“I’m going on an adventure!”: How to Write a Story from Start to Finish

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

I’ve mentioned my fanfiction-writing background a lot over the past couple months. These early writing habits are fun to reminisce on and analyze. Two of the stories will never see the light of day again. For one, the first was written over the course of my last two-and-a-half years of high school and into the final semester of my last year in college—a total of about eight, almost nine years. It’s approximately 1,659 pages and 921,206 words. The kicker? It has no central plot. Not even a hint of one.

The second is not only not finished, but it will never be finished. I’m not a part of the fandom it originated from anymore. Besides, I have no idea where I would take it, even with the vague outline I wrote out for the last twenty-five percent. Also, it’s just a cringe story. I occasionally read through it. In the genius words of Bilbo Baggins, I put fingers to keyboard and went on an adventure. It sits at 1,130 pages and 643,651 words. There’s decent enough dialogue, but again, no central plot.

Of course, my fanfiction stories in the 2018–2021 period were much better, at least in terms of plot. I was lucky in that those stories (especially the alternate universe one) wrote themselves just based off a spur-of-the-moment idea or something special that happened in the first scene. They weren’t exactly free-drafts, but close enough. Across 15 stories, I wrote a total of 180,760 words. Though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the gold medal I earned in head-hopping.

What does all that have to do with this week’s blog entry? Maybe “pantsing” is the wrong label. Author, coach, and creative guide Lauren Sapala refers to authors who work without an outline as intuitive writers.

It’s not that intuitive writers choose not to plot their stories, it’s that they can’t. Every time they try, the story falls apart.

In essence, these writers unleash their characters into the wild world, chasing after them while scribbling down whatever it is they’re doing at any one point. Intuitive writing isn’t something that can be taught. Trust me, I’ve tried. However, I’ve learned that it can be guided. Here’s a few tricks that can help you on your intuitive journey to a first draft.

Image by sidd5556 from Pixabay

Prioritize Your Motivation

If you haven’t heard the statistics yet, of nearly every full-length novel draft that gets up and running, only about three percent of them cross the finish line into complete manuscripts. Those are daunting odds for writers who have no final endpoint in mind. This is where a massive amount of introspection must be done. Question all the reasons you started writing this particular story at this particular time. Figure out what you’re willing to do (or not do) to get every word you deem necessary to tell this story in its entirety.

For example, I’ve been writing for fun since the sixth grade, in one form or another. I can’t not write. That concept does not compute in my right-brained consciousness. I have an inner compulsion to put stories on paper, whether by hand, Word document, Scrivener file, or the closest piece of scrap paper I can reach. My current novella’s characters have hijacked my brain because of that compulsion. Whatever their story turns into over the next few months, I’ll follow every crooked path they tread in front of me.

Funnel Your Focus, But Keep Exploring

After a few weeks or months (or years, even) roaming around with certain characters, you may start to spot patterns in those characters’ actions, personalities, and reactions to certain situations or in certain environments. You may even make an attempt to herd them in a specific direction. Your more rational, left-brain consciousness is now asserting itself a little more each day. Study the patterns and connections it makes with your characters. Note anything that sends a spark of excitement through your heart. Your story is starting to strain against the bonds you initially slipped on it.

Your characters are also now a little more willing to let you take the lead. Occasionally. Brainstorm scenarios that could pull them down a certain path, throw some obstacles in their way, and see if you can pull something out of those events that would cause permanent internal and external changes. Contemplate what kind of stakes would play on those characters’ biggest fears and desires. Don’t be shocked or dismayed, though, when your characters don’t react like you thought or hoped they would. Take it as a sign that they’re not ready to completely turn over their control just yet. Go with the flow.

Scrap It All

I know this sounds extreme, okay? I know this. Stick with me. I used to think of writer’s block as being unable to sit down and put words on the page. I’ll sit there looking at a quote I picked for a social media post, trying for upward of an hour to come up with an interesting and educational caption. I’ll leave my desk, take a quick walk up the road and back with my dogs, and still. Nada. Zip. Zilch. I got nothing. At that point, I throw in the towel. I simply try another quote.

Give yourself the freedom to change your mind. Forcing your writing only results in two things: burnout, and a growing disdain for the writing process in general. A sentence, scene, or whole chapter that feels like a hassle to write will likely be a hassle to read. Readers who have to plod through your story won’t do so for long. Intuitive writing is all about what feels natural and proper in that moment. Writer’s block crops up when your imagination knows you’re trying to force it into a box it will never fit in, no matter how hard you push against it.

Image by albertmt10 from Pixabay

Stephen King argues that “plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” Given that he has over fifty published books to his name, many of which are horror classics, I think he has a solid understanding of how to put a story together. Despite my near-obsessive use of different checklists to get through my days, my writing process—at least in the early stages—is as disorganized as my neurospicy brain on its best day. And I love every part of the process, even on the bad days. Because for every craft book I read on structure, plot, character, conflict, and other fiction writing principles, the easier it becomes to pick what works best for me, my characters, and the story they want to tell.

Intuitive writing, pantsing, call it whatever you want. The idea of writing without a complete plot outline in place ahead of time is still anathema in most writing circles, even as more authors proudly admit it’s their primary creation style. It can take some time, a lot of balled-up sheets of paper, and even a few dozen trashed Word files to accept that being a dedicated plotter just isn’t for you. Once you do reach that peak of acceptance, though, your imagination will open doorways to stories you never even dreamed were lurking in your subconscious. Even better, readers will take the plunge even deeper into your tales, reflecting on your story one word at a time.

Scroll to Top