I believe it was the brilliant John Irving who said, “You don’t initiate a story until you know how you’re going to end it. You don’t start a dinner party conversation—‘A funny thing happened on the way to LaGuardia’ –and not know what happened in LaGuardia."
I used to use the “fly by the seat of my pants” approach. Sometimes it worked—just by fluke, I think. But more often than not, I would dig myself into a hole and get stuck. Now I think I tend to agree with John Irving. I try to tell myself the story. I don’t like to tell other people the story, because, maybe it’s just Irish superstition, but it feels as if it loses some of the magic for me when I talk it out with someone. I’ll write little notes to myself –when I do it that way, it’s as if the story unfolds on its own. As soon as I have a general idea of where it's going, then I start to work—and I work out technicalities and logistics along the way.
But the big, meaty question I try to remember to ask myself is, What has to happen? If you have an impulsive character up on a rocky ledge, or if you have a nervous, self-conscious character fumbling in a mud pit, what absolutely has to happen? I don't always know, but it's always an adventure to see where this question takes me.