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.
Before we get to any of that, though, I suggest practicing acceptance. You are the type of writer you are, and the type of writer you are is a GEE WHIZ GOSH WOW conceptual writer. You’re probably never going to be the type of writer who naturally comes up with plots. If you accept that about yourself, you’ll have a much easier time emotionally than if you keep trying to make yourself be a plotter.
Acceptance might mean looking for ways to work with this rather than against it, such as writing little vignettes or flash pieces, or teaming up with a visual artist to create a set of stunning images, or collaborating with a writer whose strengths complement yours, or hiring an editor to take your beautiful messes and organize them. It might mean stealing a plot from somewhere else or beginning to write with no plot or structure or outline in mind at all. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being more of an ideas person. Many, many, many writers are ideas people. Celebrate your glorious ideas rather than treating yourself as a failure because plots are trickier for you.
Acceptance also means realizing that any plot will feel clunky to you because writing it won’t have that natural grace and ease of coming up with grand sweeping ideas. Before you give up in despair, run that “irredeemably listless garbage” past someone else and see what they think. You may be surprised how hard it is for a reader to tell which parts of a story came from sweet easy inspiration and which were crafted in sweat and agony. And remember that every story has some component of inspiration and some component of craft; the all-inspiration all-easy story is a mirage, so don’t bother chasing it.
Finally, acceptance means realizing that your “unenthused” feeling goes beyond not naturally being good at plotting; it sounds to me like a real aversion to writing plotted work. Take a look at my post on what it means to be blocked and see if you can identify any underlying emotional or psychological causes of that very abrupt switch from “my ideas are glorious” to “my writing is trash” as soon as the element of plot is introduced. Maybe you only like coming up with ideas and don’t actually like writing. Maybe the weight of should that drives you to look for plots also makes you feel really uncomfortable and averse to continuing with a project. Maybe the act of writing feels like a scary first step toward someone else seeing your work. Maybe someone once told you that your writing is bad and now it’s hard to stop hearing that voice in your head. Whatever it is, there’s something going on there that’s worth investigating.
Resources for plotting exist in abundance. I list several in my earlier post on when settings are fun and stories are hard, which responds to a letter that’s similar to yours. You can also get into reading books that break conventional ideas of plotting, and see whether their approaches appeal to you. But none of that will get you anywhere until you come to terms with being where you are in your process and being the type of writer you are. Let go of all your shoulds, even the ones that seem incontrovertible (like “every story should have a plot” or “every plot involves a character solving a problem”), and begin from where you are with as little judgment as possible. You might be surprised how far you can go from there.