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Usually, when I write, the seed of my narrative is a specific scene: in my mind I see a specific place, and in this place there are some people, and these people become aware of each other, or of some new or changing aspect, and this new awareness provides an impulse for them to begin to interact or interact differently. This impulse for a social interaction is where I start from, and everything else grows naturally from there: I sit down with this seed of an idea and write it down and just keep writing until the story is finished.

What I do is, I have this "film still" and I discover the story that this moment was taken from.

Now, I have an idea that does not naturally grow into a story. Basically, it is not an idea about how something in a specific person's life changes, so it does not provide an impetus for any specific person's actions. It is not a story idea at all, but a message or theory that I would like to wrap into a narrative, instead of describing it in an essay or a philosophical text book.

I need to keep my ideas to myself, until I have written them, so as not to lose the impetus to write, so I'll give an example of a similar idea:

You believe that eating meat is not good for your health, and now you want to write a story that transports this message in an entertaining way and illustrates the positive effects of not eating meat.

How to do go about finding a plot for an idea like this? Or do you know of any books, websites or other tools, that provide help in such a situation?

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4 Answers 4

Disclaimer: This may not work for everyone.

What I always do is to find the hook sentence. Two reasons: (1) It will make the reader wonder what's next in the story (2) It'll make YOU wonder what's the next in the story (so you'll continue writing it in order to find out).

So for your example above, I would do this:

1) What words are related to the idea/message?

  • meat
  • cow
  • unhealthy
  • vomiting

2) OK, let's write the hooking sentence.

a. When Tony came back to his apartment, he found a giant cow sitting in the living room.

(The cow can be the one telling Tony why eating meat is bad).

b. Tony's vomiting started on May 16 and then--with no apparent reason--ended on June 1.

(The vomiting can be related to his habit of eating meat).

The plot will build itself afterwards (especially since you already got the message).

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There's one thing that is present in most good stories. It's almost a basic ruleset to help us create interesting stories. It is the Monomyth, also known as "The Hero's Journey".

The hero's journey is described in 12 steps:

  1. The common ordinary world of our hero.

  2. Our hero receives a call to an adventure.

  3. He may refuse the call, at first.

  4. The meeting with a mentor, which encourages the hero to accept the call to adventure.

  5. The hero accepts his calling and crosses the threshold. He leaves his ordinary world and journeys to somewhere else, to the adventure.

  6. The hero meets new allies. He is tested for the first times as he also meets some foes or enemies or adversities.

  7. He approaches his objective, his destination. The tension increases.

  8. The hero has his greatest challenge.

  9. He conquers the reward, the elixir.

  10. With the reward, the heroe starts his journey back to his original ordinary world.

  11. He faces secondary plots and challenges and, possibly, solves them. Maybe with his new weapon or knowledge.

  12. The hero returns to his world. He not only brings the item, the reward, the knowledge but he is also changed. He may use the item to benefit others.

If you take a close look, many great stories follow this path one way or another (The Matrix, Lord of the Rings and many others)

Therefore, if you have one idea but don't know where to start. Maybe you may start by following this path. Maybe the story may start before the scene or idea you first thought of. Maybe the journey is the steps or the path your hero walks in order to put the idea into reality. His challenges may be persons or entities that oppose the idea. The greatest challenge may be a final decisive commitment to the idea. The reward is the idea itself and its coming into reality. After that, he may work on spreading the idea while still facing minor secondary threats. In the end the world benefits from the idea, but he is also changed.

The ending may also place the changed hero at the beginning of a new path or adventure. A sequel, maybe.

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

I have been working on this for a few weeks now, and here is what I did to find my story:

  1. Flesh out my basic idea: What exactly is the idea? At first I only had a rather abstract message/theory that I wanted to convey, but then I really tried to understand how this idea relates to people in general, which people would actively be invovled with it, and how. What kind of person would attempt to put this theory into practice?

  2. From this interaction between message/theory and characters, I began to develop my characters.

  3. The story/plot then just followed naturally from the characters and their relation to my message/theory: there was, for me, only one possible plot that connected all aspects of those two areas.

  4. In the process of this, my message/theory took on a whole new and unexpected form. It is still the same message/theory, but the story, as it stands today, looks at it from a completely different perspective. It took some time and even courage to let my original perspective go. This is something I learned from learning to draw: Don't be in love with your ideas or your work. The art is the process of creating, the satisfaction lies in artistic growth, not in the individual creation.

Hope this helps someone in a similar situation.

Thank you all for your great tips, they actually put me on the right track to solving this problem. Especially Jay's idea of defining the end, the beginning, and the way between, motivated me to think about my idea from the perspective of process instead of state, thus giving me a dynamic (the plot) and an agent (my characters). Also Alexandro Chen's idea of finding the hook sentence made me start to connect the individual aspects of my message and put it in a narrative instead of list form, thus also contributing to the process aspect.

I shied away a bit from Filipe Fedalto's idea of using the hero's journey as a blueprint, because I did not want to follow this schema in too schematic a fashion. But as I now work on the details of my story, I have grabbed a copy of Vogler's The Writer's Journey from a local library along with other classics on plot construction and find them rather helpful and not at all schematic: I don't construct my plot along the hero's journey, but rather understand the plot points and create my own rhythm from this understanding.

So again, thank you all for your inspiring feedback!

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I mostly write non-fiction, I'm struggling through my first fiction story now, but I read an article by the well-known Sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov once where he said that his general approach is to come up with things in this order:

  1. general idea

  2. ending

  3. beginning

  4. figure out how to get from the beginning to the end

It makes sense to me. Usually the ending is closely tied to the point of any story. If you don't know where you're going, how will you get there?

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