Plots, Evil & Otherwise

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I love describing things, capturing the atmosphere of a place or moment or person. However, when it comes to writing stories I feel rather incapable of coming up with a plot. I am always stunned by plots in books I read, and think I could never come up with it myself.

This the second request response I’ve done, and the original question isn’t all that different from the first one except that it goes back one stage further. This is a question of how to generate, not just original plot, but any plot. This one is a bit trickier, but there are a couple of ideas that I can share – and if anyone reading has additional thoughts or even arguments, do please join in!

Tip # 1

I’m going to start at the point I left off before – write anything, write anyway. Originality is not the be-all and end-all that everyone seems to think. If you like writing descriptions, that’s fine. Find a non-original plot and use it as a clothes horse. You’ll find in the end that something will come out of it you didn’t expect. A good example of a published author who did this is Jean M. Auel, who wrote some beautifully detailed descriptions of pre-historic flora and fauna hung on a not-particularly-interesting journey plot.

Tip # 2

If you don’t find that helpful, then try what I rather grandly call the ‘Butterfly King’ experiment. This is something I did when I was about 12 – I had a great phrase for a title, but no idea what the story should be about. So I went in turn to my parents and my brother and asked them all what kind of story they thought a book called ‘The Butterfly King’ would tell. I got three completely different answers and ended up not using any of them because putting the three together sparked a fourth in my head. Again, don’t be afraid to bounce ideas off other people. If you’re a roleplayer this goes double – there’s a hundred stories in the field to cherry-pick from, and most people don’t mind provided you check with them first.

Tip # 3

Start from the end and work backwards. If you have a character, do a character interview – that will usually spark a backstory of some kind. If you’re descibing a city or landscape, how did it get to be like that? How is it run and what social structures exist to work or govern it? That’s more world-building than plotting, but you’ll usually find that world-building produces history. History is plot.

Tip # 4

Loot from real history! There’s some crazy stuff out there and the vast majority of people won’t recognise an obscure event dressed up in the clothes of fiction. You may even find that you need to tone down what actually happened to make it believable. Here’s a random one as an example:

On 15 August 1951, an outbreak acute psychotic epidodes occurred in Pont-Saint-Esprit, France. More than 250 people were involved. It was blamed on “cursed bread” (pain maudit).

Tip # 5

Try to analyse the books you read. What works and what doesn’t? What could be done better? What aspects do you like about a story? What don’t you see enough of? Just because these writers got published doesn’t mean their plots are perfect. Learn from them.

Tip # 6

Look at pictures and listen to music, especially instrumental pieces. What stories can you see or hear in them?

Tip # 7

Writing prompts abound. There are podcasts (Writing Excuses being my current favourite), online competitions, magazines and writing advice books that all offer prompts. Some are more useful than others but, if you’re really stuck, it’s a good place to seek advice.

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