Determining Plot: Time For a Coin Toss?

September 12, 2010

I’m going to admit right now to a certain jealously towards writers who outline their novels. You just seem so organized and in control. Whenever I come across the seemingly sane advice to outline my plot, I think: what a great idea! That will solve my problems for sure!

Since I was stuck recently, scratching my head wondering ‘what comes next?’ I tried, once again, to outline my plot. And once again, I failed miserably. Honestly, I should just shove my head in a bucket and start hitting it with a hammer–the effect on my mind is similar…

Trouble is, I can’t seem to come up with enough detail to make the outline worthwhile! Points A and Z are well defined, but all points in between are a fog, a swath of nothingness, that mocking blankness on the page, empty, empty, empty. The map for my novel has a big, blank spot in the middle, so I just dunno what’s going to show up. Will I be trekking through mountains, swamps or desert? I dunno. Is the path straightforward or meandering? I dunno. Is there warning signs on the map: beware ye who enter here, a skull and crossbones? I dunno. I dunno. I have no idea.

While I do know where I’m hoping to go, the route I’m taking to get there is a mystery. I’m feeling my way through the dark with a lighted match–and that’s it.

So  I’ve decided: its official. I am not an outliner. I’m not even a connect-the-dot-er. I like to nail down my details organically, one scene arising from the other, within a very loose and general framework.  Let’s call it the ‘fingers crossed hope to hell this works out’ school of plot development. I’ve also heard it referred to as ‘pant-est’ (meaning ‘Whee! Look at me! I’m flying by the seat of my pants, baby!’)

It’s not an approach conductive to too much rational thought. It’s intuitive–and, as such, tossing a coin or consulting the Tarot to figure out a plot problem doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch. I suppose it can be considered fun and exciting, with it’s perpetual sense of discovery and surprise (oh look! My character just decided to seduce the footman. Wow!)…

But that’s also what makes it terrifying. Nerve-wrecking. Leading to shivers of self-doubt. I have to wonder if all this hap-dash slapped together and tied with bits of string will result in an obtuse, confusing, unpublishable piece of crap. Hence, my occasional yearning for a plan! An outline! If I could only nail this sucker down, I’d win. I’d be fabulous.

Luckily, I learned recently that best-selling author Suzan Elizabeth Phillips (the rom-com Queen of snappy dialogue) has a similar writing style, which she describes in the back of her novel It Had To Be You: “As you’ve probably figured out about now, I don’t do a lot of pre-planning and have a tendency to introduce characters and plot elements without any idea how to solve their conflicts.”

And her novels are best sellers. So, hurray! I guess there’s hope for me yet!

PS. How about you? Are you an outlining- pre-planning-got-details-figured-out-beforehand kind of writer? Or are you the intuitive-got-the-gist-of-it-but-making-it-up-as-I-go type? TAKE MY POLL and lets see the results!

PPS. And feel free to leave a comment too!


  1. I sympathize. It’s the same problem I have with “For Love of Brian” right now; I just don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’ve tried outlining, but I don’t even have point Z planned. I just let my imagination, and my characters, take me where it/they will. I like it that way, because I get to discover the story as it unfolds; it makes it more exciting to write.

    • I agree: it is exciting! It’s like reading a book as you write one…you get surprised just as the reader does.

      But it’s also frustrating! Especially when you don’t know where to go next. The writer’s block where you sit and stew and can’t move forward.

      Oh, well. I’m sure an idea will come to us eventually!

      BTW, I love your For Love of Brian #teasertuesday excerpts! Don’t give up on your story, it’s great!

      Julie J.

  2. Basic outlining is useful. Basic. Very basic. I start with the main character(s). Once I’ve got that done, I sit down and write the first scene. Which usually means I’m adding characters at the end of every scene.

    I know of people who claim that they’ve got it all in their heads right from the start. I don’t believe them.


    • Thanks! It’s useful to hear I’m not the only one…I have this idea in my head that every writer a) writes a gazillion words everyday and b) has it all figured out ahead of time. In my explorations on Twitter, however, I’ve discovered a myriad of writing approaches/styles. Not everyone outlines etc.

      We are diverse creatures!

      Thanks so much for dropping by!

      Julie J.

      • That was what I originally thought too, that you had to have it all planned out ahead of time. Then I saw Roger Zelazney give a talk one time about how he wrote the first five books in the Amber series. He got an idea after a walk one day, and started to write it. About 150 pages in, he realized that he couldn’t finish it in one book. About 150 pages into the second book he realized he couldn’t finish it in two books. It just kept growing, and what looked like a simple idea took five books to complete.

        The second series wasn’t as good in my opinion. He said that he’d planned it out as closely as he could, because the first one had gotten out of control. It just didn’t seem to be as real to me. It was still good, but felt a bit contrived.

        If you haven’t read anything by Roger Zelazney, I’d suggest that you pick up ‘Nine Princes in Amber’, it’s really neat.


  3. Organic here!

    Also, I know that many Tarot enthusiasts actually DO use their decks while writing. Intriguing!

    • Hi Beth!

      Seems to be quite a few organics out there, more than I realized!

      The Tarot has actually really worked for me when I’ve used it. At the least it’s always given me more information to ponder.

      Thanks for dropping by!
      Julie J.

  4. […] more practically: Do I need an outline? (tried that) Do I need a writing goal? (tried that) Do I need a deadline? (tried that too!) Or just to get my […]

  5. […] I’ve discussed in previous posts (like Determining Plot: Time for a Coin Toss?), I’ve tried outlining the plot events (oh believe me, I’ve tried) but can’t seem […]

  6. […] decided to try random associations, something I like to do when I’m stuck/have writer’s […]

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