How to Rein In an Out-of-Control Story

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Do you ever experience times when your creativity takes over and guides your story off track, so that it begins to feel messy and out-of-control?

Writing friend Sally Hepworth recently sent me an email asking me about that very thing. She said: I usually start with a plot outline which very quickly gets lost when I start writing. Which to some extent is good. But I often end up with something that is ill-thought out and lacking because I have let my creative brain overpower things. Do you have any suggestions?

Whether we're a plotter or a panster (seat-of-the-pants writer), there are times when we're in the middle of a scene or a chapter and our characters or story start to veer into a direction we hadn't planned.

As Sally said, to some extent that's good. We WANT to give our creativity free rein as our story develops. Some of our most brilliant ideas come to fruition as we follow tangents and new leads.

But how do we keep from veering too far off course so that we don't end up with an entirely new story half-way through our books, a 500 page tome, or a ridiculously meandering plot that seems to be going nowhere?

As much as I adore my creativity taking over and coming up with new twists and ideas, I also know that in the modern industry, we have to write tight. We need to deliver a well-told story like a straight-shooting bullet aiming for the bulls-eye. With all the competition, we just don't have the luxury to send out a burgeoning, over-weight story.

So what can we do to rein in a wandering story? Here are several techniques I employ:

1. Start with the end in mind. Any time we start on a trip, it's always a good idea to have the destination in mind. While it might be theoretically fun to jump in your car and simply drive until you end up somewhere interesting, it's not really all that practical. You could waste a lot of time and energy and end up at dead ends.

The same is true in our stories. Maybe you're NOT a plotter. But you will often save yourself a lot of headache and effort if you have a general idea of how you're going to END your story before you begin writing it. Maybe you won't know exactly how you're going to get to that destination. But you'll have the goal in mind guiding you as you write, sort of like a North Star taking you to where you want to go.

2. Be clear on your character arcs. When our stories start to meander too far off course, it's often because we don't really know what our characters should be doing. If we can establish the main issue(s) our characters need to work through (known as the character arc), then we'll have a little more direction with what scenes to include in our books.

Each scene should have numerous reasons for being included in the story and should push our character forward in recognizing their flaw and beginning to grow and change into a better person.

3. Hold to the 3 Act Structure. Whether plotter or panster, we hold our novels together with structure. We often cringe at the thought of building a story within some kind of framework. Our eyes glaze over when we're confronted with terms like 3 Act Structure or the 6 Stages Plot Development.

But whether we like it or not, most of us inherently know that stories must have a beginning, middle, and end. And that's basically all the 3 Act Structure is. Here's a simplified version:

Act 1: We set up the story and introduce our character to a new situation/dilemma.

Act 2: We keep complicating and raising the stakes for our character, forcing them to change.

Act 3: We give them a setback (a black moment), but work toward the climax where they must change, where ultimately they triumph.

4. Make yourself finish the book. When all else fails and your creativity seems to have a mind of its own, then I suggest letting it have its way. Just write. Don't worry about taking detours, which incidentally are the best way to spark further creativity.

If needed, write that 200,000 word book. Include all those unnecessary scenes. Give yourself the freedom to express yourself without limitation.

And above all, make yourself finish the book, even if you don't like the ending or how you got there.

We don't want our internal editors coming out and inhibiting us during the first draft. We want to keep that nit-picky, red-pen-wielding grouch in the closet . . . until we begin editing. Then it's her turn to come out and have fun. But not before that.

Summary: The first draft is just the beginning of the story. We don't have to get it perfect. We just have to get it written.

What about you? Does your story ever get out of control during the first draft? What are some ways you keep yourself on track? 


  1. Good morning!

    My gosh , Jody, I needed these words. See, I'm planning on taking this creative writing class very soon and this summer, I've been doing a bit of writing. I like what you've said about keeping the ending in mind and to just finish the book without always listening to that internal editor (easier said than done, for me). BUT I do plan on working on it.

    Thanks and have a nice day!


    1. Good morning to you too, Ganise! Great to hear that you're doing a little bit of writing! You'll have to keep me posted on how the writing class goes! And I've found that over time, it's gotten easier to keep the internal editor at bay while I'm writing a first draft. Continuous practice helps!

  2. Fantastic advice, Jody. I probably should take it!! I am the absolute worst about finishing my first drafts. I will edit my manuscript three, four times before I finish the story. I cannot keep going in a draft if my story goes off course too much.

    The upside to my approach is that by the time I finish the story, the first half of my manuscript, at least, is fairly well edited and organized. However, I don't recommend this approach. :)

    Right now, I'm editing inside version #6 of my manuscript, and I still haven't written the final two-three scenes. I know how the book ends, I just haven't felt the inspiration to actually do it. (Perfectionism is a disease!!!)

    Maybe I should give NanoWriMo a try. Force myself to power through a first draft in 30 days. Might be a good exercise.

    1. Heather, in the end, everyone has to find a groove that works for them. I find that stopping and editing as I go interrupts my story flow. But it may not do that for others. Perfectionism in the first draft can be a bit crippling to the creative part of our brains that often need freedom in order to really develop as it should. :-)

  3. Good morning, Jody! I had to do exactly what you suggest: finish that first draft without letting my internal editor out to play. Now, as I'm going through and tightening things up, I've shaved off nearly 40,000 words and cut out two major characters. It was fun to let my imagination wander, but now I feel more focused as I saw what DIDN'T work. After I wrote that first draft I also read six craft books and discovered the beauty of plotting my scenes. Now, if I'm stuck, I go to my book map and figure out where I want to go next. I'm looking forward to wrapping this one up and digging into my second story, because I've learned so many things I want to apply the first time I write a rough draft, that will save me time and energy in the end.

    1. Hi Gabrielle,

      Yes, we can definitely save ourselves some work in the editing phase if we keep the story under control in the first draft. That's why I really like following a road map of sorts while I write. I have the major plot points established within the 3 Act Structure and my destination in mind, and that helps keep me generally focused, although giving me some room for detours and new turns too. :-)

  4. I love this advice! The only way I differ with you is that I use a five-act structure rather than a three act structure. But looking at your three acts, it's basically the same, I just divide them up into smaller sections :)

    The most important piece of advice here, in my opinion, is "finish the book." That's the hardest part. Editing and revising are so much easier when I'm not stressing about where the story is going because I've already written "the end."

    1. Hi Giles,

      Michael Hague suggests a 6 Act structure. And I really like that too. So I don't think it matters too much what pattern you follow as long as you're getting those key points. And yes, I agree. Finish the book! Usually the real work comes after we get the story down!

  5. I've been noticing that the real work really comes when we get the 1st draft of the story written:) Didn't realize how involved editing and rewriting was...but it definitely is a learning and growing experience! Here's some mistakes I've discovered I made in the 1st draft: 1)I didn't have a clear ending in mind...;( 2) I didn't go deep enough with my characters, hence the reason why I'm needing a real deep rewrite of the character arc 3) I do have a black moment...but I need to allow the character to experience more depth in that. So I guess this fits in perfectly with what you said about the 3-Act Structure :-) Thanks for the reminders...helps me on the editing trail.

  6. I've only finished one book, but I mostly stuck to the plot I'd outlined. However, if something minor was begging for a change, I let it happen without too much disruption to the main plot. I definitely had to turn that internal editor OFF when writing the first draft.

  7. Thanks, Jody. I'm bookmarking this one for reference. :)

  8. My drafts used to get out of control when I kept stopping to revise sentences or paragraphs before I finished the whole draft. Then it just took longer to finish the story, and that made it even harder to write it. So now I just try to finish the first draft, and I jot down ideas for new scenes or characters in a separate notebook; that way I can come back and flesh out the draft later.

  9. Jody, you are wonderful. This is exactly what I needed to keep in mind as I write (and a good reminder to finish the story above all else). I guess all writers have a little reining in to do - that's what the second draft is for. And keeping the ending in mind is, for me, the key. Why did I not see it before?

    I really appreciate you taking the time to write this thoughtful post :)

  10. That's two weeks in a row you wrote about exactly what I'm struggling with. My goal for round 2, keep the end in mind. Love that tip! :)

  11. You said, "The first draft is just the beginning of the story. We don't have to get it perfect. We just have to get it written."

    Isn't it true? I can't tell you how many times I've written a beautiful story and then "left it at the altar" so to speak, never going back to finish it. Why do I do that? Am I afraid of ending my story because I won't have anything left to write? Because I'm afraid of what will come next? I don't know.

    I'm learning - I've written 'The End' twice now in the last year and guess what? Every time I do, another story shoves its way to the front of the line. Closing a door actually opens several others - what a concept!

  12. I definitely have times when the characters act in ways that I hadn’t planned on. Usually I try to go with these, and often, they’ve become major plot points and really added depth to the story. However, occasionally something happens that I can see is going to compromise the ending I’d planned on, doesn’t help readers relate to the character, or changes the plot in ways I’m not happy with.
    When I can see that happening, I like to take a break from writing. I go for a drive, have a shower, or go do some housework, and give my mind a while to see if I like this new direction, or if it’s really not going to work. If I know it’s going to change the story in ways I’m not happy with, I go back and change it at that point, then continue on.

    If it's just a minor sentence structure problem, or slightly out of character though, I leave it and keep writing. Those sorts of things are easy to fix when I edit.

  13. Sometimes you just have to go back through and cut things down to the bare bones and figure out how to frame it from there. It's a matter of keeping what's important to the story and letting all else go. I know it's easier said than done but you have to focus on what the story is supposed to be.

  14. Hey! Have you ever thought, have your writting skills improved recently?


© All the articles in this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without prior written consent from the author. You may quote without permission if you give proper credit and links. Thank you!