Writing a novel – a writer’s journal part 11 – plot

Where is my story going? Some thoughts about plot

A few nights ago I had a restless time in the early hours of the morning. I had been working hard on my children’s novel. I had written 400 words in the hour or so before retiring. This had drained me emotionally and mentally. I took a while to go to sleep; the mind was too active. Several hours later I more or less woke up knowing why I had been struggling with the story.

The story was going nowhere.

Sure-I had a vague idea of some of the plot. I knew the major events that I wanted to incorporate. I roughly knew where it was going and how it would finish. I just basically didn’t know how to get there.

In a flash of inspiration-despite the fog of being only half awake-I knew what the problem was. I hadn’t asked the protagonist some fundamental questions. (Hint from one of my lecturers: if you don’t know where to go next, ‘interview’ your protagonist. Thanks, Claire)

I needed to know the following:

  • What does my character need or want above all else?
  • What worries my main character? What is he afraid of?
  • What or who is stopping my character getting what he wants?
  • How will he overcome these obstacles and who can help him?

Once I had a clear understanding of the answers to these questions, plot ideas started to suggest themselves and the story became alive. The main character started to take over and I just had to take a back seat and let him drive the story. It’s exciting when that happens.

Plotters and Pantsers

Writers tend to fall into one of two camps, plotters and pantsers.

Plotters are meticulous planners. Plotters have an idea for a story and then plan, plan, plan. The read and research their theme and topic and revel in their discoveries. They draw up story boards and plan extensive character studies. They fill note books and sticky labels with all kinds of detail. For some of them, the research and planning is far more exciting and satisfying than the actual writing. I would imagine that crime writers in particular need this approach, or there will be too many loose ends at the end of the story. A very real danger in this approach, however, is drowning in a whirlpool of information.

Pantsers are almost the complete opposite. They have a great idea and rush to their keyboard and start typing, often with little regard for planning and really just writing by the seat of their pants-hence the name ‘pantsers’. Plot? What plot? Oh-that will take care of itself as I go along. The big problem with this approach is the brick wall that the writer rushes headlong into after three or four chapters. After the initial flurry of enthusiasm and inspiration, the writer suddenly comes to a screeching halt in front of that wall-what happens next? Often they have no idea where to go with the story. They don’t have a plan. There is no plot.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. I tend to be a ‘pantser’, especially with short story writing. With the shortened forms of fiction writing one can afford this luxury. With novels it is crucial to spend more time planning, researching, plotting and doing character outlines and so on. With my current novel I am trying to do more planning and plotting as I can see the benefits of doing so. It doesn’t come easily but I’m trying.

For a good discussion on the pros and cons of these two approaches see:

For more articles in this series go to Writing a Novel – a writer’s journal.

Good writing


4 Responses to “Writing a novel – a writer’s journal part 11 – plot”

  1. Some of us who write are neither. We begin with a character, find their emotional core, and let that yearning be our guiding light.

  2. Christina says:

    Thanks for this post! While I’ve seen these questions (or variations of them) before, seeing them today, when I was feeling stuck with a scene, was really helpful. I’ve just interviewed my main character and had a lot of fun doing it. Felt a little cheesy, I’ll admit, but it felt liberating to write out a conversation without worrying about dialogue tags, action, movement, description, etc., etc. Not sure if I still completely understand my main character (poor girl doesn’t understand herself), but this has been a really helpful way to get back to writing a tough scene with some level of confidence. So, thanks again!

  3. Trevor says:

    Good point Clara. Your approach is one I sometimes use with writing short stories. I find short stories are more character driven that novels which often are plot driven. Actually – you need a combination.
    I usually get a name pop into my head, then I ask myself, “What is this person’s story? What motivates him? Why has she come into my thoughts?” That’s usually enough to get me going, and once I’ve started, the story takes over – or the character demands that I tell her story, or his need/yearning is so great it has to take on a life.

  4. Trevor says:

    Hi there Christina,

    This is what I love about blogging. You never know when you are going to be of help to someone. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have sent me an email or left a comment saying how much something I’ve written has helped them.

    Makes it all worthwhile.

    I also love being able to interact with my readers in this way.

    All the best with your writing. I should be getting back to my novel – only 2 chapters to go! Read about it here: