How Plot Development Is Like Navigating a Maze

It struck me, as I was working my way through my latest first draft, that plot development is very much like navigating a maze…


*Photo courtesy of Mecookie on Flickr Creative Commons

…and the similarities give some insight into how to tackle a tricky plot problem.

  • A methodical approach can work—but sometimes you just have to go for it. As an avid “plotter,” I usually know in advance the course I want my book to take. There are moments, though, when the muse tugs me off the beaten track. I always follow!
  • Sometimes you have to go down dead ends. No matter how well you’ve planned your route, sometimes the only way to know a particular path leads to a dead end is to go there…and sometimes the only way to know a scene doesn’t fit is to write it. Those efforts aren’t wasted: now you know where *not* to go!


  • A view from above helps—sometimes you need to get the big picture to figure out where to go next. Have you ever explored a corn maze? They often have a tower or raised platform somewhere near the middle, where you can look out over the whole thing, see where you’ve been, and see where you have to go. Sometimes I need to do the same thing with my book, spreading out plot points on my floor or taping them to my wall. It helps!
  • If you take the most direct, most obvious route from point A to point B, you miss surprises along the way. Whether you’re writing a book or exploring a corn maze, the joy is in the journey. Arriving at the finish line isn’t the point. That’s why corn mazes usually contain surprise “treasures” along the way. A dead end might not take you closer to the end, but it may lead you to a farting outhouse or a tower for a birds’ eye view.
  • Sometimes it’s easier to figure out the best path by starting at the end and working your way backward. This might be cheating when working a maze, but it works—for mazes and for plots. Can’t find your way forward? Start at the end of the story and consider what needs to happen for you to get there.
  • The better you know every possible twist and turn—including the dead ends and loops—the better you can map out the final route you want to take. I spend a lot of time exploring plot dead-ends and writing scenes that won’t make the final cut; it’s nice to know that time isn’t wasted. 

Whether you’re a “plotter” or a “pantster,” there are times when you need to figure out how to get past a tricky plot knot. What approaches do you find helpful?

:-) Cheryl

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  1. TL Conway says

    Thanks for the back links to your earlier posts on collages! I bought the board for my current ms, but never got around to cutting out images. Might be time to make a trip to the bookstore for magazines…

    As for developing my plot, I have to understand the story at the macro level before I can sit down and start hashing out each scene. If I don't, I feel like my characters are just bumbling along, waiting for me to decide what's next. If I have my plot already laid out, there's less "in the meantime" time.

  2. Jacqvern says

    Great analogy :)

    Especially the backward working. I've found that in difficult problem solving, working backwards clarifies the path.

    Thank you for the interesting post :)

  3. Andrea Mack says

    I've never tried working backwards, because I think in such a linear way, but it could be really helpful. Revisions are so much easier than writing the first draft because I know the ending!

  4. Cheryl Reif says

    Hi TL, I'm glad you enjoyed the collage posts! I've found this to be an activity best shared with friends, if you have anyone who would join you :). I'd love to see your collage when you finish, if you care to share–maybe even post it here so others could see? Or if you post a picture of it elsewhere, please let me know so I can link to it! :)

  5. Cheryl Reif says

    Thanks, Jacqvern. Thinking about the similarities between plots and mazes actually helped me clarify one plot point, because I used the "working backward" technique. I guess the trick is that when you feel stuck, you need to search for new ways to look at the problem. :)

  6. Cheryl Reif says

    Hi Andrea! I agree–revisions are easier because that's where I can REALLY get the big picture. That's the point when I check to see how everything fits together, and how I can make the pieces fit even better.

  7. Jill Kemerer says

    Another great post! I'm a plotter–a serious plotter–but I still find plenty of twists when I'm writing. I don't mind if I hit a dead end because I figure the right direction out in revising.

    It's never boring!

  8. PW.Creighton says

    Great post Cheryl. It really does take perspective to sort out the story arc. So often you're down in the trenches trying to find the next course of action that you don't know what the whole plan looks like. Awesome comparisons too… I can think of a few 'farting outhouses' that have made their appearance too.

  9. Caledonia Lass says

    Hi there! Just dropping by to introduce myself. I'm new to your blog and have given you an award on my page. Feel free to drop by anytime and I look forward to reading more of your blogs in the future. 😀

  10. Cheryl Reif says

    Hi Caledonia, thanks for stopping by! I play Alliance, too :).