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Instinct in Plotting
Amy Sterling
Posted: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 6:52 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 26

When I first started writing, I wrote totally by instinct.  I didn't question where the story was taking me.  If I got a picture in my mind, I ran with it, whether or not it served the overall story I was working on.

The end result of this is a not-very-well-organized or plotted story.

One of the most difficult skills for me to learn was how to harness that instinct and make it work for the story, plot and characters.  

Plot is what happens to the characters because of who they are and what their situation or context is.  So, the key is to know the difference between an "off the cuff" idea or concept, or an instinct about who the character is and what they would or wouldn't do and why.  

As an example, in the book I've been putting here on Bookcountry, which is a current WIP, I pictured that the main character Mel, who has recently regained her sight, would use that newfound sense to see that the boy she's in love with had a light-colored line on his ring finger.  He tells her he's recently gotten married, but when I pictured the scene, he had slipped the ring off before coming in to confess the truth to Mel and urge her to "do the right thing."  In my mind, I thought that this action would be in character for him, because he's built his relationship with Mel on his being able to present himself as a rockstar of sorts, because she was blind and disabled and couldn't know.  Even right before he came in to confess the truth, part of him still wanted to "pretend," and therefore he slipped off the ring.  This was my instinct . . . but readers questioned it.  

Still not sure if I'll keep or it will go . . . but that was THAT instinct.  Part of him wanted to keep her idolization of him going.

I'd be interested in hearing about how that writer's "sixth sense" or instinct about what a character would or wouldn't do has influenced your stories.

Marshall R Maresca
Posted: Friday, May 6, 2011 3:31 AM
Joined: 3/7/2011
Posts: 56


I should clarify my comments. I didn't have a big problem with John slipping off his ring. My main concern was A. whether, being only shortly married, he would have a noticeable mark on his finger from taking off his ring and B. if Mel, having been blind since the age of 7 and only newly used to sight, would notice that detail and recognize what it meant. Him taking it off, though? That I had no quarrel with.
Amy Sterling
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 1:58 AM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 26

That ring! Guess what - I looked at this several times and saw no replies, then suddenly today, here they are, and it says Franci commented 6 days ago! I fear I am in a quandary between instinct, facts about how people perceive things after regaining sight (as opposed to gaining it for the first time, i.e. being blind their whole lives) and what works for the reader, especially considering it's intended primarily for younger readers.

Even though I love to find the story by instinct, I gotta go with the reader every time . . .
MB Mulhall
Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 1:30 AM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 81

My characters really run my stories. I rarely outline or plot a whole story out. I normally have an ending in mind but totally let my characters run the gambit to bring me there.They often take me places I wouldn't expect and that's how they kind of reveal themselves to me. Sometimes they get stuck and I have to give them a push, but it's rare.
Alex Hollingshead
Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 2:50 AM
Joined: 5/2/2011
Posts: 61

I go both ways with this one. I will outline some key plot points (and some necessary preliminary stuff, mostly worldbuilding - as I write fantasy), and put up some markers, keep things moving along. If I get a spontaneous, 'instinctive' urge to add something, I don't do it immediately. I look back at what I've been writing and look for inconsistencies, they tend to be the source of the problem. I wrote a scene that characterized a protagonist poorly and it made a decision he makes three chapter later seem wrong. I won't just go with it; I go back, fix it, and then see if my original plan still works. If I am on the fence, I write out a chapter or two in each branch and see which works better for me.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Friday, May 13, 2011 10:52 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

I can't write a good story unless I give the characters enough head space to push the whole thing forward. When i don't, they just lie there. When I do, they take off and drag the story forward.

As an example XLI (posted on here) didn't *have* a big romantic component before I started writing it, but... Tram was forced to marry Tenly, and he can't call someone 'wife' and not make a concerted effort to be loving toward her, and doing *that* requires an effort to actually love her as she is. For her part, Tenly spent a dozen years watching people try to win her hand for her inheritance, followed by literally centuries of solitude, first by need, then by choice. She's bound and determined to avoid relationships, but someone determined to love her for her, not for her wealth or position, hits her like a power washer hitting the world's biggest sandcastle.

The meta-story of the series became a romance, even though the original story only had a minor romantic element.

On the other hand, until I found Capricious' headspace and gave her some room, she was stuck at 30,000 feet with no way down.
L R Waterbury
Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 12:46 AM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 60

I too find that my characters sometimes have a mind of their own and they decide that what I have plotted just isn't where they want to go. Sometimes, the characters do know best, but sometimes they only think they do and my careful plotting really is the best path to take. It's a matter of listening both to the path of the story you have plotted out and to the characters themselves and then finding a balance between the two.
R N Koller
Posted: Saturday, May 28, 2011 11:48 AM
Joined: 5/21/2011
Posts: 3

My stories always start at the same place: they start with the question "what if...?". What if this would happen, what if that could happen and so on...
This is the beginning of a general concept or scenario for me.

Next "cardboard characters" will be placed in the new found situation. By "cardboard characters" I mean undeveloped characters. They have no face, no history, no age, nothing. They are just "people" which I place in the situation as kind of a marker.

Next I have to have the ending. For me this is a great obsession... I cannot write something if I do not know where it's going. The ending might change in the process of writing, by the way, but I must have AN ending of sorts in order to be able to sit down and write.

So at this point I have a starting point and a finishing line put inside a certain situation. This is the part where "instinct writing" would take over. This is the part where my faceless characters will reveal their faces to me and tell me their story. They will also point me in the right direction in order to get them from the starting point to the finishing line. It is up to me to plan their route, but they will usually poke at me if i'll send them at the wrong direction.

What I'm trying to say in that by having a prepared concept or scenario, an end point and a developed character, you can pretty easily find the correct plot and pacing for your story.
At least that how it works for me. If I don't have a finishing line, I can't plot the story properly because I am working blind...

As for pacing, once you have the beginning and finishing line and characters, the pacing should come pretty naturally. I mean, if i'm writing about a hyper-active racer, It won't make much sense to make the story slow. The pacing should not just be suitable to the genre and situation, but also reflect the emotional state and current situation of the characters.
Tom Wolosz
Posted: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 3:00 AM
Joined: 5/25/2011
Posts: 122

When I write a story I always start with two things pretty well graven in stone - the beginning and the end. It's a bit like planning a trip since I know where I am and where I want to end up. The problem: getting from point A to point B. In a way it's also like walking through a maze. Would my character do this? No? Then turn back and take the other turn. That works! Good then let's move on. Of course the maze analogy only works if you can transport yourself between spots that haven't been connected yet. Chapter 5 works well, and Chapter 8 is a blast! Hmmmm, now getting from 5 to 8...well, let's see now....

Characters are, in a sense, somewhat similar. In the book I have posted on this site there are two characters that carry most of the story - Him and Her (no names, they don't rate them in their world). Him I knew pretty well before I started writing. When I came up with the idea for the story he was born and thought out pretty well. She, on the other hand, was more nebulous. I wanted both to be real people: flawed, yet sympathetic. I was happy with Him, but she grew in the telling. In many ways she was a lot more interesting to write and took a lot more time as I came to know and understand her.

So, I guess to sum up: yes there's a story arc. there's a beginning and an end and the rest is work, exploration and a lot of fun.
Posted: Friday, June 3, 2011 12:52 AM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

I wrote my first novel with an outline, which I then filled out rather pedantically and it was very dull.

I wrote my second novel purely by instinct. A scene would pop into my head and I would write it and plug it roughly where it ought to go in the story. The whole thing was little scenes--all written out of chronological order and it reads like...a lot of scenes written out of chronological order. Each scene is a gem, but there is no arc at all. If I had done it on purpose, maybe I'd be an experimental writing genius, but I did it as part of my learning curve, so I consider it a failure.

My third novel was the first one I wrote using Scrivener (which I LOVE) and I basically pulled up a new scene file for each scene as I imagined I would write them in the story and gave them each a title that described in brief what happened in that scene.

Then I wrote the scenes, mostly but not strictly in chronological order, adding one or subtracting one, or taking two and squooshing them into one as needed.

I think that third novel is by far the best so far (and, I'm hoping, "the charm" as they say, and will score me an agent).

In short, light outlining and heavy instinct seems to be my best way to write.

I also think watching where characters go once you've created them is fun. I never really believed in that before I was writing fiction. In studying the fiction of others and hearing writers claim their characters had minds of their own, I was always very skeptical. But now that I'm doing it myself, I see what they mean by it.

I'm the writer, and I'm in control, but the characters I sketchily imagine, once fleshed out, persuade me that they would or wouldn't act quite the way the plot originally needed them to act and that forces me to tweak things. I think this is fun, actually--especially when secondary characters "assert" themselves and become more interesting and/or more important than I originally intended.

I recently read a quote from Shakespeare about writing Romeo and Juliet that was something along the lines of how he had to kill Mercutio off before Mercutio killed off his play, and I totally got it. Mercutio IS the most appealing character in the play, and if he hadn't been killed off, he would have stolen the whole thing.

Not that I'm comparing myself to Shakepseare, mind you.

And finally, Amy: I read Star Child and I was taken aback by that wedding band thing, too. I didn't understand why he would take it off. It did seem out of character. But rather than do away with that inspiration you had, I would encourage you to shape John from the get-go in a way that makes that a believable scene when it happens. That will be tricky, since we are in Mel's head, first-person, but can't we overhear something John says or does that Mel misinterprets? In other words, can't she be an unreliable narrator when it comes to John, and can't we realize that a bit earlier on?
Amy Sterling
Posted: Monday, August 1, 2011 3:37 AM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 26

Hi everybody - amazing input and ideas - just checking back in - hope you're all working hard, I am too!
Danielle Bowers
Posted: Thursday, August 4, 2011 7:06 PM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 280

Whenever I find myself trying to plan out a story too much prior to writing, I try to remember Strider.

I'm sure most of you have either read Lord of the Rings by Tolkien or seen the movies? I read an interview with him that said he created the character Strider/Aragorn when he got stuck. He'd just written the hobbits arriving at The Prancing Pony and didn't know what to do next. He created the mysterious stranger smoking in a corner and dubbed him Strider.

If you know the story, you'll know that he is a key player for the rest of the books.

I like to keep my options open while writing a new story. I'll create a rough plot arc with a beginning, middle and end, but how the characters get to the middle and end stay nebulous.

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