How Not To Write A Story (Episode 1: Landfill Stories)

I'm not a particularly prolific writer. I spend months writing little tid bits here and there; some characters there, a little event there--and then suddenly: I read a post, or book that gets me hyped to create something. Ideas fall down from my mind into my fingers as they stream forth in a bundle of keytaps or ink scribbles. I start adding all the ideas I accumulated, damn any outlines! Who needs a plan?

This is, of course, the very first mistake when people start writing stories. They go in without a plan. After a couple days or weeks, they lose steam; they forget to type anything last Sunday. They start writing less and less, yet the ideas seem to trickle ever slower. The fresh springs have all but dried, leaving your story ever thirstier and nowhere near any clear end.

When Not To Plan

Now, not every story needs a big 'ol plan. After all, some stories are probably shorter than an outline. These are usually called flash fiction, because they can be read in a flash (and sometimes are written in one too). That doesn't mean it's easy to write flash fiction; oftentimes when you put limits on yourself, you compensate in other areas. Like going from painting to pixel art, writing flash fiction often means you'll be pouring over every single word, punctuation, and space you've so delicately nudged into your story. A balanced arc, with all its twists and turns is formed on a scale so small that a single change may break it.

The reason why you don't plan here is pretty simple--you've already done it. As you write out your story, a plan is always formed in your mind. Ideas of how it should develop, what should be revealed and what shouldn't be, are all thought up as you type out your microcosmic play. However, as writing flash fiction takes much less time (at least during the initial draft) than a novel, or short story, you rarely lose track of your initial focus. Your ideas stay sharp, and your prose follows suit.

But when you get past 1000 words or so (depending on your writing style and imagination), it becomes increasingly difficult to keep your story going. This is where Design by Landfill or Accretion often peeps its head.

Video Games Have Feelings Too

Yes, I actually stole the term: Design by Landfill from video games. It's an interesting idea, and I feel a similar connection here with more traditional mediums.

Not every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Some stories aren't full stories and only show glimpses are some parts. Others get stuck in the middle, a neverending story. Still for many published stories, the writer eventually has to stop writing. With an outline, that's usually after the climax, when the problem has been resolved and the characters get their ending. Often however, characters keep getting new problems. Like a weekly monster anime, the writer keeps tossing the characters around, adding on top of the arc instead of resolving it. This landfill design often occurs when the writer realizes that they either don't want to end the story, or don't know how.

Some people can make this insane balance work out. An example would be Stephen King, a well-known pantser whose stories are, of course, widely acclaimed. The reason his stories tend to work better than Writer McJoe is due to several factors, but mostly this one: he writes based on character rather than plot.

For those unfamiliar with character-based writing let me give you the quote from Stephen King's book, On Writing as he puts it better than I ever could:

I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety... - Stephen King, On Writing

We often write stories as series of events following a spark of imagination, what would happen if the world was actually X or what if one of us was Y? We then think of a logical conclusion to that story, a way to tie things around to whatever theme, message, or hoo-hah we want to express. But all the stuffing that goes in the middle gets pushed aside for that perfect, balanced arc. We write the middle of our story as if it's an escalator, pushing our characters towards their destination.

That's boring.

Stories are driven by characters, not plot. Plot is not what happens to the characters, it's what the characters do. When we write stories without an idea of how they should flow, either of the two things happens: One, you decide on a cool moment you want and in turn, sacrifice any engagement in the rest of your story for that one moment, or two, you don't write the story. Your characters do, and it comes alive in ways that engage both you and your readers. If you focus on laying the foundations before moving towards a goal, your landfill might just end up in place even better than you had planned for.

When To Plan

The title of this little essay (series?) is How Not To Write A Story it is in fact, the opposite. Some people write in one way, some in the other. If your preference is plotting, then do what works. If you like being led by your characters rather than leading them, then go for it.

The purpose of this little essay is just to tell you that there are issues with certain styles, but that as long as you understand the strengths and needs of your story... you can basically ignore all of this advice. Do what works.

When Things Went Wrong

Here I'll be leaving an example of one of my unfinished landfill stories. Unedited and unfinished, it's now a warning to any of you who'd like to try this style of writing. This one's pretty terrible. If you want to see a good example, just read any Stephen King book.