There are many ways to brainstorm, find inspiration, and be struck by ideas. This series of posts won’t be dealing with them. Instead, I want to supply suggestions for how to move your premise from a nebulous idea to a viable plot.
In doing that, let’s first consider genre. Commercial fiction relies heavily on separate, identifiable genres, and genres in turn are built on strong plots. As part of the weave of this shared dependence, plot itself is heavily influenced by its genre.
Therefore, I always recommend that writers start the plotting process by selecting a genre. How else can you know what you’ll need or how your story will go?
If you’re planning a road trip, don’t you program your GPS with the destination so you can choose your best route? Why, then, would you try to plot a novel without knowing what type of book it will be?
Imagine yourself walking into a Books-a-Million or Barnes & Noble store to buy a book for your vacation. What type of book do you want to read? Mystery? Romance? Thriller? You head for the appropriate section of the store to browse. And while you might prefer to wander through all the sections in hopes of discovering a new book that’s exciting or an author you’ve never read before, let’s say that you’re enroute to the airport and haven’t time to explore all the shelves. You need something fast. You want a sure thing, a book you’ll enjoy. You haven’t the time or inclination to gamble on the unknown.
The same principle works for plotting. You want to be efficient, productive, and professional in developing a story outline that will carry you from start to finish of your manuscript.
Therefore, choose a genre to write. If you’re unsure of what category your story idea fits into, ask yourself where in a brick-and-mortar bookstore it would be shelved. If you cannot answer that question, it’s time for you to stop immediately and do some honest thinking along the following lines:
*What type of fiction do you enjoy reading most?
*Is your story idea that type?
*If not, why not?
*Do you have elements from several types of stories swimming in your imagination?
*Do you want to impress others by writing a piece of Great American Literature?
*Have you assembled a heap of scene fragments, settings, concepts, and character sketches from a wide variety of influences?
*Are you feeling confused and overwhelmed?
So let’s dig a bit deeper into these questions.
If you don’t plan to write what you love to read, why not? Isn’t the type of fiction you love best the type of fiction you know best?
Do you think you’re not skilled enough to put together a mystery, despite having read them avidly since childhood and being able to dissect how clues are laid and misdirected in an Agatha Christie story?
Do you feel that even though you’re a romantic and adore curling up with a passionate love story–your cat on your lap and a cup of tea at your elbow–no one will take you seriously if you confess you’re writing a romance?
Do you think you can’t write science fiction because you flunked physics in high school?
Nonsense! Don’t let self-doubts hold you back from writing a story you’ll enjoy. It’s so easy to denigrate or short-change what comes easiest to us, when in fact that means we have a talent for it.
Furthermore, stop trying to impress others because doing so leads to phony writing or cliched imitations. Write what you love; love what you write. (Hmmm … should that be a tee-shirt logo?)
Now, if you’re overwhelmed, dazed, and confused because you have a variety of influences bombarding your mind, make a foundation decision and choose one genre.
From that selection, start selecting the scene fragments and character sketches that fit your chosen genre. Alter or set aside the rest. A wildly disparate mixture of motifs, influences, and concepts is seldom indicative of genius; instead, it signals a lack of focus. If this is a problem for you, don’t be upset. Whatever you eliminate is not wasted inspiration. It can be saved for other projects to come.
Genre choice will give you an anchor. You aren’t drifting rudderless now. Just as you chose a college major that immediately set you on a path of specific courses to take as well as courses you couldn’t, picking a genre clears away the infinity of limitless options and forces you to focus. This happens because genre choice affects the following:
*The length your story will be;
*The pacing your story will have–which in turn will affect how long and intense your scenes are, whether you can write scene fragments with fast scene cuts or instead need long passages of internalization and transition, and if you’ll put together a plot-driven or character-driven story;
*The types of characters you’ll need, as well as how many;
*The story’s locale;
*The amount of research you’ll do;
*The tropes required (modern versions that aren’t out of date);
*The coding of your language.
These seven areas by no means encompass all the decisions you’ll be making while in story development, but they’re a good place to start. As you focus on them, you’ll probably find more and even better ideas coming to you.