Using Your Writer's Intuition to Plan Fiction

Monday, October 22, 2018
In the whole discussion between having a structured outline and being a "pantser," I find myself in a muddied middle ground.

Looking at past stories I've created, I've always used an outline. The problem was that I had no clue how that outline worked. It just came out of the ether of my mind, and it looked nothing like the story structure aware outlines of other writers.

When you don't know how you write, starting a new story is scary each time because you don't know what works. Writer's who write by the seat of their pants may not know exactly what's coming next, but they know what they're doing. I didn't know what I was doing or why or how...

It's like baking a tasty cake but then losing the recipe and trying to make it all over again by memory alone.

Out of all of this, I learned something important. The best works of fiction I've written so far have been planned using my intuition. Basically, I plan with my feelings, focusing on what flows and what's exciting.

Here's what that planning process looks like (I'll be referring a lot to my comic, Mascara):

The Main Character

When designing my main character, they have two desires--two things that they will be going after in the story. However, both of those desires are mutually exclusive.

For example, with the story I'm working on now, the MC wants to feel like she belongs to a certain group in her society, but she also wants to feel independent and in control in her life. When she's feels like she's belonging to this group, her desire for independence is threatened. When she's being independent, she doesn't feel like she belongs. It's this back and forth action between the two conflicting desires of the main character that makes the story interesting.

In Mascara, the main character wants to be a makeup artist, but he also wants to be in a romantic relationship with Addison, his childhood friend. Addison hates makeup, the illusions of the fashion industry and so on--so he's forced to bounce between two desires. He wants to work as a makeup artist, but he wants to date Addison, but he can't do both at the same time because if she finds out he's a makeup artist, there's the risk she won't be interested in having a relationship.

It's important to make the MC's desires as specific as you can. I've had to rewrite an entire story because the MC's desire was too broad, and as a result, the MC was a character with very little drive. When the main character knows EXACTLY what they want, it's easier to show readers what actions they are taking to achieve that.

Character Relationships

I draw a mind-map on paper of all the major characters. I write their names and draw arrows between the characters, making notes of what their relationship is and what they think of each other. I make sure that all of the characters are linked to each other in some way, even if they are not aware of it or if there are degrees of separation (friend of a friend). I also write down their opinions of each other. In drawing the mind-map, I often create character relationships that surprise me. With the current story I'm working on, thanks to the mind-map, I've been able to put together some surprising but very satisfying romantic drama.

Character Details

This may sound like blasphemy, but when I wrote Mascara, I had no backstory for my characters when I started. And looking back, I think that was a good move. The problem is the more backstory that is written ahead of time, the more tempting it is to throw it all in at the beginning of the story or info dump, hurting the overall flow and pacing.

I've noticed when I have no backstory planned, I am more focused of the main timeline of the story. When I hit a point where I sense backstory is needed to give readers a better idea of where the MC is coming from, I make it up on the spot and add it in. Basically, I only add the backstory when I feel like it is needed. With a full backstory planned ahead of time, it's tempting to add in a bunch of the backstory regardless of if it's truly needed at the moment or not.

Currently I'm working on a Sci-fi/Fantasy story. I needed to create some backstory before I started to make sense of the world building, but I even kept that at a minimum.

I've come to appreciate that when creating characters having the basics--what they want and what their relationships are with other characters--is plenty to get started.

How they look and where they come from just appears as I'm writing the story. I write that information on a character profile page as I go to maintain continuity. However, it's not necessary to fill out super detailed worksheets about the character's favorite TV show and candy bar and so on before starting a story.

In Mascara, the main character hates ice-cream, but that little detail wasn't planned. It was a whim of mine that fit the moment of the story. I was able to use that idea again later when I created the MC's backstory.

Story Moments Outline

After designing characters, I write a list of what I call "Story Moments." It's a long list of specific and broad events in the story. I mark each separate event in the list with a bullet point. First I start by listing things that readers would expect of a story that fits in this genre. For example, with a shoujo manga I might write:

  • One of the characters falls ill and is visited by the other.
  • There is a jealous character who threatens to drive the couple apart.
  • The two lead characters get lost in the woods.
  • One of the characters helps the other study for a test.
  • The two characters get together at the end.

I like writing what common tropes and reader expectations are because knowing what readers expect helps to me see how I can deliver what's expected in a totally unexpected way. Readers of shoujo want to see the main couple get together, and the writer should deliver that--but in a way that readers don't expect. I also like to note what I would like see happen in this genre of story that isn't very common.

For example, I added a football game to my shoujo manga because it was something I had never seen before in such a story, but would like to see.

After addressing genre expectations, I write events that will keep the MC away from his or her two desires. I try to show how going after one desire gets in the way of achieving the other. As I'm working on these conflicts, I often come up with a person--an antagonist--who can be a force to stall the MC from reaching what they want. The antagonist threatens the main character's desires or puts their world in danger. For example, in Mascara, Blaine also wanted to date Addison, but only one guy could have her.

If the antagonist appears as a person, I add them to the character mind-map and connect them to all of the other characters. More drama. Yay!

When coming up with events that get in the way of the MC's desires, I also think of what the MC wants to happen, but what happens instead. In Mascara, often the MC wanted to get Addison to appreciate his profession as a makeup artist, but usually things worked out differently.

I also write events that other side characters are getting involved in that can effect the outcome of what the MC wants.

This is not an organized list. Often when I do it, it's sort of chronological, but not completely. Some events are very specific. Some are very board, and sometimes I just write a concept that I want to convey. I even write catchy dialog at times. It's just a big brainstorming session. Think of it as the "what-if" list, but it's not a bunch of random stuff. It's all about what goes wrong for the MC as they try to reach their desires.

As I do this, I draw stars next to the worst of the worst events. These are moments that can push my characters to the breaking point. With my current story I have a star next to an event like this:

  • Mandy & Jax face death together.

I highlight the super bad stuff because that helps me see the path to the climax of the story. With Mascara I had multiple key character breaking moments to choose from.

Once this "outline" is done I'm ready to start writing! As you see, I don't write using planned arcs and acts. I have tried doing that (Blue Room Cafe is a good example), but stories I've written that way lack the spark. I'm not sure what exactly that spark is or how to describe it, but they are not like the stories where I capture the unexpected.

When I write stories that follow arcs, they're nice, but they just kind of sit there. However, when I write from my intuition my stories are alive, powerful, and have even changed my life!

I know that planning intuitively is not the same as writing intuitively. I do that as well, and you can read about that method in my post, Using Writer's Intuition to Write Fiction.


  1. An INFP, I write historical romance and fantasy which is almost exclusively character-driven. My stories begin with a phrase, a mood, a snippet of dialogue. These are based on internal, (and often nocturnal) intimate communications between two characters. That's when I'm most able to get inside the skin of my MC, and to experience the fictional world through his or her eyes. It's as if I inhabit that person's body, become immersed in his deepest emotions, feel his pain, his longing, his suffering, his desire, his sadness. But sometimes what comes up is not sadness, but a feeling of connectedness and love. Occasionally, it feels like I'm eavesdropping on an exchange between two characters. Then, upon waking, I begin to build on these little vignettes, adding details, description, and context. They don't always evolve into full-blown scenes, but often, they do. I collect small slices of characterization, dialogue, emotion, and humor as floating pieces of a puzzle which has yet to materialize into a cohesive whole. My blind spot is not being able to see the larger picture. I've read that's supposed to be something INFPs do especially well. Not me. PLOT? What plot? I also have difficulty writing villains. I empathize on such a deep emotional level with my characters, I find it unpleasant to put myself inside the skin of the bad guy. Somehow I always manage to turn him into a sympathetic character, and don't allow him to fully embrace his dark side. In real life, as in fiction, I resist identifying with the character who lacks a conscience. I am impressed with the antagonists of Diana Gabaldon in her outstanding Outlander series. She has created some dark, sadistic, truly frightening villains whose capacity for inflicting pain and torture on her MC raises the stakes each time they appear in the story. I like your suggestion of making lists of possible "story moments". This allows the narrative to unfold as it will with varying degrees of conflict and resolution sprinkled throughout. Having spent most of my creative life isolated in my own fantasy world, I am excited to find an entire community of empathic, intuitive types out there grappling with many of the same creative challenges I face. My dream is to connect with one or two other INFPs/INFJs who share my passion for romantic fiction who are open to reading and critiquing each other's work, but who mostly want to support and encourage each other.

    1. Thanks for sharing! I'm glad you've found this post helpful. My ideas definitely come to me out of order as well. Usually when I use my "Story moments list" I have to go back and forth, highlighting and marking what's significant, what should come next as I'm writing, what should be at the beginning, middle-beginning, middle, late middle, and so on to make sense of anything! And I also have stories come to me in dreams or as I'm waking as well. Not too long ago I read the book INFJ Writer by Lauren Sapala and it appears that stories coming as puzzle pieces and snippets is a common thing among INFPs and INFJs.

      Inhabiting my characters is my favorite part about writing, but I like the point you made about how that makes it hard for you to write truly threatening, dark antagonists. I find that most of my villains are sympathetic as well. In fact the current novel that I am writing/wrestling with is the first story I'm writing with an antagonist who is understandably evil, but not redeemable. At one point, I considered redeeming this bad guy, and I ran the idea by my husband. He was like, "It would be hard to redeem someone who's like that." So I'm also having mixed emotions about writing a person who is angry and vindictive all the time. I tend to focus more on having the MC face the evil from within instead of external evil.

      It's so cool that you write historical romance and fantasy. As a writer, I'm a genre remixer, but I tend to write romance. Even when I'm not planning to write a romance, it becomes about romance and relationships anyways. I just can't help it! As a reader, I have enjoyed historical romance novels and fantasy novels. Please follow & DM me a link to your work via Twitter (the link to my profile is at the top of the page). I'm all for supporting other writers, and it would be nice to have someone else to read my WIPs as well. ^_^