Discovering Your Story: 5 Ways to Find the Missing Pieces

find missing pieces of your story

Find the missing pieces of your story.

Please welcome author Ali Luke with five excellent tips for finding the missing pieces of your story.

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

– Michelangelo 

Do you invent your story or do you discover it?

Writing is a process of invention. Chances are, though, that your subconscious is way ahead of you.

As your story begins to come together—through mindmaps and index cards and jottings and drafted scenes and scribbled notes and middle-of-the-night ideas—you might start to feel that you’re not really making it up after all.

You’re finding it.

Your story comes to you in snatches, and sometimes a big new idea appears and brings together what you’ve already written.

Much of this discovering will happen fluidly and naturally, maybe without you even noticing. You might not remember when or how your ideas came to you—they’re just there.

Sometimes, though, the process needs a helping hand:

  • Perhaps you’ve stalled halfway through your first draft.
  • Perhaps you need a 90,000-word novel, but you only have 60,000 words.
  • Perhaps your main character’s motivation doesn’t quite make sense.

In all of these cases, your story can be fixed by finding what’s hidden. Your full story is there—you just need to unearth it.

You can’t force a discovery, but you can certainly make space for it, and open your mind for it. Here’s how:

#1: Don’t Plan Too Rigidly, Too Soon

Some writers recommend planning a story in careful detail before you begin, plotting every scene on index cards or in a spreadsheet.

My writing brain just doesn’t work like that. (Though I can definitely see the advantages of this method—I spend a lot of time rewriting.)

When I’ve run into problems, I’ve sometimes tried to plan too much, too soon. If your novel seems to be stalling, or if you sense that some aspect of the plot or characterization doesn’t fit, then trust your instincts.

Don’t be afraid to plan loosely. Don’t be afraid to leave gaps or change your mind. Look for your process—not someone else’s. Leave room to discover your story—once you begin to chip away the marble, it may look a little different from how you initially envisaged it.

#2: Write “Maybe…” Notes

When I’m working on a novel, I have a notebook where I jot down ideas and thoughts. Probably 80% of what I write doesn’t get used.

Often, when I’m thinking through a scene or new part of the plot, my notes will start with Maybe… This is a great technique to use if you want to open up some new possibilities. Let’s say you have a novel with a sagging middle, and you need to add an extra dimension:

Maybe John asks Sarah out. Hmm…but John hasn’t show any interest in Sarah so far.

Maybe John asks Sarah out on a dare.

Maybe Sarah asks John out.

Maybe John and Sarah get set up on a blind date by a mutual friend. To their surprise, they hit it off.

Maybe John and Sarah have both just started to date each other’s best friends; they go on a double-date and realize they have much more in common than they thought.

Start with a “Maybe” and see where you end up.

#3: Be Open to Inspiration

New discoveries—big and small—can come from almost anywhere. Some of my favorite places for inspiration are:

  • Overheard (and misheard) conversations.
  • Museums and art galleries—especially small, unusual ones.
  • Music and lyrics (misheard lyrics can be great).
  • Almost-forgotten memories.
  • The outside world—yes, it’s good to get fresh air once in a while.

(I’m sure you’ll have your own examples—do let me know what’s worked for you in the comments!)

Perhaps the interaction between two kids in your local park makes you realize that your protagonist needs a sibling, or the rain falling outside prompts you to set your not-quite-working story during a cold, miserable winter instead of during a balmy summer.

You don’t need to be deliberately thinking about your work-in-progress all the time, but keep it at the back of your mind and be receptive to great thoughts that might arrive at unexpected times.

#4: Do Quick Writing Sprints

Sometimes, you simply don’t have two hours to spend writing, or you can’t face the thought of a full writing session.

I find it hard to work “properly” on my novel for just a few minutes, but I find that 5–10 minutes is a great length of time for what I think of as a writing sprint.

Here’s how that works: Instead of trying to finish Chapter ten, open a new document. Set a timer for 5 minutes (or 10, if you want a bit longer). Use a writing prompt or a word to spark an initial thought and run with it, writing as fast as you can until your timer goes off.

This is a great way to uncover new ideas and to write snippets that you might later combine into a full scene. It can also be a good warm-up activity for a longer writing session.

#5: Talk it Through

While I’m not usually a fan of talking too much about my work-in-progress (it can sap writing energy), one great time to talk is when you know you’re missing something but you’re not sure what it is.

For this, you need someone who’s familiar with your work-in-progress—maybe a writer friend who you’ve swapped drafts with or your spouse who gets to read everything you write before anyone else does.

Explain to them where you’re stuck (sometimes just the act of explaining is enough, and you’ll suddenly realize what’s missing). Ask for their ideas, and don’t reject them out of hand. If they suggest something that you know won’t fit with your story, think about ways to modify it.

There’s no magic, works-every-time method for discovering the missing parts of your story, but if you try all five of these, you’re almost certain to come up with something.

A true discovery should feel like it fits as an essential part of the whole, not like it’s been forced in or tagged on.

I’d love to hear your experiences of discovery or your tips; share them with us in the comments below.

Ali Luke

About the Author: Ali Luke, author of Lycopolis (a novel) and Publishing E-Books For Dummies, is Zen Optimise’s Head of Content and Blogging Trainer.

If you’re a blogger short on inspiration, check out her post on “8 Under-Used Blog Post Structures.”


About Guest
Please view our submission guidelines for information about submitting a guest post. Details available by hovering over Blog in the main menu, then clicking Submitting Guest Posts.


9 Responses to “Discovering Your Story: 5 Ways to Find the Missing Pieces”

  1. Ali, From reading your article, two quotes come to mind. The first is from Eudora Welty: “You’re not writing unless you surprise yourself.” And the second from Barbara O’Neal: “Writers write and write and write and write until they write themselves into their own understanding of who they are and what they bring to the page.” So much of writing is loading ideas and characters into your subconscious and then letting them march forth when you sit down at the keyboard. Good tips, thanks.

  2. Tatum Rangel says:

    Hi Ali. I definitely like the idea of the “Maybe” notes, including #3. Music is always an inspiration for me. Also, going to the park is another idea. It is true; inspiration can come from anywhere. Thanks for the advice.

  3. Terry says:

    I just talked through a writing problem with one of my closest friends. I was struggling with a cliche issue in the novel I’m working on, and she helped me clarify exactly what was cliche and how to change some small things and character misconceptions in order to clear it up and make the story more surprising and potentially striking. The changes I made were basically a less-structured attempt at making “maybe…” notes and pondering things about characters I hadn’t intended to put in the story. I’m going to try writing actual “maybe..” notes this weekend and see where it leads. Thanks for the advice, Ali.

    • Ali Luke says:

      Fellow writers can so often see what’s wrong when we can’t! Hope the “maybe” notes work for you, Terry — do pop back here and let us know how you get on. 🙂

  4. Lois Browne says:

    Thanks, Ali. I often find during the course of a fairly humdrum day that a snatch of conversation or brief real-life scene will goose my imagination. You mention using overheard conversations in a small gallery or museum and suddenly I can see it as a great location for a scene in my current work-in-progress. Thanks very much for your ideas.

  5. Natasha says:

    Great article Ali, just what I needed right now. I find movies inspirational- sounds obvious but the most fruitful for me are often in a genre very different to my novel. I’m writing Science Fiction but I got a lot of character stuff from watching the Pixar movies with my kids- Cars, Finding Nemo and others have often given me insight into character-maybe because the character is often an animal or an object and that could be why I find it easy to see their traits and the conflict that moves the story along – particularly what makes you *care*. Maybe it’s because human actors distract me with their performance and what I know of them? Either way, I’m not ashamed to say that Lightening MacQueen helped me understand my protagonist better 🙂 haha.
    Thanks for a great article- will look for more from you.