Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Navigating the Land of Make Believe

Every author has their own method when it comes to writing a story. You hear about plotters and pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants). You hear about story boards and outlines. Me? I live in the land of make believe. I often see scenes or interactions, but not always the big picture. I don't always know where the story is going. That's the case with my current work in progress.

Sometimes, I'm very structured, which makes the job much easier. Other times, I have no idea what comes next. Scratch that, I have an idea, but only the barest of bones. I generally know the theme of the story, where the story needs to go. But aside from that, it's like playing Barbie doll. I put the characters on the page and make it up as I go along.

When my creativity falters, I have a tendency to make notes, plot points to cover. Free form outlining, in a manner of speaking. When I know where the story is going but it isn't clear, I write directly in the story about what needs to happen rather than paragraphs that "are" the story. Sometimes, I hear the dialog in my head, and I write that down to spur on the words around it. Those notes often turn into brainstorms of "Wait a minute. If this happens, then that has to happen." And sometimes those notes serve as a vehicle to get me writing. Once the words start, more and better words tend to follow. Some notes make it into the story, and some don't. When I'm really at a loss, I have a girlfriend I bounce ideas off of. I'll switch to my email program and start writing to her about the problem I'm facing, and oftentimes, in the course of explaining it to her, a flash of brilliance strikes me and I've solved my own problem. It's about stepping into my imagination and getting the engine started.

In my current work in progress, I'd reached a point where my main character needs to face her fears. Unfortunately, I didn't know what she was afraid of. I went over the usual phobias with a complete lack of interest, but then I thought about how intimidating big dogs can be. Which led me to one of the background characters who wanted to be a canine handler. Instant conflict! (I love it when a story comes together!)

Writing without an outline is like taking the long way around the block. You might get lost, but you might also discover routes you never knew existed. Each path has its own rewards, and I could argue the benefits of both methods. When writing to a deadline, outlining is a better road to your destination--it gets you there faster. Without that constraint, taking the uncharted path can often be an entertaining diversion, or a frustrating exercise in losing your way. 

The takeaway message to all of this is that even if you don't know what comes next, what to write, write something. "Something" almost always leads to something more.


  1. I was halfway through the current manuscript before the hero was in a situation that scared him. I wasn't sure why, but eventually, he told the heroine (and I listened in). I'm always thankful there's nothing 'etched in stone' when we write. We can add and subtract as needed.