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.

In 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.

In 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. All the time. 100% definitely. Words always get in the way of my ideas and my stories. And as soon as I choose a POV and a tense, I’m restricting my ideas.

    So it could always be better, and it could always be different. It’s just a case of finding out what works best!

  2. Anonymous says

    I am very encouraged to know I am not the only one who experiences this. 🙂


  3. Great post! 🙂 I agree that there is both a loss and gain to putting down our ideas on paper (or screen). However, I believe the gain is greater than the loss and definitely more satisfying.

    My writing is never as perfect as I’d like, but that just pushes me to work harder.

  4. My writing never shows up on the page how I envisioned it. The final draft is vastly different from the original draft! But I know I’m not the only one, so that’s a big relief!!!

    Great post. Thanks for the encouragement!

  5. @Bethany: I guess what it comes down to is that mist of us are better storytellers than we are writers.

    @Whisper: The best thing about reading about other writers’ experiences is knowing we’re not alone.

    @Mia: The gain is definitely worth it for me as well. I’d eventually lose my stories altogether if I didn’t write them down.

    @Laura: We’re all struggling toward our dreams of perfection. It may be an impossible dream, but it’s
    a glorious pursuit!

  6. Beautifully written post! But I have to say I love it when the story takes a turn I didn’t expect. The characters on the page may not be the ones I had in my mind, but they do things because they have started to breathe on their own. To me, that’s the mark of a story that needs to be told and one worth moving on with. So don’t be discouraged when this happens. Embrace it and enjoy!

  7. Characters taking over is always one of the best parts of the process. Makes our job as writers much easier!

  8. Great post. I always find the actual writing process fascinating – same with painting or any creative process. There’s the concept you begin with and then the elements that evolve during the process – sometimes it makes it better sometimes it makes it worse. I guess the trick is knowing when to tune in to your inner muse and when to turn it off.

  9. I think we refine the muse a little bit more with every project. We start to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and we don’t have to experiment in the dark quite so much to find the perfect recipe.

  10. In our imaginations we don’t have to describe the feelings and visuals and sounds. We just experience them.

    AND as we go through the drafting process we lose touch with that original imaginary experience.

    Still, we eventually get there, or someplace just as good.

  11. Boy, this is so true. I heard recently of an author who talked about Bald Eagle ideas that always turned out to be Hummingbirds on the page. Which when you think about it, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    It’s hard to find the balance between allowing a story to be what it wants to be and crafting the words into the clearest images possible.

  12. EM Forster said ‘I cannot know what I think until I see it written down.’

    I’ve always born that in mind and kept my rough drafts and plans fluid, only because at the best of times, even I want to be pleasantly surprised at the result

  13. @Daring: Good explanation. The stories in our imaginations are the ultimate experience of storytelling, because we actually live them, in a sense. It’s inevitable that we lose some of that realness in translation.

    @Deb: Bald eagles and hummingbirds both have their place in literature. The tough part sometimes is figuring out which our stories want to be.

    @Ee: I like that quote. Beautiful as my stories may be before I write them down, I never truly know them until I’ve given them a concrete form.

  14. Glad to know I’m not alone with this problem! This happens for me every time I write. I’ll do the scene in my head, then try to write it down, and it doesn’t match up at all. Very disappointing.

    But in the middle, where I usually don’t plan out scenes in my head with that much detail, I enjoy seeing the random twists the story takes on it’s own.

    I guess it’s an annoyance in some places, and a boon in others.

  15. The other side of the coin is that sometimes those surprises end up being even better than our mental conceptions!

  16. Sadly, my stories never live up to my visions either, but I’m glad to know I’m not alone.

    It’s a strange life we writers chose to load upon ourselves. We struggle for every word, every sentence, only to bang our heads against the keyboard in frustration, when it would be so much easier to be a nuclear physicist instead.

    “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do for them is to present them with copies of ‘The Elements of Style’. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re still happy.” ~ Dorothy Parker

    (To the “while they’re still happy,” I’ll add “and normal.”):p

  17. Ha! I love it. I think Dorthy Parker just became my new hero.

  18. The only story I had turn out remotely like I planned was my NaNo project, and I think it will change once I finally have a chance to edit/rewrite it.

    I really like the football analogy, though. When you’re in the middle of the “game” as it were, things are so fluid and you have so many factors you couldn’t have planned for when you were outlining coming into play. Characters act a different way than you thought, zigging instead of zagging, and relationships change in ways you hadn’t anticipated.

    In a way, writing a novel is really a model of how our lives are; even with the best laid plans, who can say that they’re exactly where they thought they’d be today from say, five years or even six months ago? I can certainly say I’m not!

  19. I’m fascinated by the unintentional ways our writing mirrors life. I actually have a non-fiction book idea rumbling around on those lines.

  20. I learnt a long time ago to give my stories enough space to have a life of their own. Sometimes they turn out better than I could have planned – especially since I’m not a very good planner – but most times they fall flat in the first draft. But that’s part of the fun. To chop and change. To mold. To see what franksteinian monster I can create.

  21. You make an excellent point. If we clamp down too hard on our stories, in an effort to conform them to our vision of what they should be, we often end up stifling their growth altogether.

  22. I am in the revision stage and am finding that when the story comes from your heart to paper in the very first draft, it is love at fist sight. And then, you actually open your eyes and read what you’ve written. Quite a different story.:-)

    Thank you for this post.

  23. Great post! Made me feel MUCH better that I too aren’t the only one who feels this way:)

  24. @Cynthia: It’s the falling out of love enough to start chopping and refining that’s sometimes difficult!

    @Terri: All of us writers need to indulge in a little mutual commiseration occasionally. 😉

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

  26. Always a good balance to strike! 😉

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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…

  30. 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!

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

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

  33. 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 🙂

  34. 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!

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. 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…

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

  43. 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.

  44. 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.

  45. 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.

  46. 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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