When Your Story Doesn’t Turn Out Like You Planned

When Your Story Doesn’t Turn Out Like You Planned

When Your Story Doesn’t Turn Out Like You PlannedHow many times have you come up with a brilliant idea—a story so dazzling, a character so real, a snippet of dialogue so scintillating that it knocks you breathless—only to have it fail to live up to your vision when you started putting it on paper?

If you’re like me, then the answer is every single time. The hard, cold truth is that the stories we put on paper—no matter how good we are at writing them—rarely, if ever, live up to the stories in our heads. Bestselling YA author Gail Carson Levine acknowledged:

Ideas are ideas, and words on paper are words on paper; they’re not the same thing, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves.

The Pros and Cons of Ripping Stories Out of Your Imagination

Stories on the page have a mind of their own. As soon as you start forming your characters into letters and words, you’re cementing them into reality.

They’re no longer the airy, changeable, ethereal creatures that wisp about in your mind, flashing in and out of your life in snapshots of color and dialogue. They’ve solidified, and with that solidifying comes both a loss and a gain. You lose the lucent perfection in exchange for a satisfying, if flawed, substantiality.

Fiction Writer's Workshop Josip NovakovichIn his manual Fiction Writer’s Workshop, acclaimed short story writer Josip Novakovich explains:

The plot outline is like a game plan in basketball or football. It can look good on a chart, but once the ball flies, it does not suffice…. The plan is not sacred: it shifts, depending on the position of the players on the field and on the flight of the ball in the wind.

Learn to Embrace Your Story’s Imperfections–Especially in the First Draft

Chances are good your stories will never quite live up to your expectations. But the challenge of bridging the chasm between idealized concept and finished product is one of the joys of the craft.

Nail Your Novel by Roz MorrisIn her insightful free e-book Nail Your Novel, book doctor Roz Morris advises:

The reason first drafts seem to be so difficult is that there’s a big gap between expectations and reality.… The version in our heads is warm, twinkling and faultless. But when we try to write it doesn’t come out that way. This is because for most mortals getting it all right in this stage is impossible…. In a first draft we feel we’re writing rubbish—and we probably are.

But, as award-winning radio personality Ira Glass points out, the very fact that you always expect your work to be better is a sign of your “good taste.”

If you can see the flaws in your stories, if you can identify where they fall short, you have the opportunity to make the next story that much better. As time passes and you continue to gain experience and grow as a writer, you will inevitably begin to shorten the gap between the perfection of your imaginations and the flaws of your execution.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How is the story you’re creating on paper both better and worse than the version in your head? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. This is great. Consoling, yet informative. 🙂

  2. Always a good balance to strike! 😉

  3. It’s funny I don’t often give much thought to what a rough draft looks like. Many times only minor changes need to be made for final drafts and others a gazillion times more, but it never occurred to me to attempt to form an opinion or judgment on the writing of the roughs, though I do look at some of my early works and cringe. Unless of course we’re talking about my handwriting, which can be more than atrocious, and more cringing.
    I enjoyed what this post said. I actually have Fiction Writer’s Workshop on my shelf too.

  4. I lean toward perfectionism and I edit as I go, so I’m generally pretty conscious of the state of my rough drafts. But I think this applies to writing, no matter where in the process it is. Even our most polished finished drafts lack the inherent perfection of the way we imagined our stories would be.

  5. GAH – I *hate* it when that happens, which, sigh, is pretty much every time. I try to tell myself to just enjoy the process – but ack. It feels so…grueling sometimes…

  6. The end product may be different from what you imagined, but it has value in its own unique way. Just enjoy both sides of the process!

  7. As someone still pretty inexperienced and yet to be published, I’m so encouraged by this post. I’m not alone! LOL

  8. Writers live the strange dichotomous lives of loners who actually share their experiences with a host of other loners!

  9. Interesting post. My ms changed half way through. Now thanks to Emily Bryan and her critique of my first 500 words, it has changed again.

    My second wip, is the one that is not performing as it did in my head.
    I will plod along with them both though. I am having fun, and that is the most important thing. Enjoying my writing.

    Happy scribbling 🙂

  10. Writing is always full of surprises. And that’s what’s so great about it! Really, it would be disappointing if everything turned exactly as we planned – like a vacation with no scenic detours!

  11. This is such a good subject – I was reading and nodding and limbering up my fingers to wade in – then found I’d had a say already 😉 The worse thing is, it never gets any easier. Thanks for introducing me to some other great links, and for examining a very important topic.

  12. The writing life can easily be full of disillusionment. But if we recognize this particular issue, we can save ourselves a lot of stressing out because we weren’t able to write a story as beautiful as the one in our imaginations.

  13. Sometimes it is a good thing that is doesn’t turn out the way you originally envisioned it because the original vision was impractical or exciting only to you. I find that the final product is usually what it needs to be and maybe that isn’t what I set out to create but that isn’t really a problem.
    Thanks for such a great discussion.

  14. Oh, yes, the lovely impracticalities that live in our imaginations! One of the catalysts of evolution in my storymaking is always the need for logical plot progression.

  15. You know how when you have a dream that was really kick ass, but then you try to tell it to someone else and it just falls flat or sounds really silly and has all of these illogical gaps? Yeah … turning ideas into words–into chapters and plots–is kind of like that.

    • There’s also that annoying issue where a dream seems really cool and convoluted while you’re having it. Then you wake up, and suddenly the plot doesn’t seem well-developed or logical any more. Or you know you had an awesome dream, but you forget it once you wake up.

  16. Another good analogy. And I think the reasons is exactly what you said: when you try *tell* someone, when you try to put images and feelings into words, it never quite measures, because words can’t perfectly convey either.

  17. I know it’s going to sound awful; but I’m happy to hear that I’m not the only one who experience this! I always thought it was like going out on a blind date- what you hear and saw in the picture might make you think ‘he is the perfect match for me’ but once you sit down face to face and begin talking, it’s almost always never as good as you imagined it to be…

  18. Another good comparison, esp. since some blind dates start out horribly awkward and culminate in a lasting relationship.

  19. I think part of this situation arises because when you have an idea, at first you are really pleased and excited with it, a sort of joy of creation. As you put it on paper, or in my case, on computer screen, the initial excitement gradually abates. If you are half-way through a novel, it gets even worse, because you start to realize that it isn’t working quite as well as you might have hoped, some of what else you have written doesn’t fit, and when you come back a week later, it gets worse. In fact it doesn’t get worse; you get more critical, and this is when you start to make improvements, by making sure that when the character is put in that situation, he or she would really do that sort of thing. It is when I think what I have put down is perfect, and it stays that way for some time, that I start to get really worried.

  20. The infernal internal editor likes to get in the way and drag down our work before we’ve even had a chance to shine it up. For me, I know the biggest gap between my perception of a story and its reality on the page is that the perception usually sees the generalities of the story, not the nitty-gritty details, which are always the most difficult part to get right.

  21. I find that the 2nd and third drafts are where the story–the true heart of the story–starts to come out. Planning and first draft are just he outside edges, so to speak. Then comes the color.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think it does depend on how deep you go in the planning atage, but inevitably the story *must* be refined the longer we live with it. We learn more about it, just as we learn more about ourselves.

  22. My NaNo story from what I started out to write to what ended up on paper were quite different. They may meet after several revisions. I hope so. I liked the one I intended to write.

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