And they actually use them as intended.

It’s called instinct.  Story sensibility.

It isn’t pantsing or planning that makes or breaks you… it is the level of your story sense.

Let me make this clearer though a hypothetical example. 

Two writers begin with the exact same story concept.  One is clear on the premise, as well (yes Virginia, they are different things), the other not so sure.  The former sketches out the nature of the story’s arc, knowing precisely where and why the story will take a turn.  Because that writer understands this is how and why stories work, and that there are infinite ways to get there… some quicker and more efficient, if not effective, than others.

The other writer, the one who doesn’t know this, just writes. Waits to see what happens, where the characters will send the story  And it turns out, as it often does when an author hasn’t yet nailed down their core story, that their setup takes up the first half of the novel.  The other writer already knows this is too long, but the less informed writer doesn’t… he is making it all up as he goes along.  Yet soon, as soon as someone else reads it, he will be told the story doesn’t work, because it takes too long to get off the ground.

And he will be surprised.  Because that’s what felt right when he did it.

The other, more informed writer… that’s the difference: he would know it wouldn’t work as well that way.  And so he wouldn’t ever write a draft that took that long to achieve dramatic flight.

The “planning” for this story, the process that works best, would manifest as an extension of instinct.  And the lack of that planning, resulting in the mistake, would manifest from either the ignorance of that point of craft, or the rejection of it.

Depends on who you are listening to and believing, right? 

It doesn’t matter which one of these is the pantser and which is the planner.  It doesn’t matter if the more successful author of this story knew it by instinct, of if he learned it from books and workshops and other informed writers… that’s how he will plan it (even if that planning takes place strictly in his head, or with a 40-page outline), and how he would write it.  And it will be closer to working from the very same draft.  Within such a pansting process, the writer knows where and how that story turn must take place.

The other writer either doesn’t know, or doesn’t believe.

And here’s the dirty little secret promised in my title today:

There are just as many successful authors who know their entire story before the write a draft, and then use the draft to polish and optimize that story, as there are those who have no clue where the story is going.  And they are just as talented and artful as their pantser peers.

Process isn’t the point.  Knowing craft is the point.  And when you don’t know or accept craft, then the default process is pantsing, and doing it from an under-informed context.

Once you do know, you can choose your most comfortable and rewarding process and get there nonetheless.

Again, it’s not a debate.  It’s a choice.

Until you can claim a command of all the nuances and elements of story craft (the sum of all those principles and tools and stuff that bumps right up against formula in the name of dramatic arc), then you will benefit from studiest a list of them posted on your wall in great big letters.

Pansting vs. Planning/Outlining: Neither approach can or should claim superiority.


Just like the familiar fortune cookie thing, in which you add the words “in bed” to the end of every fortune (“your dreams will soon come true… in bed” – hilarious, right?)… add the words “for her/him” to anything a writer puts forth as universally true about either pantsing or outlining.


Do that, and what they say, whatever it is, becomes irrefutable truth… for him… or for her.


Stephen King tells you to just sit in a chair and write whatever comes to you… that’s what works for him. Know the whole truth of this, though, before you sign up for this.


Diana Galbaldon tells you that she never knows how her stories will end when she begins… that’s how it works for her.  What you won’t hear?  The draft that works was written with a solid notion of how it ends.


Jeffrey Deaver boasts that he does 22 drafts of every novel… I guess that’s how it works for him.  What may be true, though, is that the last 18 of them were polishes to a solid story arc built upon his knowledge of craft.


Phillip Margolin tells you he writes an idea and then the ending and then a 50 page outline… truly this is how it works for him.  He searches for his story, he finds it, then he develops it with an outline, followed by a polish/revision in his drafts.


James Scott Bell and I present stuff that will lead you to a better story… that’s how it works for everybody.  Process isn’t the issue for either of us, though we both have strong opinions based on what works – wait for it – for us.


When writers (famous or otherwise; beware non-famous ones telling you anything at all is dangerous on both sides of the full or empty needle) tell you that outlining robs the process of spontaneity and limits your options… that’s only true for them.


But maybe not for you.


And if you adopt a story development approach early in your career – perhaps precisely because some big name author you admire said that’s how she/he does things – before you truly know what you’re doing, you may or may not have discovered what is true for you.


Nobody is lying to you.  Nobody is trying to send you down a rabbit hole.  Because truly, when they tell you how they do it, it does work for them.


The trick then, the holy grail of our avocation, is to discover what actually does work for you


And that’s much trickier, often a product of trial and error that can take years, than hopping on to someone else’s band wagon.


At some point you’ll find that what does work for you aligns with those very same principles and tools that you perhaps once rejected as formulaic.  Or as antithetical to art.


It’s all just process.


Because however you proceed – pantsed or planned and outlined – your process ends up sharing the exact same purpose with what you may believe is the exact opposite.  Because both approaches, no matter how close to the center of the continuum they are, are a means of doing the very same thing:


The discovery of your full story… leading to the execution of it over the dramatic and character arcs of that story.


How you discover it… whatever works for you.  How it needs to play and what criteria are in place to ensure it works… that’s not something you can make up (pants) at all.


The unspoken fact is, some writers pants their stories – make it all up as they go along – because they can’t do it any other way.  They simply can’t visualize a whole story in their head.  Doesn’t make the stories they end up with any lesser in quality – though that is indeed a possible outcome if they settle for the drafts in which they were still searching for the story – it’s all just a process.


And every writer, famous or not, has one.




If you’d like to go deeper into this discussion, may I recommend my new book, “Story Fix: Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant.”


If you’d like to attend a major workshop that delivers the fundamentals of craft in context to your story, read about that HERE.



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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

23 thoughts on “Dirty Little Secrets About the Story Development Process

  1. “And it turns out, as it often does when an author hasn’t yet nailed down their core story, that their setup takes up the first half of the novel.”

    As one who is still trying to figure out my process, I can attest to the above. I’ve plotted meticulously, only to still be frustrated with how my story turned out in the end. I’ve flown by the seat of my pants and ended with a manuscript that needs to be torn down to the studs and rebuilt. Part of me loves the freedom of not plotting, part of me hates not plotting before hand.

    What I do know is that no matter which method I use, I have to work and re-work the story to get it right. We’ll see what I’ll say about my process in a few years, but at the moment, I’m realizing I need to build that story framework in my mind, maybe even sketch it out on paper, even if I don’t use an excruciatingly detailed outline. I need structure in every other aspect of life, so it’s really silly of me to think I don’t need structure for my stories.

    • I hear you, BK. There’s another dirty little secret about craft… we are free to put that “first plot point” (where the setup transitions into the hero’s story-quest, usually with the arrival of some threat of challenge or pressing need… like, “run, or you’ll be killed”) anywhere we want – because there are no rules, right? – but the “principle” leads us to the optimal choice, which is between the 20th and 25th percentile mark (thus aligning with another principle of four roughly equal “quartiles” in a novel). We get to choose, but the optimal choice has already been called out for us.

      It’s not “formula,” any more than lines on a playing field are formula. There is great freedom within those lines, and the players who combine a “game-sense” that doesn’t go outside of those lines are the ones we read about.

  2. Wow, what a rant!

    I used to write like a pantser, but you’re right–I would have the whole outline in my head. Now I have small children and less brain bandwidth, so I meticulously outline. And it leads to fewer rewrites. Anything that speeds up the writing process is okay by me!

    • Thanks Kessie (I was going for “manifesto,” but I’ll take rant, too), glad you’ve experienced the value of this process.

  3. Wonderful post, Larry. Knowing how the story ends is, in my opinion, one of the most crucial points to know. Especially for those who write mysteries and thrillers. It is literally impossible to sprinkle clues and lead, or mislead, your reader if you don’t.

  4. I always tell my hard core pantsing students that they’re doing all the pre-writing that an outliner does, just taking the long way round about it. Which is not illegal, just inefficient. I’ve seen writers become more efficient, and grateful for it, as we’ve talked in depth about the process.

    As for the bit about not knowing the ending … and the Great Grand Poobah who advocates this method … I will aver that if there is a single weakness in said Poobah’s admirable output, it is that several of the endings are weak, of the wrote-myself-into-a-corner variety.

    • Agree. I find that the more one knows about the principles of craft (what goes where, and why), the more likely they are to plan, at least to some degree, even in their heads.

      The real warning sign is writing with no clue about EITHER where the story is going, and the principles that will help you get there. That’s like being lost in the Amazon forest (not trying to be ironic) without a cell phone signal.

      When I write these rants, I always think of you, because I know you’re all over it, long before I arrived. That’s why I evoked your name here… what you say, and what I say, apply to all writers and all stories, it’s process advocacy.

  5. Really interesting stuff today, Larry. Only thing I can add on the concept of process is that for me, each book seems to dictate its own path. Some of our books have been heavily plotted out ahead; others seems to flow out like an open faucet. Some come easy; some have fought us to the near-death.

    I think having a co-author changes the process (Joe?). Kelly and are are forced to constantly step away from the writing part and TALK TALK TALK out the plot and character development. We are on Skype almost daily with this part of things. So yeah, we never outline, but we are always sort of sending out our advance team brains to scout the road ahead.

    I went and looked up the WDigest article (I’m guessing it was the one with Jojo Moyes?) I couldn’t access it but I did read the interviewer’s “outtakes.” Moyers had one thing to say that I can really relate to:

    “It’s not so much the writing time, it’s the thinking time, you know? You need clear thinking time to unravel problems and to come up with good characters. Finding two hours on a train to bash out 1,000 words is one thing, but to make sure that they are useful words is a whole other thing.”

    I call it the elbow-grease of the mind. It’s where stories are made — the hard thinking — conscious and subconscious — that you need to do before you write one single word.

    • Love this. I think what I’m hearing from you here is this, and you have it in spades: “story sense.” That’s the empowering thing, pantsed or planned. It is what enables you to change course mid-story, because the story is leading you there, and still be aligned with the principles of dramatic arc. Thanks for adding to this conversation, and for all your terrific work.

  6. “It’s not so much the writing time, it’s the thinking time, you know? You need clear thinking time to unravel problems and to come up with good characters.”

    That’s where I most frequently run into the buzz-saw. I can free write in short snatches when I need to—the planning and pondering for me does take good quality time.

      • Me too. Not ironically, but happily… “thinking time” IS story planning. It’s why I say that everyone does planning to some degree, in some way. Thanks for your thoughts today.

  7. I am still trying to work out my process. I have one book under my belt and I’m on the second and my approach has changed as you said it does. My first book took years to finish. I had a foggy idea in my head of where the protagonist was going and the grand finale, but it took me several drafts to realize that he wasn’t alone on the journey and then the story arc took off. My second book is going faster. This time instead of keeping the ideas in my head, I’m sketching them out, to review and refresh each time I sit down. I have the end of the story in mind. The middle is still a little mushy though. I blame the new grandson for capturing my focus. Perhaps by the time I get to my tenth book, I will have nailed down my process, too.

  8. Idea: using your “grand vision” for the story as context, try to isolate a solid “midpoint” moment, and strive to make it just that: the very center of your story. Then write (align your scenes) to make that mid-story placement work, and then your third quartile will flow from it in a very organic way, it will come to you quicker, leading you toward that ending.

    Of course, this doesn’t work if one doesn’t know the definition/mission and criteria for the Midpoint moment. Jim Bell and I both have ebooks out on this focused story milestone, if you’d like some help.

  9. Great post, Larry.

    I’ve enjoyed your books. STORY FIX certainly enlightened me to the big picture and what makes the final story successful. I’ve talked my critique group into reading the book and using its format for future discussions.

    I finished STORY PHYSICS, and am now reading STORY ENGINEERING. I know, I’m reading them backwards. Very helpful in working out my own process.

    It seems that we all use a process that is on the continuum from outlining to pantsing. You describe the “beat sheet” – single words or phrases in outline form, then expanding to sentences, then paragraphs ( ? James Frey’s “step sheet” ? ), then writing the scenes. Ultimately, every story is built with the building blocks of scenes. If we keep those scenes identifiable and movable (a great strength of working in Scrivener – I know JSB likes Scrivener, too), we can create and organize anywhere on the continuum of a single phrase to an entire scene. And then we can evaluate our product – adding, subtracting, moving, expanding, contracting scenes until we have the story where we want it.

    Obviously, the closer we work to the beat sheet outline level, the more efficient the process. But if we need to move to the level of fleshing out an entire scene to see how that “feels,” we can do it. In other words, we can move back and forth on that continuum.

    And, it seems to me, the process of working out concept, premise, theme, and character would be better done with journaling and much time thinking…before we start writing. And hopefully knowing our destination before we start on the journey.

    Just my opinion. Thanks for a great post.

    • Steve – first off, thanks for reading my books, and for your kind words. So glad they’ve helped you. Also glad to hear you’ve discovered powerful tools, like Scrivener, and the use of a beat sheet. Once you know what those story milestones are about – which you clearly do – that’s a great way to boil you story down to its structural essence, yet leave all the wiggle room you’ll ever need to write scenes as they come to you from that context. Wishing you great success!

  10. Reading this post made my day. I am working on my first novel. This isn’t the first try but it is the first time I’ve made headway and not stopped after the first few chapters. The difference has been information through this blog and others like it, books like James’ Write from the Middle and K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel and Structuring your Novel workbook. I also attended the webinar that James and Katie presented recently, The Now What Months, What to do after NaNoWriMo. I was super excited this weekend after completing the last 4 chapters of my novel, after completing the first 3. Now I plan on writing the middle and connecting the beginning with the ending. It’s not the most conventional way to write a novel, I think. But it seems to be working for me. I appreciate all the wisdom shared here. Thanks again for an informative post.

    • Sounds like you’re on a great path, Cindy. I’ve never said my books were the only, or even the best, sources of information on how to write an effective novel… that said, hope you’ll consider giving them a try, maybe I can contribute to your journey. Either way, I wish you great success!

  11. Thanks for a great post!
    For me, this stuck out:
    “The better question is this: what are the criteria and benchmarks for a story
    that works?”
    If you know what makes a great story, then the process doesn’t really matter because you are working toward that goal. Of course, some processes may be more efficient than others, but if what you are doing gets you to that end goal of a story that works (and you have to know what makes it work in order to reach the goal), then you will create something great. It also means that if you change your process from one story or book to another, that’s okay, because you have the same end goal and you know what makes it work.
    I am going to worry less about process and spend my energy on learning about what makes great stories… great.

  12. Pingback: Links To Blog Posts on Writing – January 2016 | Anna Butler

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