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.
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10 thoughts on “#59: Accepting Your Writing Style”
Thank you, Story Nurse! This was my letter, and I maybe cried a little reading your response. Thanks for validating me! Being bad at plotting makes me feel like a bad storyteller, which is DOOM for a writer, but I really want to write, and I really want other people to be able to live in this beautiful story world and meet my characters. I guess the problem is that my ideas tend to be very vague and artsy, so whenever I try to pin them down and create ~conflict~ out of them, suddenly my idea has had its wings chopped off. Maybe I’ll just write a bunch of little shorts about my characters exploring different parts of my cool world for a while!
I sometimes think my ideal format for my writing would be a text-based RPG, kinda like Sunless Sea, if you’ve heard of that. A bunch of tiny, choose-your-own adventure stories for each location, a lot of them just there to highlight how cool the world is, and you go around collecting new characters to stay on your ship and investigating strange new lands and creatures.
This did indeed get caught in the spam filter—sorry about that.
Don’t stress too much about plots containing conflict in the traditional sense; many stories don’t. Choose-your-own-adventure story tourism sounds like a lovely alternative.
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Have you read any of Pamela Dean’s books? They might give you a good example of something a novel can look like when written by someone with a very similar story-brain to yours.
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I don’t think I have, actually! I’ll have to check that out. 🙂
Perplexed Plotter, I love your RPG idea! And although it’s been years since my last programming class (way back in the days of Visual Basic), I remember that text-based RPGs don’t take a ton of technical skill to create, and there are some tools like Twine now that can make it even easier.
Have you ever played a tabletop roleplaying game like D&D? Would you be interested in running a game with your friends or maybe even creating your own rule book? My husband also struggles with plotting, but he loves running games and gets lots of satisfaction from watching other people play in the universes he creates. There’s a lot of cool stuff going on right now with people turning their tabletop games into podcasts and video series, and those are starting to be acknowledged as legitimate fiction even though they’re not in a traditional novel format.
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Hey, LW here! I don’t know if my other comment posted – it looks like probably not? Maybe it’s caught in the spam filter. Anyway, thank you so much for your advice and validation. I maybe cried a little at the reminder that I don’t HAVE to write plots if I don’t want to, and that I CAN do plots even if they’re hard.
Reading back through the letters you linked, this is a really common problem, huh? There’s at least three other letters published with very similar problems, haha. At least I can rest easy knowing that there are other people who just want to bury themselves up to the neck in the ideas sandbox instead of making a castle.
I’ve been putting a lot of stress and pressure on myself, lately, and trying to make everything into a giant epic story with lots of conflicts and tension, but I think I’m going to indulge myself for a while and maybe do something episodic and artsy and out-of-order about a traveler just wandering through my weird cool fantasy world. I’ll do tiny training plots, maybe, about the traveler getting lost and having to figure out where they are, or being attacked by monsters, or finding out about the new friends they’ve collected on the Road Trip Bus, but super low-pressure. Just getting myself into the habit of telling stories. (And hey, if nothing else, that’s cool material for a blog!)
Thanks again, Story Nurse!
That sounds like a wonderful low-pressure approach. I hope it works for you!
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