What If You’re Writing A Novel But Don’t Have A Story?

So you want to write a novel, but you don’t have a story yet. Everything you think of has been done before. What do you do?

Gavin posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy

I’m halfway through reading your ‘writing fiction for dummies’ book and I felt the urge to contact you for advice on what I hope is a common issue for many aspiring writers.

I say ‘hope’ because I hope you have the answer :)

Essentially I want to write a novel, but I have no storyline. Anytime I concoct a storyline in my head it feels stereotypical / not unique. On my computer I have Snoflake Pro open and an MS word document open. Both empty but for a blinking cursor.

I suspect i am suffering from having not discovered my creative paradigm as you describe. I purchased your Snowflake Pro with the belief it underpinned the logical approach I take to nearly everything I do. I seem to be drawing a blank though.

It may be an impossible question to answer, but do you have any tips or methods to share in terms of how does one decide on what story they want to tell.

Not unreasonably, your book and software probably assumes the reader has a storyline, so the more I progress through the book the more I feel I am not ready to progress. Sometimes I feel there are concepts in the book where it would be infinitaley easier had I nailed my storyline already.

I guess the one-liner here is “you know you want to write, but you don’t know what to write about”. Is there a method to even narrow it down?

The genres that interest me are Spy, Thriller, Military, Private Eye stuff. I feel this where I belong based on my own interests and fairly average military background.

The story-world time period also seems to present a challenge. Modern day stuff feels so saturated and unless you are Tom Clancy probably difficult to research. World War II era would be easier to research and I already have alot of foundation knowledge in that area, but I am bit skeptical on the market demand for WWII Fiction. My childhood fantasy world consisted of a private eye scenario with a dingy office and a hot assistant, and whilst I get a surge of creativity down this line, it feels so overdone. In some ways it is all a bit intimidating. Perhaps it is just a state of mind I need to get into whereby it doesn’t matter?

I don’t know, is the answer that ‘overdone’ is OK? There is always a market for the overdone as long as you can do it well? If I went down this path is it recommended to at least identify and implement a differentiator or variation?

In any event, I hope these questions are not inappropriately soliciting free consulting but I have grown to view your book as my early mentor and as a result felt comfortable enough to pose the question. Ironically, writing this email has helped me somewhat but I would truly value your insight.

Thanks and Best Regards.

Randy sez: Wow, that’s a long question, Gavin. Actually, at least two questions, if I’m not mistaken. Fortunately, both of them have short answers.

The first question has to do with originality. What if the story you want to write has been done before? The answer to that is, welcome to reality. Every story idea has been done before at some level. Your problem is to find a way to do a story that’s been done before in a way that hasn’t been done before. That’s the problem every author has every time they sit down to write a new novel.

I wouldn’t worry about this too much. Even if it’s been done before, take it and run with it and see what you come up with. An old story can seem very different if it’s got a fresh new character or a different storyworld or some new spark that makes it unique. Sometimes, that new spark only comes as you write. This is especially true for seat-of-the-pants writers, but I think it’s true for all of us. Most of my ideas come to me while I’m actually writing the first draft. Yes, even when I’ve got the high-level plan for the book mapped out. That’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing.

The second question is this one, which I quote: “you know you want to write, but you don’t know what to write about”. Gavin, I think the solution to this is to read more. You know in general the sort of story you want to write, but you don’t know exactly what yet. You have no story burning a hole in your brain begging to get out.

So go read a bunch more books. Nothing inspires me like reading a new author or a new genre. If writing fiction is in your blood, then at some point you’ll find a book or an author and you’ll say, “Man, I’d like to write a story kind of like that, only way different.” And then you’ve got something you can run with.

But what if that never happens? What if you never get obsessed with an idea for a story? In that case, my guess is that writing fiction is not in your blood, and it might be best to try something else. There are many other ways to be happy in life than by writing fiction.

At some point while I was in graduate school working on my Ph.D. in physics, I realized that I’d never be really happy unless I gave myself the chance to write one particular story. It’s a long story that has so far spanned several novels and still isn’t complete, but it will be someday.

If that never happens to you, Gavin, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. But it might mean that you aren’t cut out to be a fiction writer. If that’s the case, then there’s some other thing you can do with your life that you’ll love far more than writing fiction.

If you’re a novelist, the one thing you can’t do without is passion for your story. Without passion, nothing you write will be good. With it, you won’t be able to keep yourself from writing.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

13 Comments

  1. Brent October 3, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

    One of the problems I used to have was deciding what to write about. I felt this artificial pressure to pick the “right” idea or story, so that my time spent writing wouldn’t be wasted. I looked at writing like a single at-bat (to use a baseball metaphor…or is it an analogy?). But I think that was wrong. Writing, for me, is a career of at-bats. At least, it’s going to be a career of at-bats.

    The best thing I did was to choose an event that happened in my life, construct a plot around it and start writing, with absolutely NO intention of trying to get it published. It was crap. Who cares? I finished it and I moved on.

    If there’s only one good story in you, maybe you should find some other way to spend your free time.

  2. Ken Marable October 3, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

    Also, one thing that I find helps me when the “but is there a market for this?” voice starts popping into my head, decide that the answer is no, but write anyway. Just deciding up front that your first novel won’t be sold and you should never even consider selling it while you are writing can actually help. So go ahead and pick the idea that you think is actually the absolutely least marketable, and run with that.

    If you manage to finish it, well then there are 3 possibilities:

    1) You tricked yourself and wound up writing a novel that actually is marketable (and maybe even quite original!) and you can go ahead and find an agent, hire an editor and self-pub, whatever.

    2) It really is bad and there is no hope of anyone outside of your immediatel family willing to spend money to read it. That’s 100% fine, because you also managed to build some great skills and can tackle an actually marketable second book with far less intimidation.

    3) In between those is the, from what I understand quite common, possibility that it’s not a bad book, but it’s also not great. In that case, it might be a good idea to move on to the next book and keep writing like in #2, but keep that first one around. Someday 1 year, 5 years, or a decade later, you will have an epiphany of what that original novel was REALLY about and how you can rework it into something great.

    Whichever result happens, realize not making a living as a full time writer yet actually frees you up to write something with no illusion of ever selling it. That can be a great kind of freedom to quiet those “but is there a market?” voices and get some words on the page. Until you need to publish in order to pay the bills, I doubt any writing is wasted effort.

  3. Meghan October 4, 2012 at 7:05 am #

    I agree with the previous two comments. I think you may be over-thinking it at this stage. Don’t worry about the market – just write first.

    Also, it could be that you are at an early stage in your writing – a freshman or sophomore by Randy’s analogy. At this stage, the ideas may not be as brilliant as one would like. That’s how it was for me. The ideas were not really bad as such, but my ability to translate them into something unique was not yet developed. Believe me, it will come. Just keep going.

    One thing you shouldn’t do is try to write something that doesn’t really interest you. You’ll only drive yourself crazy with boredom!

    I’ve also found that even after I have planned my way through 8 steps of the snowflake, the uniqueness in my story comes only when I actually write the draft. I would say it’s because of my ‘voice’, which is obviously unlike anybody else’s.

    Hope that helps.

  4. Thomas Linehan October 4, 2012 at 9:17 am #

    I suggest that you step away from the computer and Snowflake Pro, grab a pen and ink and just write anything. Don’t worry where it goes, the spelling or anything else. Write about anything that comes into your head and you will find that your muse will take over. I have written scenes that I wrote but don’t know where they came from and I find that they’re not bad at all. Write, write, write and you will find a voice.

    If maybe also that you are a seat of the pants writer that’s why you can’t come up with a story at the computer. Once I wrote my novel I bought Snowflake and it helped and then I also bought How to think sideways by Holly Lisle. Get it all and the stories will come.

  5. Mary October 4, 2012 at 11:37 am #

    Maybe you need to decide what you want to “say” to your readers. Every story has a theme. I find that if I know what I want my theme to be then the story practically writes itself (not really but in theory it sounds nice.) Ask yourself what you have learned from your favorite novels and short stories, and then decide what you want your readers to learn. The lessons in fiction are very subtle so be aware of that. Good luck.

  6. Gillian Arsenault October 4, 2012 at 11:42 am #

    Maybe if you come at this from another direction?

    Instead of trying to develop a story, work on getting inside the head of your main character – say, an earnest and intuitive young private eye who discovered during his (or her) military service that s/he had a talent for reading people, for picking up anomalies, and for digging up what other people were trying to bury. How old is this PI, where did s/he go to school, favourite subjects, how did s/he get started being a PI? Parents still alive? What did they do, what influence did they or other childhood figures have on your PI? Favourite animals, favourite sports, any “significant other,” favourite recreation, bad habits, good habits, pet peeves, etc. etc.? As you go through your real-life day, keeping asking yourself, how would X the PI read this, react to this, what would X think about this?

    Then go for a long walk (or run) on a path you know well and mentally imagine you are X and you are on this walk/run because something bad / irritating / puzzling has happened to you and you’re trying to decide what to do about it. Maybe the hot assistant eloped suddenly and isn’t coming back. Maybe there isn’t an assistant and this is a problem but there isn’t any money to pay an assistant. Maybe somebody has for some unknown reason started pooping in front of the door of the dingy office on a regular basis. Maybe the PI was at the grocery store when a fellow shopper reached into a box of bananas and screamed because there was a really big hairy lively spider in there and the PI wanted to keep the spider to find out more about it but the grocery store wouldn’t let him/her. (Happened to me, they wouldn’t let me keep the spider either and it was a beauty.) Then write about this episode in your PI’s life as a short story, say 2-5 pages or so – or even 1 page – and see what happens.

    Or, if something annoying happens in your own life, put your PI in the same situation and see what s/he does about it.

    I suggest this approach because I once casually wrote a short story to submit to a competition – about a young non-human medic on a (mainly human) research station on a planet far far away. That night I woke up with the characters from the story saying, “Hey, you can’t stop there!” Since then, I haven’t ever been able to shut them up completely, just hold them at bay until I have time to write.

    Might be worth a try?

  7. Jonathan Cain October 4, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    I also have this problem, and the thing is, I’m quite well read. I literally read all the time. Sometimes, I read books over and over again until they are in tatters.

    I have had this advice given to me before. “Just go out and read more!” “If you can’t figure it out, it must not be in your blood!”

    I highly respect all writers of fiction. They mean well and they have certainly helped me in my writing quest. I don’t think I would have been able to succeed in my non fiction writing nearly as much without their help.

    The only problem is, this is a highly unsatisfactory answer to a question that a lot of people struggle with. I don’t think it has to do with whether or not we have it in our blood, or whether or not we’ve read enough. Anyone who wants to undertake writing fiction obviously has it in their blood and has read a lot- why else would we want to do it?

    I think the problem is that most authors really don’t know how they pick the story they tell, because they stumble upon them. Simple as that.

    There HAS to be a process by which someone can figure out the story they want to know. It’s just that for most people, it’s more subconscious. That’s why you hear “You either have it or you don’t” so frequently.

    I hope that someone can figure the answer to this question out- it will save a lot of people a lot of angst.

  8. Rod Griffiths October 8, 2012 at 1:03 am #

    Why not be really original and write a novel that doesn’t have a story? Actually I suspect that has been done before.

    Stop obsessing and just write.

  9. Lisa October 12, 2012 at 9:55 am #

    You take your stereo typical plot line, write it down. Then do what Gillian said, flush out your character a bit. Then look at both and make a list of things that are stereo typical. Then take 1/2 the list and write the opposite. (do it at random, for a really interesting result) re-write your plot and character description with those changes. Now you have an original story in the genre you enjoy.

    Yes there are people who have divine inspiration, but a lot of us make it interesting by design. Another trick I read is get your starting point, now make a list of the worst things that could happen in the scene. Pic the strangest, then do it again and again until you have a novel.

    I’m sure there are other tricks as well but I have used a combination of those two and they work pretty well for me.

  10. Kristen October 20, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    I’ve been puzzling over this a long while, because I was trying to figure out why someone would want to write a novel if they didn’t have a story. Then I realized that’s the first question a writer has to ask — why am I writing? And next, you have to ask — for whom am I writing? I think it’s Simon Sinek who says “start with why.”

    Knowing why and for whom you write will help you figure out what to write. And I think Gillian did a great job of outling how to develop a story if you already have a character in mind. A lot of us start with character. Jeff Gerke’s Plot versus Character is a big help in that situation.

  11. Sally Ferguson October 30, 2012 at 10:34 am #

    I’m glad Jonathan said what I was feeling. I gain a lot from fiction writers to put into non-fiction. It gives more umph to the story. Maybe non-fiction will always be my niche. Maybe someday I will find a voice in fiction too!

  12. Aileen May 1, 2014 at 2:11 pm #

    Wow. I didn’t even know I posted on this website before. Please forgive me, I’m deeply embarrassed. I would really appreciate it if the owner could remove my last comment, I’m sorry. I just was self-defensive because I had people try to tell me not to be a writer and maybe even still I don’t believe anyone has the right to tell a person that they are not suited to a career they want. But you may have a point, maybe it’s not for everybody, but I wouldn’t say it’s in a person’s blood either, like they can’t be a writer because they weren’t born with this “special” thing. I’m sorry again. Please forgive me and remove my September comment.

    Sir? Could you answer my question? I’m still figuring out whether I want to write fiction or not. I like fantasy and anime and video games are my inspiration but I don’t really want to read other people’s fantasy novels. If writing isn’t for me, then what would be? I don’t believe I’m terribly good at much else. I don’t know that I’m really passionate about anything. Sorry, thank you for taking the time to read this.

    • Randy Ingermanson May 1, 2014 at 10:03 pm #

      Hi Aileen: I removed the comment you asked me to remove just now.

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