Columns > Published on September 5th, 2014

Storyville: Writing a Novel Without Plotting it Out

How do you write a novel without plotting? That’s insane, right? For me, it’s all about exploring the characters, sitting in their emotions, and making decisions based on logic, passion, conflict, and survival. It allows me to be more honest, and to follow the story to places that aren’t predetermined. For me, it keeps it fresh and exciting. Here are some tips. I hope they help.


One of the first things I do when starting a new novel is to build up an image database. So I create a folder on my computer and start searching for key words that represent my novel. For Disintegration, obviously, that word—disintegration, disintegrate, disintegrating. I found several pictures that really represented the idea of decay, falling apart, and destruction. One of them was by Luke Chueh, a teddy bear, and it really was the perfect mix of innocence lost and the chaos that exists in the world. I knew that this novel would take place in Wicker Park, a place I used to live, so I did a quick search finding images of the streets, bars, parks—anything that would remind me of what the neighborhood looked like. Keep a folder running, and if you run across images, in film, on television, comics, art galleries, you name it—save an image or take a screenshot or photograph and use it as a reference point, a quick way to tap into the emotion and arc of your novel.


My first book was Transubstantiate, my second, Disintegration. So obviously it was important that I knew what both of these words meant. We just talked a little bit about disintegration, but the word transubstantiate, that was one that I looked up and studied a bit. It essentially means “to change” and so I kept that in mind when thinking about the novel, the plot, and what the motivation of my characters was. As long as I kept that idea up front and in my thoughts, I could always ask myself questions when moving the characters from scene to scene—what do they want, what are they trying to change, what is the conflict here? When in doubt, your main character will revert to this definition—change, or disintegration, in my case. That’s always a good choice to fall back on when working your way through your story.

As long as you don’t bore us, as long as the story rings true, we’ll follow you the end of the earth.


All of this so far is really pre-writing, information you are digesting before you ever sit down and write. You have some images, you have some definitions, so keep doing research now, and throughout the novel. If you are setting a story in a hotel, maybe do a search on images and read the details about how a high-end hotel runs, what it looks like, the staff, the lobby, the amenities. If you are setting your story on an island, what kind of wildlife can you expect there, what kinds of plants, climate, etc. Even if you only have a little bit of information, keep digging and setting stuff aside, reading and absorbing. As I prepare to write my third novel, The Breaker, I’ve watched several movies that touch on similar subject matter—The Professional, for the little girl, and the assassin who has a soft side, as well as their relationship; The Green Mile, for the misunderstood protagonist, John Coffey, and the idea of a large man who is actually very innocent, not violent at all; and The Machinist, for the idea of truth and reality, how to create atmosphere and then bend the imagery and language to suit your needs. I also picked up a ton of books, including non-fiction books on serial killers, how they are made, as well as revisiting titles like Of Mice and Men, to look at Lennie, his behavior, and other books that deal with abuse, such as The End of Alice and The Girl Next Door. I’m not trying to steal anything here, just fill my head, educate myself on a wide range of subjects.


One of the ways you can keep your characters straight, especially when you’re starting a new novel, is to cast it, as if you’re about to shoot a movie. I did that for Transubstantiate, and it really helped me in a number of ways. I could immediately pull up a picture of that person, to get details of how they looked physically. I could watch them in other television shows and films to see how they acted, especially if a character they portrayed was similar to what I was trying to do. When I think about Transubstantiate, I always picture Jacob, the first character of the book, as Philip Seymour Hoffman (RIP), so it helped me when making decisions about his actions (he’s not a particularly brave man in my novel). I could look at Viggo Moretnsen (as Gordon) or Ali Larter (as Marcy) and immediately picture a scowl or a smile, even a physical gesture, or hear their voice.


Okay, now we’re getting down to the actual writing. Where to start? For me, it’s always that narrative hook, something dramatic. It’s a crossroads, a tipping point, where things have gone wrong—a moment in time after which things will never be the same. I like to start my stories and novels “in medias res,” which is Latin for “in the midst of things.” For Transubstantiate, that was simply a shopkeeper opening up his store, looking down the street, but in his head, he’s talking about this illusion, how the bookstore is not just a bookstore, and how new prisoners are being dropped off soon. For Disintegration, it’s a guy sitting at a table, strung out on drugs, as an envelope is slid under the door, his next assignment. The best place for you to start is with whatever scene is begging to be written, whichever moment is just bursting to get out of your head. Listen to your internal voice, the imagery, and start with the scene that you’re most excited to write. You can always improve the hook, or move things around later.


So let’s say you have a few scenes down but aren’t sure where to go next? Think about the logical progression, what makes the most sense for your protagonist and secondary characters. If your killer is eager to go on an assignment, if he feels the most alive when killing the scum of the earth, then send him out to kill somebody, it’s just that simple. What else happens in his life, what does he do to pass the time, before and after these murders? Does he go out into the world or stay in his apartment? If he’s prowling clubs and bars and getting drunk, doing drugs, then show that, go along for the ride and see what happens. Is the evening good or bad, is he a thug or a victim? You’ll figure it out. Mix it up. If you just had a dramatic scene, do something smaller and domestic. Does this dark soul have a soft side? Maybe he owns a cat or a dog, or does something in the neighborhood, has a garden—work against type a bit. Play around a little and see what happens, but follow the basic needs and desires as well as the main conflict.

Consider your options and don’t always take the easiest path, the most common route. I’m not saying be strange just to be strange, just mix it up now and then...


In every scene, every chapter, you have an opportunity to work the basics, to continue to grab your reader, keep them entertained, and also accomplish things along the way. So every chapter, it should have a hook, and it should end with some sort of resolution, as well as a possible cliffhanger to propel the story forward. When in doubt, look at the conflict, and ask yourself what your protagonist is fighting for, or against, what haunts them every day—you CAN’T ignore it. What makes them special, what is it about them that we’re focusing on here, looking at, trying to understand—play it up, and expand it, show us little moments, and then big scenes as well. Every scene is a small arc, every chapter is a larger arc, and then the novel itself is the largest arc. As long as you keep the basics in mind, you’ll be fine. Vonnegut talks about how everything you do must reveal the character or advance the plot—that’s what I’m talking about here. Even if you aren’t sure where the story is going, or who exactly your protagonist is, you can do these things, as you explore and discover and act.


As you are getting the scenes down, don’t forget about your setting, and the many layers of the world around you. Sight is the most obvious one, you’ll get that down fine, showing us the forest, the apartment, the streets, the cave—show us all of these things, give us the details, but be sure you don’t TELL us what we see, don’t define these places, let us instead assign words and emotions to these moments. The woman isn’t beautiful, that’s an empty word—show us her face, her eyes, her muscles, her grace, her actions, whatever you need to explain her inner and outer beauty. The cave isn’t terrifying, that’s not tangible, it’s cold, dark, wet, and it smells bad…but not BAD, that’s a weak word, its smells like what…mold, musty newspaper, rotting flesh? You tell us. Give us the sounds of the world around you, the cars that are flying by, horns and brakes, the animals that fill the forest at night, the birdcalls and rustling of leaves. We just touched a bit on smell, but in instances where it’s important, don’t overlook this—perfume, sweat, candles, food as well as burning rubber, urine, and vomit. Let us smell the good and the bad, in places where it makes sense—in bed, or in an alley. A lot of people overlook taste, and obviously, you can’t use this all of the time, don’t just pop a mint in your character’s mouth, but just keep it in mind at a meal, or other places where it can add layers and depth (what does that bourbon taste like, for instance?). And touch, whether it’s something sexual, or pain while committing a crime, a hand cut, or a fist to the face, give us the details so we can be there in that moment, too. When in doubt, add some depth via the five senses. And then go back to your action, your dialogue, and your story.


When you are deciding what to do with your characters, think of the most obvious choices, the most obvious descriptions and actions, the most obvious plots, tropes, and storylines that you’ve ever heard. It’s okay, it’s obvious for a reason—it’s the first thing that comes to mind. But whether it’s action, dialogue, or story, start with the familiar and then make it unique, your own. If your hero is going to do something bad, if he’s married, what’s the first bad step he can take, the first mistake? Have an affair? So common. Steal something? Done. Kill somebody? Maybe. But how, and why? Start chasing the rabbit down the hole, but instead of option “A” choose “B” or “C” or “D” and keep veering off into strange territory, until you actually create something unique. Is the bouncer standing outside the club a large black man? How about a large white man with a bald head? How about a tough-looking woman with a shaved head? How about a small, skinny Polish guy with a beard, and a scar across his cheek, who is missing one arm? NOW you’re talking. Just consider your options and don’t always take the easiest path, the most common route. I’m not saying be strange just to be strange, just mix it up now and then, take a step to the left, to the right, and see what happens.


If you just had a great sex scene, don’t have one for a bit. If you just killed a guy, in a dramatic scene filled with violence and a satisfying death, then don’t kill anybody for a chapter. Keep thinking up and down, left and right, dark and light, day and night. You don’t want to keep hitting the same notes, the same scenes. When you think of horror, stories do they typically start out with gore and terror? NO, they show you the quiet before the storm, they get you to care about the characters first, and then they start building up the suspense. You have to allow your readers to come up for air, to have a calm moment between the tense scenes, peaceful reflection after a violent event. When you move forward, keep glancing back. Did you already do that, did you already have that experience, why should we do it again, what can you add to it, what is the protagonist learning, how are they growing and changing, fighting against their conflict, pushing towards the climax and resolution?


For some people, all of this may only instill a sense of panic, and it may not work for you at all. That’s fine, plot away, outline it all, set the stage and then write the scene. Do what works for YOU. For others of us, it’s not about the story, the framework, at least in the beginning, it’s about exploring, working our way through the failures and successes of our characters, seeing what they’re made of, and then coming out the other side damaged, but hopefully alive, with an epiphany or two, a realization, a conflict resolved, and possibly some change—for the better or the worse, who knows. That’s the battle, half the fun, right? Set out on your adventure, and enjoy it, build your world, and run us through it, entertaining us, shocking us, making us laugh and cry, making our heartbeat accelerate, making us sweat, and worry, and hope. As long as you don’t bore us, as long as the story rings true, we’ll follow you the end of the earth.

About the author

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit

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