What’s the Best Way to Discover Your Story?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Not many people know that the decades-long feud between the Hatfields and McCoys started at a writers conference. The head of the Hatfield clan was an outliner. McCoy was a pantser. They were on a panel together and things got heated. Then the shooting started.

In those days, several McCoys were heard to say that they had to write the book in order to “discover” what the book was really about. If they got tied down to an outline, that’d take all the originality and “fun” out of the writing. They’d chew tobacco when they said such things, and every now and then they’d spit and say something about how an outline removes spontaneity (although they didn’t know words like spontaneity). A McCoy once remarked, “Them ’liners don’t never have no surprises. They don’t discover nuthin’. Got no use for ’em.”

Well, the guns are put away now, but the outliner (plotter) v. pantser divide is still grist for the panel mill. What I want to home in on today is this notion that the best method for “discovering” your story is by not knowing what you’re going to write until you write it. That way the whole thing is organic and surprising. And if the author is surprised (so goes the reasoning) the reader surely will be surprised as well.

Implied in this is the idea that plotters are stuck with their outline and are thus discovery challenged.

I’m going to blow that notion up.

First, let’s follow a typical pantser. She begins writing about a character…that’s the “fun” part. The character has some sort of issue or problem, but we don’t know what it is yet, or how it will manifest itself. At the 15k word mark, our pantser wakes up one morning with a mind-blowing idea—the abusive antagonist actually turns out to be the brooding boy from the MC’s past. Wowsers! That’s not what she expected! But that’s what she loves about pantsing!

Full of delight, our pantser writes another 20k words along this new trajectory, until the plot begins to stall because there’s not enough conflict, or the love part isn’t working, or things have moved too quickly and the book is close to being over … or any of an infinite number of plot problems that pantsers have to figure out how to solve—now, or in the messy future when they take a tangled, unkempt first draft and try to make it something readable.

But the big discovery—that the antagonist is really the boy from the past—remains. To change it now would mean starting at ground zero again, and that’s not a happy thought.

So what’s happened? The pantser got to a major plot path, one that sprang up one day and said Take me! and she took it. One path. And maybe it works out.

Or maybe it doesn’t. Still, the pantser contends that this discovery method is “purer” storytelling than some stodgy old outline.

To which the plotter says, “Hold on there, Lightning. You need to understand something. We enjoy even more discovery than you, and faster, too! It happens before we outline. We look at many paths and follow them as long as we like. Each one is a surprise; we’re not limited to one or two. We can then pick the most exciting one and start to outline. If something better occurs to us along the way, easy…we tweak the outline. Discovery after discovery!

Which is a little more freeing that finding one discovery after thousands of words of writing.

Let me give you look at my own process. I always start with a “white-hot document.”

I got this idea from one of my first, and most beloved, craft books, Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. He advocated writing a stream-of-consciousness document, where you just let your imagination run wild. No editing. Jot whatever plot, character, scene, big picture ideas hit you. Follow tangents wherever they lead. The next day you come back to this document and annotate. Highlight the best parts, then start writing again, following your imagination wherever it goes. Annotate the next day. Repeat this process several days.

David Morrell has a similar practice as explained in his book The Successful Novelist. He advocates asking yourself question after question, getting yourself deeper into the reasons you like this idea.

What’s happening is I’m letting the imagination and subconscious play, bringing me surprise after surprise. But I’m not yet wedded to any!

Next, I get a bunch of 3 x 5 cards and go to a coffee house and grab a large brew. I find a chair and start writing down scene ideas. Randomly. Without thought as to where they go. It’s enough just to jot this much:

Sister J has to fight a knife-wielding dental hygienist.

Later, I shuffle the cards and take out two at a time to see what plot ideas they suggest. In effect, I’m taking dozens of paths, checking out the scenery, and choosing the best one to follow.

I’m also fleshing out the members of my cast, remembering the principle of “orchestration.” That is, each character ought to be different from the others so there’s a possibility of conflict with everybody else.

Finally, I start laying out my Super Structure signposts, setting up the major movements of the plot. I have plenty of scene ideas to go in between. (I use Scrivener for this.)

Then I write.

Now, I fully realize dedicated pantsers are to outlines as mosquitoes are to Off. And that’s fine. You’ve got to go with what works for you, what brings you the most creative joy. The point of my post today is to emphasize that there’s joy and creativity and spontaneity in plotting, too…and in buckets!

So put down your muskets and tell us: how do you do most of your discovering? 

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38 thoughts on “What’s the Best Way to Discover Your Story?

  1. Wow, bait! (grin) Thanks, Jim.

    To stick to the question at hand, I trust my characters to know their own story better than I do. I believe (as Bradbury wrote) that plot is only the footprints left as the characters run through the story.

    To briefly address the whole “feud” thing, it amuses me (in a very Harlan Ellison kind of way) that those of us who write off into the dark are somehow apparently perceived as a threat by those who work their way word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, cautiously, carefully, and above all, thoughtfully through their stories.

    The truth is, we aren’t a threat. We don’t care how others write. We’re too busy writing our own stories. A few of us will pay it forward and help others if they ask, but we don’t pressure anyone. After all, how do I benefit if someone else writes 4 or 6 or 12 novels in a year instead of only 1 or 2?

    We were all taught the same things—at least initially by nonwriters, specifically English teachers, Lit professors, and professional critics: that we must limit ourselves, that we must mistrust our own creative subconscious and trust our inner critic. We were all taught we must outline, revise, participate in critique groups, and rewrite (often a magical, specific number of times).

    The one mantra we all have in common is that “Writers are the worst judges of our own work.” Writers universally purport to believe that, but those who “labor” at writing believe it much more strongly when they think what they’ve written is “good.” Yet somehow the notion disappears when they think what they’ve written is “bad.” Me? I let the judgement reside with the readers.

    For anyone who’s interested, I’ve written a much longer, more involved response in the topic of my Journal today at https://hestanbrough.com. It will be live by 6 a.m. today, Arizona time.

    Thanks for giving me the floor for a minute or two, Jim. (grin)

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    • Harvey, I don’t perceive a “threat” feeling in outliners. Indeed, they can sometimes come off as turning up their noses at their poor, wandering brethren. OTOH, the intuitive writer is sometimes perceived as believing his method is purer and more creative. This latter notion is the subject of my post today.

      BTW, I love Bradbury, whose best writing was short form. He had more trouble with his full-length novels (of which he wrote few), I suspect because those “footprints” sometimes led to dead ends. That’s not so much a danger in short stories or novellas (e.g., Fahrenheit 451).

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      • Thanks, Jim. I never give much weight to perceptions, being as they are the sole domain of the listener or reader. I’ve never seen a practitioner of WITD turn up his nose at anyone.

        It is admittedly easier to write short stories without an outline. That’s primarily because we can generally hold an entire short story in our head all at one time. And if it runs to two or three major scenes, it’s easier to trust the creative subconscious because we at least know it won’t be a long haul.

        In using WITD to write a novel of, say, 40,000 words or longer, we’re venturing out on a much longer limb and trust in the creative subconscious (or reversion to safety nets) becomes more necessary. For the sake of excitemtent, I choose the former.

        And sometimes, those “dead ends” have happened to me too. Sometimes they do when I (the writer) have tried to force something on the story from my own expectations. Other times (most of the time) they tie back in or are resolved later in the story by the characters themselves.

        Just my experience. Of course, I’ve been an outliner, reviser, rewriter as have we all at one time or another. When I invite anyone to WITD, I’m inviting them to try something new. When I am invited by others to outline, etc. they are inviting me to go backward.

        That said, not everyone can let go and write off into the dark, and that’s perfectly fine. For one thing, it’s scary in there. For another, it’s difficult to leave what’s become comfortable. Just the human condition. (grin)

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  2. Since I never had any formal training, I’m a self-taught writer. I’ve learned from other writers, from books, but I’ve never been exposed to anything like the “you musts” Harvey lists.
    To answer JSB’s question: Most of my discovering comes from putting characters in situations and asking myself why they’re doing what they’re doing. For my romantic suspense series, I know I have to pit two characters against each other as well as the mystery or suspense element.
    For example, in When Danger Calls, my hero, a covert ops specialist was on a rescue mission where a 4-year-old girl died in his arms. He’d failed to save her, and it haunts him. All this happened before the book began. So, I paired him up with a single mother with a 4-year-old daughter. The last kind of person he’d want to have anything to do with. And then I let Bad Stuff happen to both of them, pulling them together and pushing them apart, with the known goals of satisfying my readers by giving them the expected promise of a HEA.

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    • Most of my discovering comes from putting characters in situations and asking myself why they’re doing what they’re doing.

      Right, Terry. This is probably what both “sides” need, at a minimum, to start either writing or outlining. I must have a “situation” that will be the focus of the entire novel—the “death stakes” portion—and it must be gripping and original, or why write the novel? Once I nail that, I can create everything else around it. The pantser will dive right in and take things as they come; the outliner will play with many potential lines before committing.

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    • Terry, in my experience you are unique. I’ve never met anyone before who was never taught by an English or Comp teacher that outlining (or revision or “running it past an exta pair of eyes” or rewriting) is a necessary step in creating fiction. My hat’s off to you.

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  3. Okay, I get from this that we’re all pantsers, even the plotters. Especially the plotters. The plotters just do their pantsing in a different location and sometimes with different tools (3×5 cards…).

    “It happens before we outline. We look at many paths and follow them as long as we like. Each one is a surprise; we’re not limited to one or two. We can then pick the most exciting one and start to outline. If something better occurs to us along the way, easy…we tweak the outline. Discovery after discovery! Which is a little more freeing that finding one discovery after thousands of words of writing.”

    I agree. I’d rather have at least a vague idea of where the MC is taking me than ending up somewhere painted into a corner. 🙂

    I’m a mixture…a plantser, I guess. I get the idea, scribble some stuff, character ideas and descriptions, think about how I want the story to end, then at some point write the first scene. It’s hard for me to describe my process, because so far, it’s different with each story. Maybe because I’m inexperienced. I do see the value in some outlining. I’d like to learn how to do it better. Kind of like going to an unknown destination with a map. You can follow it…or not.

    Thanks for the post. Instructive and timely, as usual.

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    • Right, Deb, the “painted into a corner” ending has ruined many a book. I have in mind a thriller written by a long time veteran. It had one of the most compelling first chapters I’ve ever read. Really wild, strange, mysterious, absolutely captivating. This was sustained over the next several chapters. But soon I began to murmur “How can all this possibly be explained?” When I got to the end, the “explanation” was vapid and unbelievable. (For another such example, see the conclusion to Lost!)

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      • JSB, I’m working on a story that has me asking that very question. “How can all this possibly be explained?” A normal soccer mom of four going through twenty-four hours of sheer, mounting terror. Could one person possibly have all of this happen to her within that span of time? Some nights, I can’t sleep for thinking about her.

        However, I believe the ending ties it all together neatly, at the same time plugging the theme.

        I walk a thin line, though, because I don’t want that explanation to be “vapid”, but to mirror some of the unexplained corners and alleys of real life. If someone asked me why or how I came to be the way I am, no way can I explain it. 🙂

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  4. Great post. I’ve written both ways, and they are equally exciting for me. The concept of being “afraid” of one path or the other doesn’t make sense to me. They’re both exciting, creative processes, and they both work!

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    • Hi Karla. I, too, have done it both ways. Writing thrillers with a twist I need to know the who and the why of things—very often drafting the climax—before I dash off.

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  5. Thanks for the post. Great subject. I look forward to the discussion.

    My process for discovery is to carry a folder of scrap paper around for a couple months while I do my brainstorming. Whenever I get a new idea, I jot it down. Since I’m writing a series and know my protagonist and secondary characters, most of my discovery is developing the antagonist, his plot, and the conflict that will arise.

    I then use the signposts and an outline of Larry Brooks’ book (Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves) to lay out the three-part or four-part structure, making certain that I am including what needs to be in the story.

    At that point I lay out minor signposts (or “nodes”) that guide the story. And at each node, I blast the characters and plot out of the starting gate and say “Go for it. Just arrive at the finish line (the next node).”

    It’s in between the nodes that I have the fun of seeing where the characters will take the story, how wild they will get, where the micro-conflict will arise, and what clues I can add to foreshadow what’s coming.

    Thanks for the post. I look forward to reading everyone else’s strategies and techniques.

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    • It’s in between the nodes that I have the fun of seeing where the characters will take the story, how wild they will get, where the micro-conflict will arise, and what clues I can add to foreshadow what’s coming.

      Steve, this is almost exactly how Isaac Asimov described his method. You’re in good company!

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  6. I PREFER to be a plotter. For me personally, I believe it saves me time to plot my story to some degree before-hand. That’s no guarantee that I won’t write myself into corners, but it reduces the *frequency* of writing myself into corners.

    HOWEVER, I unfortunately suffer from perfectionism. To me, the researching of historical fiction as part of my plotting is as much fun as the writing. But I feel like I can never research enough & my brain goes on an endless “spin cycle” where the ideas just keep flowing and I never settle down on the path to the plot because one idea begets another, which begets another, etc. I realize that gets into a lot of territory outside the point of this post.

    I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes I have to write without knowing where I’m truly going just to break the inertia (which speaks to your white hot document idea).

    In fact, yesterday, for the first time in 2020, I finally met my weekly goal of 6000 words a week…by chucking plotting before hand and just sitting down and writing in timed sprints to finish a short story.

    For me the pantsing vs. plotting debate has much to do with time. Or lack thereof. To me, writing can be done much more quickly than researching and plotting. Once you KNOW where you’re going with a story, you can explode words on the page/screen. But getting to that point is a very time consuming process (at least for me).

    I have much experimentation yet to do before I arrive at the right strategy for me.

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    • BK, experimentation is always good for a writer. Try things, see what works. I’ve been all over the map, but after 30 years at this game I feel I finally know my right zone.

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  7. If the original feud had been writers, the bloodshed would have been minimal because most writers are weenies. Lots of nasty looks, passive-aggressive whining, and perfect putdowns. And since this was the very rural South, extremely vague Bible verses galore to prove their points.

    Over the years through writing students and friends early in their writing journey, I’ve seen huge pantster piles of exciting ideas end up unfinished and left behind for the next exciting idea. Unfinished projects are much rarer for outliners. Outlines are efficient, and you need to be efficient as a professional writer.

    My own method is a mixture of the two processes. (Yes, mind blown!) I create the outline as the outer structure of the novel, then allow my creativity to fill in the blanks. I describe it as having a handful of gems I lay down in specific order as my outline then create the filigree that holds them together to create a bracelet. It never failed me.

    The writing book I always suggest for the new writer and the creative process is Ben Bova’s THE CRAFT OF WRITING SCIENCE FICTION THAT SELLS. Yeah, it’s about science fiction, but structure is structure. Essentially, he says that plot is a character development tool, and he shows how a series of questions about what drives your main character helps you create the main plot. This, too, has never failed me in the creative process, and no reviewer or editor has ever said a bad thing about my character and plot development. If anyone is interested in more detail about Bova’s book, I wrote a blog on his method and how I used it to create one of my novels.

    http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2016/09/using-index-cards-to-plot-your-novel.html

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    • Marilyn, I shudder at the thought of an unfinished work. Hence Hainlein’s Rule #2. Nonetheless, I’ve left a few unfinished works (openings that didn’t work out) in the waste basket over the past 50 years. On the other hand, I’ve written 48 novels, 8 novellas, over 200 short stories and hundreds of poems in that time too.

      I write without an outline, but neither am I a ‘pantser.’ (Ugh.) I don’t write anything by the seat of my pants. I race through the story or novel with the characters, and I write down what they say and do (when I can keep up). Mostly, I trust them to live their own lives. I’m basically their recorder.

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      • I jokingly call instinctive writers who get it right idiot savants. Stephen King is a pantster idiot savant whose instinctive knowledge can create a decent book. His belief that being a panster is the only way to write a book is just being an arrogant idiot. Over the years, the detailed outlines became less necessary for me so I have come close to being an idiot savant myself.

        The term “autistic savant” seems to be the new term according to what I just read online so consider me having my lack of pc terminology smacked down.

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        • IMHO, whether you can write without fear depends on how much you are able to trust what you’ve learned, what’s seeped into your subconscious. I don’t fret over where a story’s going or sentence or scene or story structure anymore than i fret over where to put a period or a quesion mark or whether to dot an I or cross a T.

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  8. I call myself a planster. I plan a basic outline, having an idea of where I want the story to go, then dig in. To me, having a detailed outline takes the fun out of writing. But I like what another commenters said in that we’re all pansters, it’s just when and were we do it.

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  9. When I decided to write a novel, I thought I had a good idea for a story and knew some basics about the characters, so I just started writing. How hard could it be? (I hear your groans.) After I finished the first draft, I realized I needed help so I hired an editor/mentor and turned to craft books by JSB and others. It took a long time to revise and rewrite, but I think it was a good way for a beginner to start. Sometimes you just have to do it.
    For my second novel, I took the opposite approach and carefully outlined. I created a post-it note for each scene and stuck them on the three closet doors in the guest room, one door for each act. (Thank goodness nobody came to visit during that phase.) Although I liked the organization, the process was a bit dry — like writing down the grocery list rather than cooking the dinner. (Okay, I know you have to have groceries, but sometimes you need to hit the farmer’s market to see what’s fresh.) After the first draft, I’m still having to do some rethinking and rewriting, but not as much as the first book.
    Bottom line: I’m still trying to find the process that fits me as a writer. But I copied and pasted the process JSB outlined above and maybe I’ll give that a try on the third book.
    Thank you!

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    • Kay, your “Sometimes you just have to do it.” rings true. There is a book I outlined very carefully (or so I thought) before writing, and STILL backed myself into some corners I’m still trying to figure out how to get out of.

      If there’s one unifying theme to all we discuss here at TKZ, it’s that you gotta keep writing and writing to learn–no matter the writer’s rituals & methods to get there. I’ve only written two manuscripts and pieces of a few others–that’s not much in the grand scheme of things. I need to write a lot more to gain the instincts and experience to improve my stories. And that’s the goal I’m after in 2020. AKA my marching orders for 2020 are “put up or shut up.” 😎

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  10. I’ve written both ways. My pantsed novels are all trunked, my “planned” novels all published. That’s not to say that I think my way is the best way. Planning ahead just works for me. I never need to wonder what to write next, yet I’m constantly revising that plan as surprises pop out of The Zone. Planning decreases the amount of blood spewing from my forehead while allowing me the freedom to zig instead of zag, because I have a solid path back to the main highway that leads to The End. 🙂

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    • Planning decreases the amount of blood spewing from my forehead while allowing me the freedom to zig instead of zag

      This deserves to go in a book of writer quotes, Sue!

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  11. I always see my beginning and my end so I write those first.

    If I try to use an outline my brain refuses to function. I spent months trying to make it outline. It told me exactly what I could do with that idea and refused to give me anything at all. So now I write the scenes I see, put them in order, and when I stop seeing scenes I look at what I have and what I need and write that.

    It’s weird, I know. As long as I let my brain loose to have fun, the work gets finished. Same reason I listen to audiobooks while I clean.

    Somewhere along the line (probably from doing so much theatre all my life) 3-act structure is ingrained. My brain just treats it like I treat snakes – I know they’re there, I just don’t want to see them.

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  12. I’m mostly a self-taught writer. I went to university, but they didn’t teach “how” to write. It felt like it was mostly “make up a character, put it in a setting, give it a problem, and away you go” without any instruction on cohesiveness and understandability. But again, universities teach literary fiction writing, not necessarily genre writing.

    It took me several years of pantsing stories and novels to realise that I’m not a pantser. I’d get a quarter of a way in and run out of steam. But, neither am I a 20-page synopsis plotter either.

    I like signposts. I need milemarkers to say “yes, you’re on the right path” and just let my characters to the talking and the walking to get where they need to go (the resolution). Every now and then, they stray in a different direction I hadn’t even thought possible.

    One mentor (not a writing mentor) once told me that if the answer is 42, how many ways are there to get there? You can multiply, divide, add, and subtract your way to 42. It can be as long and convoluted, or as short and simple as you want, as long as you follow the order of operations. That made a lot of sense when I applied it to writing as well.

    I can’t remember where I saw it initially (saved it though), but there was a graphic of Dan Wells’ 7-point story structure, detailing what each mile marker was. Someone took it (Larry Brooks… maybe?) and amended it. Instead of writing it in order, point 1 through to point 7, write the 7 points in a particular order (resolution first, then hook, then midpoint, etc). Wrote my first, full, complete draft of a novel, and I’m currently writing a second one using that amended structure. I’ve also outlined a trilogy with it, which is my next project.

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  13. My outlines are lifeless and demotivating, so I start with an initial scene and a McGuffin or two that tickle me and plunge ahead into the unknown.

    It also happens that my best plot twists strike me as imbecilic when they first occur to me. It’s crucial that I write out the scene rather than sitting around dithering about it. For example, in what seemed like an ordinary mid-Seventies suburban setting, my two teen-aged love interests were moving towards their first kiss too quickly, and my trusty subconscious said, “Let’s interrupt this touching scene by … um … having a zombie appear out of nowhere to beat down the front door.” THAT sure worked!

    My outlines never have stuff like that.

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  14. I have done both pantsing and outlining, and now work on a balance of the two. Most of my stories are discovered during late night/early morning insomnia sessions. Anything that sticks half way through the waking day probably belongs in the story. That said, I try to outline as much of the general story as possible using MS OneNote and an old fashioned yellow legal pad.
    Thaaat said, and equal amount of my inspiration comes from watching the day to day lives of the Leprechauns that live in my basement.

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  15. To me, the most important thing to have before you write is an original idea that will sell. It doesn’t matter how much you plan or how great of a writer that you are if you don’t have a good idea (or an idea that will be interesting to enough people to make it worth your while to write it). Some writers just start writing without properly vetting their ideas. Maybe this if fine if you’re writing a practice novel with no intention of selling it. But, how sad it is to pour your heart into a story idea only to later realize that it won’t have wide enough appeal. Luckily, if you vet your idea and it’s not quite ready, people who are experienced in the craft can help you fix it. The sooner you get feedback, the better.

    The writing process I prefer begins with a logline. A logline should be specific and tell what the story is about. A good logline will include who the protagonist is, what the protagonist wants, and what’s at stake (why the reader should care/what happens if the protagonist fails). A logline shouldn’t be a teaser. It should be specific, without (for the love of Pete) trying to stuff the entire plot into the logline. Stuffing the entire plot into a logline is one of the most common problems that I’ve seen.

    So, for example (and this is just something off the top of my head), suppose the log line was something like this:

    A researcher working for a large pharmaceutical company must stop the company from releasing what might become a mandatory vaccine for young girls that she believes is unsafe.

    Now, once the logline is developed, if someone asks what your story is about, you can tell them immediately in one sentence and see if they get excited about your story idea. If the story idea gets everybody saying, “Yeah, I want to read that,” then it’s time to actually start writing the story. Nothing is more confusing than asking someone what their story is about and having them ramble in a million directions. A solid logline keeps you focused.

    After developing a logline and having it vetted, you can think about writing and story structure. At that point, create a story arc beat sheet. Jami Gold has some examples here: (https://jamigold.com/for-writers/worksheets-for-writers/). Whether you like “Save the Cat” or Michael Hauge, using a beat sheet helps you to get started. Once you have an idea of the major plot points, how much outlining is necessary is probably dependent on one’s experience level (or preference) and how much detail a writer can retain in his head. I’m a big fan of note cards, story boards, and writing software. After you’ve written/reviewed/edited enough stories, though, certain things become second nature. However, if you don’t understand beat sheets or story structure, you’re unprepared. If you want to be pantser, great, but I recommend studying structure and being familiar with all of the various methodologies. Then if you want to write without any plot points or outlines or any sort of planning at all, go nuts and embrace the madness. But at least understand the fundamentals of story structure beforehand. Sometimes having a little bit of structure can actually free your mind so that you can be more creative and come up with those “surprises” JSB mentioned, if that makes any sense. That’s my opinion, of course, which together with fifty cents might buy you a cup of coffee.

    Btw, I love the Swain book JSB referenced, too. (on my shelves along with his books).

    Happy writing, everyone, no matter what the method is to your personal madness!

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