In general, I classify myself as a plunger-type of writer. I start with a situation and/or a character and write from there to see what happens. I usually have a vague idea of the ending, so I know where I'm heading. I'm just not sure how we're going to get there.
But somewhere around....maybe the last eighth of the book, I suddenly start plotting. Or something like plotting. What I do is start to make lists of things that need to happen. Because now suddenly, I can see the things that need to happen in order to get to the ending that has become more sharply focused in my mind.
Sometimes, though, that kind of thinking can lead me astray and that's when I have to listen for and trust my gut.
I don't know how you learn about the gut. Some writer friends and I were discussing this. I think it has a lot to do with what you have picked up about storytelling through lots of reading and--for me, anyway--other forms of story, like movies or TV (or plays and opera and blah blah.) And also what you know about people. Because story is the story of people. It's not a story about what happens. It's a story about what people did. So if you don't understand why people do things, you're going to get all tangled up.
But anyway, trusting your gut feeling on story can be really tough. Why? Because usually your gut is asking you to work harder. And me, I want things to be done. So sometimes I will shut out my grumbling gut and just plow forward and it always always ends in frustration and I have to go back and work hard to fix things anyway.
But more importantly, gut-level reactions--following the story where the story wants to go instead of where you intellectually think it ought to go in order to get where you think you need to be--that's where the cool stuff is! If you shut that out, you can miss great opportunities in your story.
The other night, I was struggling mightily with a scene where I had this idea of what I needed everyone to say in order to get from that point to where I wanted to be in order to kick-start the climax of the novel. This, this and this had to happen.
But the scene didn't want to be that. It read okay. It worked in its own way. But my gut was saying "Nope. This isn't right." I could have ignored that and let it go and kept writing, but I'd probably have ended up in a hopeless snarl anyway or wouldn't have really made the point I wanted to make.
And I thought I was doing really well because I was thinking "Okay, I can do a chapter about this and I can have him pop up here and say this and then she can go over here and hear that," etc. But it was like moving dolls around in a doll house. And it was all turning out to be expository dialogue that didn't have any real purpose behind it. Like nobody was saying things because they were feeling like they had to tell someone or were reacting to what someone had said or done. They were saying things because I stood them there and made them say it because I thought it would get us from A to B.
One thing that was going on is something I have a very bad habit of doing to my female characters. I tend to make them behave like therapists, where their sole function in certain scenes is to ask questions that will draw out the other (usually young male) character and get him to talk about his problems. This always ends up sounding really stupid because people just don't do this (unless they're being paid $250 an hour.) Teenaged girls whose hearts are aching and who want to fling themselves on their beds and weep don't stop and do this.
And then you've got this guy over here who ends up looking like a total jerk because he is unloading his problems and never noticing that the girl in front of him is hurting and confused. No, he's like someone with a social disorder who only wants to talk about their problems, it doesn't matter that you're a trembling basket case standing before them. Oh, he said things that seemed important and would make sense later when All was Revealed. But it was boring and had that repetitive feeling.*
So I went back and tried to think in terms of reaction. How would he react on seeing her all upset? How would she answer him out of her own emotional turmoil? They could still talk but I couldn't forget the other stuff that was going on.
And you know what? They didn't say what I wanted them to say, what I thought they needed to say. They said stuff that was better. And wow. Drama happened! Something I don't think I could have intellectually planned out without working it through this way. It will take the story to the climax with a bit of a ticking clock effect, rather than a series of polite conversations.
As my writer friend put it, when you feel something is off in a scene, step one should be to go back and try to connect with each character in the scene. Try to figure out where they are at that moment and what they are feeling.
But you have to listen to your gut. And I think that takes practice. See, I personally recognize three different gut reactions, and it's important to learn the distinctions between them, which ones to listen to and which to ignore. I've got one that goes "Ugh, I'm tired." And more frequently, one that goes "Ugh, I'm scared!" The first one you can either ignore or heed and take a nap. The second you just have to ignore because it has nothing useful to offer you.
But the third one goes "Uuuuuugh, this isn't working." It comes with a heavy feeling because it means you have to go back and rework something. It means you have to think again and rethinking something is hard. But if you don't listen to it, you're either going to end up in a dead end or a snarl and have to work your way back anyway. Or you're going to end up with something that could have had much more impact. It might be okay, but it could have been a lot better, that's what your gut is telling you.
*Even though I went back through the ms and couldn't find other places where he said the same thing, this feeling of repetition is an important clue to another problem I have, the tendency to not trust the reader, to want to bang them over the head with things. It felt repetitive because it was stuff the reader will figure out on their own. They don't need me to tell them. Over and over.