Plots are sometimes defined as quests, but you can invert that; your first quest is to find your plot.
All good quests need a map, and so do you. Not just any map, either – a treasure map, which will hide the plot secrets, lay the clues, and guide your reader through the dangers and dramas of their journey to a wealth of satisfaction at the end.
In the last couple of years, a lot of my blogposts for weareOCA have looked at the fundamental aspects of writing skills. I’ve covered freewriting, description, character development, dialogue, style, and finally, here we are at plot.
Poor plotting is the one thing that can trip up what seems like a good idea for a story. Successful plotting can transform what felt like a dud idea or a thin character sketche into something worth writing.
I have a foremost tip in the quest for the next plot idea, whether that’s a short story, a novel or a script. Don’t expect it to drop onto your page fully formed. A plot may come as a germ of an idea or a growing love for a character who is living in your head, but you’ll need to develop these first glimmers. I spend a lot of time, before I start writing my story, ruminating on shape and chronology. I’m trying to shape my plot, like a well-fitted slipper, around all the other aspects that make up my story…the themes…moods…ideas…settings…but especially the way characters present and behave, and relate to each other.
As I ruminate…dream…new ideas occur and the plot grows. Even when I finally start to write the first draft, ideas are still be dropping into place, firming up the plot bones and putting flesh on characters, adding further drama and depth.
People constantly ask writers where they get your ideas from. Maybe you’ve already worked out how to answer that one, something that suits your style of writing. Things like, “I jot down quick notes after watching screen or stage stories”, “I find walking through an art gallery useful”, “I tap in to my own memories”, “I read the newspapers each day”, “I like overhearing café conversations”. There are so many moments in an average writer’s life that may present an idea. Expect that ‘moment of inspiration’ to occur at any stage, for you never know what will spark off a new story.
Two ‘heads’ of information are often better than one. Ideas that clash unexpectedly may trigger a fresh initiative. In Project One of Part Five, Writing Skills, this is described this as ‘creating a spark of inspiration’ which results in the conception of something greater than the sum of its parts.
This technique comes unbidden to most writers as they go about their daily lives, turning glimmers of ideas into story. Salley Vickers tells how she’d had the basic idea for Miss Garnet’s Angel, in her mind for years, without finding a spark that would turn it into a novel. Then she went to Venice, and got lost in the back streets, fell upon the most beautiful church, and…my story was born…
Carrie was King’s first novel and first success. Not only did he use the ‘germination’ technique suggested above, but his character and his plot arrived in rapid succession. In his book, On Writing, he explains how he amalgamated an image of an empty changing room which he’d glimpsed on a cleaning job, with a newspaper article.
…While I was working at the laundry, I started seeing the opening scene of a story; girls showering in a locker room…And this one girl starts to have her period. Only she doesn’t know what it is, and the other girls – grossed out, horrified, amused – start to pelt her with sanitary napkins…The girl begins to scream. All that blood! She thinks she dying, that the other girls are making fun of her even while she’s bleeding to death…she reacts…fights back…but how?
I’d read an article in Life magazine some years before, suggesting that at least some reported poltergeist activity might actually be telekinetic phenomena…There was some evidence that young girls in early adolescence, right around the time of their first –
Pow! Two unrelated ideas…
There are as many ways to map your plot as there are…well…plots! Playing the ‘what if’ game is an undemanding yet profitable way to widen plots you become stuck inside. Creating a bubble map from your ‘what ifs’ can help you focus. Use a large piece of paper. Circle the names of a character and ask the most difficult question of them. Join up the circles as you work through how the responses to that question might ripple out from them to other characters.
You need to be as horrid to characters as you can imagine being. Doug Lawson is said to have commented…Often, I’ll find clues to where the story might go by figuring out where the characters would rather not go… The more you ask ‘what if’ about your characters’ inner and outer lives, the stronger your plot will become.
Once you have some workable ideas knocking about, you can start to formalise them.
I usually start with a rambling reflective commentary to myself, laying out my ideas. Weirdly, this often becomes as long for a short story as for the start of a new novel. I’ll look at my premise, and how my characters respond to it, and think about what happened prior to the story’s opening. I keep my eye on moments of tension and drama appear, so that I can start to shape the plot.
Once I have this start, I build up some character sketches, and, when writing a novel, I create a chapter-by-chapter outline, which may vacillate between character development, themes and ideas, movement and action. These chapter sections bear no relevance to the end product, of course.
Finally, I pin a length of wallpaper to my office door and use thick markers in at least three colours to plot columns of advancement. My timeline has a column for the main plot, one for subplots, plus one for the protagonist’s private life, each running concurrently. I fill in the characters’ movements, thoughts, actions, their relationship connections and the settings they are in, using different colours. As I write, I can glance over at my timeline, and check what should be happening with character and action. I can also add or change things whenever I want, strikethrough anything I no longer think is a good idea, and move events up or down the timeline.All this time, I will be reading as many novels and viewing as many films as I can, making notes and asking these questions:
- What were the powerful needs, aims, desires and flaws of the protagonist that formed the basis to the story’s plot?
- What causes were there, and what were their effects?
- What oppositions came into force to create dramatic tension?
- How long did it take for a conflict to become apparent?
- Did the character ‘solve’ his conflict?
- Did they grow or develop as a person because of this?
Hopefully, by the time you’ve worked your way through all this, you will have a plot you can get your teeth into!
Dip into Nina Milton’s other blogposts on the foundations of writing skills…
Freewriting – https://weareoca.com/creative-writing/go-with-the-flow-a-strategy-for-writing/
The Commonplace Book – https://weareoca.com/creative-writing/the-commonplace-book-a-miscellany-of-new-ideas/
Using Notebooks – https://weareoca.com/creative-writing/how-many-notebooks-does-it-take-to/
Using Description – https://weareoca.com/creative-writing/see-me-feel-me-touch-mezoned-in-descriptive-writing/
Character Part One – https://weareoca.com/creative-writing/pull-those-underpants-on-over-your-trousers-and-fly/
Character Part Two – https://weareoca.com/creative-writing/the-secret-life-of-characters/
Dialogue – https://weareoca.com/creative-writing/using-rhythm-section/
Style Part One – https://weareoca.com/creative-writing/keeping-things-simple/
Style Part Two – https://weareoca.com/creative-writing/sandals-with-socks/
Also published on Medium.