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In my creative writing, I typically am inspired by short interactions between things: An overheard conversation. A person's jealousy of a friend's talent. A humorous misinterpretation...

I tend to begin with isolated "scenes" and generate a story from them, often going to great lengths to convey emotion and detail. I am often proud of my writing, except when I realize most of it is fragmented, unfinished, and likely never to be expanded.

My problem is that I don't think of plots. I don't generally begin from "the big picture" and determine what my protagonist must accomplish, or the obstacles to be overcome. I usually fail to think of an intriguing reason for the characters to be motivated.

Sadly, my collection is primarily of isolated studies of character interaction (or character development) rather than an inviting story with a beginning, climax, and resolution.

I would very much like to put some of these detailed character sketches and snippets into the framework of a completed novel. What are some ways in which writers come up with the overarching storyline? How can I create the "outline" for my writing in a way that will bring the necessary elements to bear? Is the conception of a great story line available only to creative talent or can it be learned?

To give an example, I have a short fantasy story in which the protagonist is a group of young adults that are given unique abilities (think Heroes). But when attempting to devise challenges for them or conjure a nemesis...the creativity in me vanishes. I don't want to "copy" similar stories' plots, but I realize I am unlikely to think of a unique narrative.

To pose this question in a single summary sentence:

Is there a method to formulate the plot of a story that can be utilized when the author has only disconnected but detailed ideas for segments of the work?

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So you do not want to copy similar plots, hence you're not using one at all. Hmmm... –  John Smithers Feb 27 '11 at 13:18
    
Not using a plot to avoid similarities and not having a plot yet due to a sort of creative block are two different things. –  JYelton Feb 27 '11 at 17:40

10 Answers 10

up vote 15 down vote accepted

A few strategies:

  • Until you have a great plot, try writing "good-enough" plots. Better to be writing something with a cliche plot, than not to be writing at all. (Edited to add: Also, sometimes once you've got an initial "good-enough" plot in place and fleshed out, that gives you enough substance to twist and warp into something new and exciting.)
  • Plot is conflict. Find the characters who might get involved in some conflict - whether it's "let's use our powers to fight crime," or "I don't like the way Justin's using his power to beat people up just because they stole a TV," or "I'm not happy in my relationship ever since I can read my girlfriend's mind." You say you've got detailed character sketches - I'm sure your characters have problems. If they don't, they could. If they do, they could be more complicated than they are. Pick a conflict, a problem, an issue to be resolved. Could that be a basis for an entire story? If not - why not? Could it be developed, complicated, or twisted into something that could carry a story?
  • An antagonist is great for creating conflict, and hence, plot. Who, in your world and details, might make a good antagonist? If there are rules that must not be broken, or power resources that could be taken advantage of, or things that are important to the characters that might be taken away - any of these could be a goal of the antagonist; you could work backwards to figure out who might have such goals, and then work forwards from there to figure out what exactly he'd do to reach his goals.
  • Look for any element that's unique to your world, your characters, your sketches. Throw around story ideas related to those - what could conceivably happen involving those characters and concepts, that's so well-tied to them that they wouldn't be able to happen with other people, or in a different setting? Those are ideas that are probably not cliche, that may be very original or at least unfamiliar - because your ideas are your own, unique creations, so any plot highly-tailored to them and them alone will be unique as well.

Hope these are helpful :)

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+1 very helpful, though some of your tips may seem obvious to many writers, I think having them pointed out to me may help me focus on what I need to expand on. –  JYelton Feb 27 '11 at 6:43

I highly recommend The Writer's Journey, a writing manual which shows you how to create a Hero's Journey story structure. Seriously, you get about two chapters in and you have to stop yourself from dropping the book and rushing to your computer to start writing.

The Hero's Journey is one of the classic story archetypes of human literature, from The Odyssey to Star Wars. Read through the book and envision how you could put your characters into it.

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+1 I'm interested to take a look at this book, thanks for the suggestion. –  JYelton Feb 27 '11 at 6:42
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Why are you stopping yourself from starting to write? You are doing it wrong! ;) –  John Smithers Feb 27 '11 at 13:09
    
@John Smithers: so you can read the rest of the book and plan your plot properly. :) –  Lauren Ipsum Feb 27 '11 at 15:27
    
"properly" Mind the quotes. You know, all generalizations suck. ;-) (I usually value your input, but... too much generalization.) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Mar 9 '11 at 21:26
    
@jae: I take your point about generalizations, but what I was getting at was that if you want to plan a book according to the Hero's Journey, you do have to follow a certain path. If you stop reading the book I referenced to start writing, you haven't read what the rest of the path is, so if you start planning your plot, it's not going to go according to the classic structure. If you don't want that structure, that's fine, but then it's not a Hero's Journey. That's all I meant by "properly," and there is a real "proper" in this case, so it wouldn't be in "generic example quotes." –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 10 '11 at 3:58

Two suggestions:

1) Try flash fiction, as it has a low word count limit, and it sounds like many of the things you make would.

2) I often find that bringing together two story ideas that are vastly different often makes for a good, non-cliched, larger story.

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The most reductionist view of a plot is:

Equilibrium > Disturbance > Equilibrium.

Or to reduce it down to two words:

Something Happened.

Even trying to subvert it by making your plot:

Nothing Happened.

Is defeated by the fact that you noted down that nothing was what happened. In this world nothing happening is unusual enough to be noteworthy. So you find, in trying to resist the need to "plot" you have accidentally plotted on a meta level.

So plotting, to an extent, is inevitable even if all you are noting in your writing is the unnoteworthy nature of the notes you are writing.

As soon as you leave the arena of "Something" happening, or being satisfied that what you are describing is "something" or a series of "somethings" happening you instantly wander into an area of some permutational difficulty.

For example if your story is:

Something happened and that one complete something was made up of this something and that something happening each of which by themselves would have been less noteworthy than either but not both of these things happening somewhere at some time.

Then already you are playing games with the audience, even if you make the events in your two sub-somethings happen in different time periods on different continents you have still instructed the audience to view these incidents as a diptych. Any smilarities are fair game to be deemed thematic, any differences fair game to be deemed juxtapositional. You as author have spoken and bonded the events together even though there is fundamentally nothing about the events that should naturally connect them.

Any more complex plot is just a nested series of incidents which are inevitably related to one another if only by virtue of being described together in one place.

Much theory can be found about particular deliberate constructions of incidents that are deemed to be aesthetically more pleasant or congruous than others. You should view such assertions as like arguments between people who like impressionism and those who prefer surrealism. Solid structure is skilful application of technique and deliberate non-application of technique is just as valid. Poor application of technique is just as invalid whether you are trying to draw a photo-realistic landscape or a melting clock, to torture the metaphor a little.

Some people like a fine tuned five act story with impeccably separated rising and falling action. Some people delight in ferreting the hero's journey out of every protagonist's daily routine (or break from such). Some people just like describing people they deem to be "interesting" then putting them all into a situation they deem to be "interesting" and letting them bounce around until they have somehow "resolved".

There isn't a right answer about which is correct.

If you can produce an adequate fictional sentence then a paragraph is just the reproduction of that process a couple of times.

A page is just the paragraph process three to four times.

A chapter is the page repeated a few times.

Taking the average length of a sentence to be about 9 words contructing 6000 interrelated and adequate sentences will get you a novel.

How you plot is personal. For me I like to try to stick to well-worn arcs because I don't feel that I know them thoroughly enough to discard them. Maybe you feel that your writing is not that sort of writing. I am a genre writer and as such I want to be intimately familiar with the "rules" before I break them. I want to be a storyteller, an entertainer, not an artist, more a craftsman. Who you are as a writer is more down to what you want out of the experience. For that reason, until you've thought through your artistic aims a plot is just:

Something happened.

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An interesting angle, somewhat existential; thanks for the insight. (I had to look up diptych!) –  JYelton Mar 1 '11 at 15:50
    
@JYelton: Diptychs are blessed with a bizarre elegance and are too often a neglected artistic form. I learned of the word from Leone's "Once Upon A Time" diptych of movies (OUAT In The West and OUAT In America). The trilogy is the traditional crowd pleaser but the diptych of complementary narratives is something special when done right. –  One Monkey Mar 1 '11 at 16:22

I usually start with a single sentence that captures the spirit of the plot.

For example: "A trapped demon is trying to break free from his eternal prison by luring the most pure priest into freeing it."

This provides a distilled and easily remembered "plot" that wraps the story, the "big picture" in one line.

Now, when writing your scenes, just make sure they relate to that one sentence. If you feel you stray – read that sentence again and think about how your scene can interact with it.

Note that not every scene must relate directly to this sentence, but you might want to have something in the scene relate to it, even if not stated explicitly.

I find it easier to think of that one sentence, and then do what you do - write scenes that may seem disconnected, but are actually wrapped by that hidden, "big picture" one liner.

Hope it helps.

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The elevator pitch! good advice. –  Lauren Ipsum Feb 27 '11 at 15:26

The best plots, in my opinion, are "connected" to a high degree. This means that everything happens for a reason, and even the smallest detail can come back later and play a crucial role in the story. Each of the feelings of your characters has a reason (something in the past that caused it) and a purpose (a new element in the future). Try to find hidden links between scenes. Ask why things happen.

Another, unrelated tip might be to work together with somebody who loves coming up with plot lines but needs more insight into character development. You can then write a few stories together, both playing to your own strength but learning from each other along the way. This can even easily happen via the web.

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Thanks for the suggestions. I like the idea of working with someone who has strength in plot development. –  JYelton Mar 4 '11 at 21:45

I go brainstorming by mapping out different scenes on a page, and trying to connect them. Joining them often gives rise to better and new ideas as well, which would give you a complete plot. In essence, just write out whatever you can think of from these points, and try connecting them.

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I used to have the same problem. I got out of it slowly, in steps, by starting out with stories that relied heavily on processes. More than a "plot," I had the idea that I needed to get from point A to point X, and the pre-knowledge that, although not all letters between B and W were necessary, when I finished with one step the next would be obvious.

Take something that happens, say, over a period of three days, not necessarily consecutive days. Before you start writing, think of what has to happen on the first day, and the second, and the third. Have them work in a sequence that makes sense. Possible example:

  1. The first day is a couple's first date, and have it be a cute story of them being awkward. Write that as a vignette like you'd normally do, doing exactly what you've been doing. Then you know what the second day has to be: the second date.

  2. Another vignette with the same characters. Now they're more comfortable, and you can tell they've changed their tone with each other from day 1. Be sure to convey a clearly different emotion for day 2.

  3. Day 3! Surprise! They're cousins! Or one's on a watch-list! Or they find out that her name is Montague and his name is Capulet! Write another vignette, this time examining how they deal with whatever happened to them.

And there you've taken three ideas that can theoretically stand alone as cool little scenes, but are more poignant when taken together. You can think of them compartmentally like you're used to, but it gives you the structure to get the feel of how a more flowing work should be written.

Then work up from there. Longer processes, more steps, start blurring lines between different steps. Take it at your pace, and don't worry if they seem not-so-great when you read them back. That can happen. Use these stories as learning tools so that you can get used to the idea of plotting out longer stories in your head.

Secondary advice: although I'll crank out the occasional longer story, my work of preference today is still 2,000 words and less. It's definitely a good idea to try to expand on your horizons, and doing the above I think will help your skills as a writer in general, but you may just find that after a few long-form experiments, you simply prefer to go back to your little one-off vignettes. And that's perfectly fine, too :)

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Take a look at "Twenty Master Plots" by Ronald Tobias. It is a good book to examine plots and how they work.

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I agree with Capt Nemo. Try putting your ideas down on a paper. If you have a mind mapping tool it would be great as you can visualize the ideas and see the relations directly. Categorize the plot elements and the events that drive the plot forward.

A decent word processor with research and mind mapping features is Xiosis Scribe. Give it a whirl.

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welcome to our community. Given that three of your four recent answers on the site have recommended this tool, do you have any affiliation with it? If so, our rules require you to disclose it in your answer. –  justkt Aug 18 '11 at 17:53

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