Stuck in your story? Use the road-mapping technique to reach your destination

This is a guest post by Laurisa White Reyes

A friend of mine has been working on his novel for years but has yet to complete it. “I just get bogged down,” he told me recently. “I don’t know where the story is going.”

Does this sound familiar?

Too many potential writers have partial manuscripts lying around.  I say potential because an unfinished manuscript is nothing more than a good idea—and unless you’re Nora Roberts or Tom Clancy, all a good idea is good for is collecting dust. It will never sell.

We all have good ideas. The question is how to turn that brilliant concept for the next bestselling novel into a complete manuscript?

Some writers manage to get their novels down by writing as they go, a process called pantsing (referring to writing by the seat of their pants). But this doesn’t work for everyone. If it did, there would be no such thing as writers’ block and no partial manuscripts cluttering our hard drives.

My preferred method of writing is often called plotting—planning a story in detail from beginning to end before the actual process of writing begins.


Know your destination

Writing is like driving a car. If you were to get behind the wheel without knowing where you want to go, you may very well wander aimlessly around town. You could end up on the same roads you drove down before. Without a destination in mind, you might never leave your driveway at all.

Most of us, however, know before we ever get in the car where we plan to go. We look up the address and get directions. We may print a map, or even check the traffic before we head out. Without proper planning, our journey would waste time and cause frustration.

Writing a novel is no different. Every story is a journey with a specific destination. Writers can avoid common obstacles such as writers’ block and meandering story lines by knowing their destination and planning the route before they start writing. I call this planning process ROAD MAPPING.


Road Mapping

Road Mapping requires patience on the part of the writer. Like the traveler who wouldn’t just jump in his car and take off without knowing where he’s going, so the writer ought not to rush into writing before she’s good and ready. There are four simple steps to Road Mapping. They are: brainstorm, outline, synopsis & summary – or BOSS.



When I get a good idea for a novel, I never rush over to the computer and start writing. I may jot down a sentence or two so that I will remember it later, but after that, I let the idea mull around in my brain for a while. I spend as much time as I need to develop the characters and plot details, often writing my thoughts on sticky notes. I like sticky notes because I can move them around at will, organizing all those seemingly random ideas into a linear story line across my bedroom wall. This is the time to work out the entire story from beginning to end. Knowing how the story will end is vital. Only once I am certain of my destination will I move on to step number two.



I earned my degree in English eons ago, and I often joke that my diploma has done nothing for me but line the bottom of my hope chest. However, I did glean one very useful skill from all those years of study. I know how to write an outline. In high school and college, I had to write outlines for countless essays. (You probably did, too.) Later, as a newspaper and magazine columnist, I wrote outlines for the articles I published. An outline is perhaps the easiest way to visualize an entire novel from start to finish on a single piece of paper. Just as with any 5 paragraph essay, I break the story down into 5 sections: the hook (how my story begins), 3 plot points (these are the three biggest moments of conflict in a story—much like you’d find in a movie screenplay), and the conclusion (how the story ends—the destination).



Once my outline is finished—what I refer to as a story’s skeleton—I am ready to flesh it out in my summary. This is where the actual writing process begins. I describe the characters and storyline using complete sentences and paragraphs and plenty of detail. It is almost like writing a short story version of my novel. This can take anywhere from three to twenty pages, and can be used later when submitting to agents and publishers.



The final step is to breakdown the entire novel into individual chapters or scenes. Each chapter is assigned a number and a title that reflects what occurs in that chapter. The titles are for quick reference while writing and revising the manuscript and are eventually deleted from my completed manuscripts. I include a brief (no more than a paragraph) description of the setting, events and conflict for each chapter.


Let the writing begin

Once these four steps are complete, I am ready to write my novel. I like to write one complete chapter each day, but I don’t always write them in order. By referring to the chapter summaries, I can choose any chapter I like and write that one. I save each chapter as a separate file using the chapter number and title as the file name. (ie. 01-Exile; 02-Found; etc.) Later, if I need to rearrange the chapter order, all I need to do is rename the files.


In Conclusion

Getting to the end of a story is not as daunting a task as it may seem. All it takes is a little pre-planning. Know your destination. Take the time to plan your route. Then pull out that incomplete manuscript, blow off the dust, and GET IT DONE.


Laurisa White ReyesAbout this post’s author

Laurisa White Reyes is a recovering editorialist and magazine columnist. Her first middle grade novel, The Rock of Ivanore (Tanglewood Press), will be released in early 2012. She resides in sunny Southern California with her husband, five children, four birds, three lizards, two fish and one hermit crab. A confessed book addict, she has a particular fondness for young adult paranormal and dystopian stories, though she's read and enjoyed something in nearly every genre. She has her son to thank for her current interest in zombie fiction.




Jaye Viner

This guest post was interesting particularly for the glaring absence of artistic mettle. While outlines can be a good place to start, I’ve never had an experience with one that did not end up stifling the characters. But then I am also someone who will get in my car and drive with no particular destination in mind. Thank you for giving me something to think about.

    Emlyn Chand

    Yes, we writers clearly diverge into two camps – pantsers and plotters. I myself am more of a pantser, but what do you do when you get stuck? For us, plotting may be a good back-up plan. Neither way is better than the other, different methods for different writers.

      Jaye Viner

      When I get stuck…oh the fear! I start writing backwards, or I write something that may be completely different. I’ve found that even if pieces appear disconnected on paper, eventually the subconscious brings them together. It makes things rather exciting.

      As I’m considering plotting, it has occurred to me that I often did not even outline academic papers in school. Reason being, I studied ESL and found the way second language learners approached writing to be far more interesting than the way we do things. Grass is greener syndrome. If any of you have read 2666 by Bolano, his style is prototypical of a Spanish speaker always talking around a point, never explicit, giving the impression of unending tangents. My greatest regret in life is that I will never be a native Spanish speaker writing with that freedom of speech.

        Laurisa White Reyes

        Fascinating. I hadn’t considered how those who communicate in different way might approach writing differently as well. Thanks for that insight.

Nicolette Couture

To Laurisa Reyes, I read your blog daily and I always appreciate the writing advice you have to give. For the longest time I wrote without an outline and ended up boring my readers. Thank you for more of your useful tips. I will pass them on to my students. I am anticipating the publication of your book and hope to get an autographed copy.
Keep Blogging,

    Emlyn Chand

    Nicolette, I edited your comment to keep it friendly. We’ve been discussing the merits of pantsing versus plotting on the Novel Publicity Facebook page for the past couple of days if either of you ladies would like to jump on in.

Julie Musil

I love the sound of this organized technique, and I’ve bookmarked this page. I just might try this next time around. Thanks, Laurisa!

Dorine White

Thanks for the great article. I find as a writer that everybody just has their own way or style. Road mapping works for many of my friends.

Lisa Gail Green

I envy those who can be this organized! 😀 I’m getting better though. I really enjoy the freedom of pantsing the first draft, but the last time I used the beat sheet from Save the Cat as an outline and it was great! This time I did that plus the summary and logline. So baby steps.

    Emlyn Chand

    Baby steps. I’m going to turn to plotting to help get my WIP back on track.

alison charie

I actually printed this to refer to. Having been a fairly crappy student, a hundred years ago, I did not study how to do this in school, and suspect it is the backbone to other great story components, and what may be missing from my work.
It may sound really dumb, but I never knew there was another way to write, other than sitting down and typing!
I love the organization, and appreciate your sharing it with us less trained folks.
thanks and best,
p.s. will you be at the SCBWI conference in California in August?

    Laurisa White Reyes

    Unfortunately, I will not be at the summer conference this year. I am going to writers retreat instead. Both cost a pretty penny, so I had to pick only one.

Harmony Evans

This is great advice. On my first novel, I was definately more of a pantster. I believe that is why it took me so long to write it. Now, with my second novel, I have more of a deadline, so I’m following a roadmap similiar to yours. It’s been very helpful. There is something to be said for structure. In a way, it makes me feel more free. Thank you!

    Laurisa Reyes

    You’re welcome Harmony. Glad you’re on board with road mapping.


LOVE this! I am using it to complete my first manuscript that I had abandoned a while back. Will start with your steps to get me back on track. I feel hope for finishing. Thank you!!!!

    Laurisa Reyes

    You’re so welcome Angela. Best wishes on that manuscript. Don’t give up!

Russell Blake

It’s funny, because my latest blog is partially on this very topic. I field a bunch of reader questions, and because most following my blog are fellow authors, they leaned towards process questions.

I’ve done both pantsing and outlining, and my belief is that most work benefits from at least a skeletal outline – a zoomed out roadmap to follow. That forces the writer to think through the story points, and at least consider the major beats, as well as the principal and secondary characters. It doesn’t have to be granular. It can even start as just a few sentences. The point is to capture the broad strokes, to which one can add as one rolls the idea around in the noggin.

Personally, I don’t like to waste a lot of time doing multiple passes – I’ll generally knock out two to four paragraphs that define the story “elevator pitch,” and then refer back to that as I write. Sometimes I’ll even get down to word count targets by chapter, but I’ve found I then ignore those if I find something interesting to explore as the story develops (I’ll usually think, oh, this should be a 70K book, and it winds up at 90K, and then I edit down to 75 or 80).

But the discipline of forcing yourself to organize your thinking is the real value in an outline approach. As an aside, I’ll also kill an idea if it blows once I review the outline – or modify it till it holds up. Maybe it’s really a short story, not a novel. Or maybe the short story has the legs to become a novella. I don’t know for sure until I write, but I have a pretty good idea what not to waste my time on if after 4 sentences of story I’m stretching or groaning aloud.

One can write anything. An outline forces one to be selective about where the time’s spent, and spares the reader, the editor, and the writer a lot of poring through dross.

Not that I have an opinion.

    Laurisa Reyes

    Great comments, Russell. Your experiences sound a lot like mine. After hearing several “pantsers” out there swear they prefer that method, I thought I’d try it. I’m writing a novel using that process — and now that I’m almost done, I have found it full of plot holes and odd story angles that don’t match up right. It will take a lot more revising to fix than I’m used to doing. But at least now I can say I’ve tried both methods and prefer outlining. Hands down.

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