Tag Archives: story ideas

Plot Shopping

The other day I happened to be in a large hardware store. I was tagging after a friend, with no errand or list of my own. As I wandered down the aisles, I saw a wide variety of products, all of them useful, and each of them reminding me of chores I needed to tackle or projects I didn’t know until that very moment that I wanted to do.

The longer I lingered, the more items I wanted. Granite cleaner, sponges, epoxy glues, bird feeders, lovely rows of canned spray paint in hues I didn’t know spray paint came in, grilling accessories, Yeti ice chests that evoked a strong desire to go camping in Yellowstone Park, and an entire plethora of garden hoses and devices to organize my closets.

Had I not been possessed of an iron will and a dwindling amount of cash, I might have succumbed that day to the myriad temptations spread before me.

The point is that, just like me on the loose without a list in a hardware store, if you don’t have a plan when you’re pulling together your plot elements for a story, you’re going to be enticed by too many choices, alternatives, and possibilities.

When plotting fiction, the best approach is to follow my instructor Jack Bickham’s advice: “Keep it simple.”

I might add my own advice to that:  “Keep it on track.”

In other words, don’t thoughtlessly and heedlessly grab potential plot events, using anything that pops into your head, in an effort to make your story idea more exciting.

Just as you shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry because you’re more likely to over-buy, it’s easy to over-plot when you lack a clear direction for what your characters will be doing.

For example:  let’s say I want to write a fantasy where a group of five friends embark on a quest to find a mountain oracle that tells the future.

Seems clear enough. But is it?

This scenario has a goal, which implies direction, but it’s much too vague to enable me to plot clearly, simply, cleanly, and effectively.

Why?

Well, what’s going to happen first after they set out on their journey?

Maybe I intend them to meet up with a caravan of travelers. They’ll get acquainted, walk together until they reach a fork in the road, and then they’ll part company.

Snore.

What’s next?

Well, aware that perhaps the traveler episode wasn’t all that lively, let’s say that I want my band to cross a river, encountering a swifter current than expected. They’ll lose their supplies, and maybe one of the group will be swept away. They won’t know if their friend is alive or drowned. This will cause much angst and drama. It will be exciting.

Check. And then what? Gotta top drowning, squelchy shoes, and shivering on the riverbank.

Maybe I have another event in mind, like — hmm — a forest fire or earthquake or an encounter with a stampeding herd of magical moose. Or maybe I’m starting to approach that fuzzy nebulous part of my premise. To fill the void, should I toss in any and every incident that comes to mind? Do I feel a touch of desperation, that niggling little worry that none of this stuff is good enough or exciting enough? Am I going to be reaching for clichés, random events, and over-complication?

Why not step back, pause, and think through a storyline first? In other words, do you have a shopping list – aka story plan – to follow instead of sheer impulse? A plot plan that will get your characters where they need to go and help them accomplish what they need to do from beginning through middle to end?

To return to my quest example:  the friends want to seek the mountain oracle. But who or what is actively trying to prevent this? Is it an outside source, or a member within the group? The latter option would allow for events of sabotage, growing suspicion, and friction among the friends. Each action would have a consequence, which would lead to the next decision and next action. Thus, the events become progressive and logical instead of random. I could have arguments and conflict instead of moose stampedes. (And, yeah, maybe I could still drown a character, particularly if that drowning is due to betrayal from the evil member of the group.)

When you develop plot events sequentially, with one leading to the next, you can explore their ramifications instead of jumping impulsively from one disconnected activity to another. Your plot stops being frenetic and becomes engaging instead. And you the writer will be less easily distracted or lured away from the story you originally envisioned.

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Plotting Plots

You can have story concepts and ideas all day long, and not have a plot.

Maybe you’ve been living with a character or a setting for years, ever since inspiration struck you, but have you ever gotten your story off the ground? Has the storyline ever completely come together? Or are you still mulling over the story world and never managing to figure out what should happen to your protagonist once he or she actually sets out on the great quest?

It’s not easy to make the leap from concept, dream, idea, or spark to an actual plotted storyline that spans beginning, middle, and end, but there are certain techniques in the writer’s toolkit that will make it possible.

Firstly, determine the moment of change for your protagonist. Yes, I know you’ve been designing the history, back story, and mythology of your story world, but what catalytic event does it all boil down to?

Consider the opening of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, Dune. Herbert has obviously thought through a complex political situation, the world Paul and his family are leaving, the world they are moving to, the factions, the intrigues, etc. but instead of a massive info-dump he chooses instead to open his story with the last-moment preparations for the move off-world. This is the actual change in Paul’s circumstances, and it causes a visit from the Bene Gesserit witch that sets Paul on his path of destiny.

Secondly, examine the character you’ve selected to be your protagonist. Is this character truly suitable to play the lead role of your story? Or is this character a bystander, watching others engaging in conflict and adventures? How can you tell if you’ve chosen the best character to star?

By honestly assessing whether this character’s goal drives the story action and whether this character has the most at stake.

Too often, I watch students of mine contort their stories into Gordian knots in an effort to preserve the wrong character. They will cling stubbornly to a weak, vapid, reactive, passive bystander while ignoring the so-called secondary character that possesses drive, determination, stamina, and a defined goal.

Thirdly, what is the protagonist’s goal in light of the story situation, the stakes, and the catalytic event? Until you know it, you have no plot no matter how much world-building you may do.

Fourthly, who is the antagonist? Don’t shove forward some contrived dastardly no-good without any thought. Instead, take time to sort through your characters for the individual that most directly opposes your protagonist’s objective.

For example, I can cook up some mighty, evil super-wizard living in a remote tower as he plots the annihilation of all living things. But what has Super-wizard got to do with Young Farmboy living three kingdoms away in the dell?

Please don’t start rambling about how Young Farmboy has a destiny and someday, after Young Farmboy has gone on a thirty-year quest, he will meet Super-wizard in a cataclysmic battle to the death.

Go back instead to Young Farmboy’s goal. What, specifically, does he want? To go on a quest? To what purpose? Okay, sure, to find the Golden Casket of Treasures Untold. And what does that goal have to do with Super-wizard three kingdoms and thousands of leagues away?

Are you going to remind me that Super-wizard is evil and wants to annihilate everything? But is that intention directly opposed to Young Farmboy’s goal of seeking the Golden Casket?

No, it’s not. Beware the temptation to sweep past this glitch. Ignore it at your peril. For it will unravel your plot and leave you stalled.

There are three approaches to use in solving this plotting problem. Super-wizard’s purpose can be altered so that he has the Golden Casket in his possession and would rather see all living things annihilated than surrender it. Or Young Farmboy’s goal needs to change so that he’s seeking to stop the threatened annihilation of all living things, specifically his village and the sweet maiden he loves. Or Super-wizard can sit in his remote tower and you can devise a more immediate antagonist that can constantly oppose and trouble Young Farmboy as he seeks his goal.

Lastly, once you’ve solved the problem of goals that are actually directly opposed, think about the climax you intend. How will you wrap up this clash of opposition? How will the conflict be resolved? How will the protagonist prevail even when all the odds are stacked against him and his antagonist seems to have the upper hand?

Solve these problems and answer these questions, and you’ll have a plot. It may not be exactly what you originally intended, but what does that matter? You’ve made progress in moving from a concept – nebulous and not quite coming together – to a storyline that jumps into action from the beginning, holds together in the middle, and delivers a rousing good finish.

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Creativity Beyond Words

This past weekend, I took a break away from my newest fiction project and attended a vintage market show. I didn’t go to buy. I went to walk around and see what imaginative and creative people who aren’t writers are doing.

Now, I go to antiques shows a few times a year, but this was different. I expected to see painted furniture, but aside from that I found vintage doll heads stuck atop lamp bases with tiny crowns made of marbles. I found wreaths made of cotton bolls. I found handmade primitive dolls. I found rusty tractor parts, chairs with ripped seats, salvaged hardware bits and bobs, and light fixtures made from old galvanized roof turbines.

(Did I take any pictures? Alas, no. The crowds were thick, and frankly I was too busy ogling and goggling to remember to snap pictures.)

I wanted to observe what people bought and what they might use their purchases for. After all, I keep hearing about the trend of repurposing from blogs and television. So what exactly, I wondered, were people doing and with what?

I saw customers gravitating toward antique typewriters and wooden shipping crates. I saw them caressing rusty lamps, murmuring over whether they could find someone to do rewiring. I saw them pondering the selection of chalk-type paints in one booth. I saw them deliberating over whether to buy signage.

But mainly I saw folks fingering random pieces of hardware, playing pieces salvaged from games, odd forks in tarnished silver, clock faces, old apothecary bottles, and rusty industrial springs. They were curious and obviously fascinated, but booth after booth seemed to offer more items to make things with than pieces reflecting actual imaginative re-use.

Mainly, it seemed to be less a venue of artistry and craftsmanship, and more a supply source.

As I was picking out some outdoor faucet handles — things that used to be in every garage sale and have now practically vanished — the vendor was asking me what I would use them for. Surely, I thought, you should be showing new uses to me.

But perhaps my expectations were off-base. All I know is that the place quivered with possibility. On every shelf, and at every turn, I saw the capacity for inventiveness just waiting to be seized. Table legs and wooden spindles … what can be made from them? What might be done with them?

The feet salvaged from an old clawfoot bath tub … could they be turned upside down to become bookends?

Looking at things from different angles and new perspectives, what a terrific exercise in imagination! Can an empty clock cabinet become a display case? Can a bed be re-carpentered into a bench? Can a battered piece of industrial iron become a work of art?

It’s so refreshing to move away from the abstraction of words from time to time and consider other means of self-expression. Besides, you never know what might spark a new story idea.

For example, I collect old nineteenth-century photos, also known as cabinet cards. I particularly like wedding photos.

These are what I purchased:

couple 1

couple 2

couple 3

On one level, the clothes fascinate me. Who is the most stylish couple? Only one bride is wearing the type of wedding dress and veil our modern perceptions might expect to see. couple 1The other young women are attired in finery, but not what we would consider bridal gowns. Look at the grooms with their well-cut suits and fine cravats.

On another level, I like to study their faces. Body language is difficult to decipher because of the stiff poses required by photographic methods of the day. But one couple is holding hands.couple 2

One couple has linked arms.couple 3

And one couple is standing stiffly side by side with only their elbows touching.couple 1

Fashionable poses? Or can we surmise stories about them and their relationships?

My other treasure (besides faucet handles) is this green glass doorknob.green door knob Is it authentically vintage or a reproduction? I’ve seen clear glass knobs and those sun-turned a delicate lavender tint, but I have never encountered an emerald green one before. Real or phony, it’s beautiful. I have no idea of what I’ll do with it, but I love it anyway.

green door knob

Who knows? Perhaps one day it will inspire a story about the fabled emeralds of some magical kingdom.

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The Washing of Trash

Writers, by inclination and design, are curious creatures. We like to poke our noses into many things, all by reason of “I can use that in a book someday!”

Yes, it’s useful to wander down many crooked little trails leading to some serendipitous destination. It’s useful to encounter discoveries, new technologies, unusual settings, odd cultures, etc.

But writers also need processing time. We have to sort, filter, reject, and masticate. We need opportunity, calm, and a wide pool of no-more-input on occasion. There’s a reason the wise writers of the past crept off to sit by ponds or to write in the little hut in the backyard or to live a hermit’s life for part of the year.

Non-writers may happily buzz about their busy lives, shrugging off whatever overwhelms them. It’s not so easy for a writer to shrug anything off.

I’m angry about what transpired today at my cell phone provider store. I’m angry because I wanted to install a free app, but to do so necessitated purchasing a $15 iTunes gift card. It’s a racket. I feel cheated, infringed on, and taken advantage of.

Most people wouldn’t care. But I do. I’m artistic, creative, dramatic, and prone to overreaction. I’ve never been content to be a drone or a lemming that does what it’s told and happily jumps off the cliff because it’s there. Just knowing that many people enjoy eating kale makes me want to run in the opposite direction and eat cake.

How will I use today’s experience in fiction? It will probably filter into some story with themes of deceit and betrayal. Still, it’s cold comfort at the moment.

Recently my community expanded its curbside recycling program, with the result that my to-be-recycled trash now exceeds my destined-for-the-landfill trash. I’m cool with that. However, I now spend time prepping the recyclables. I’m washing yogurt cups and pickle jars so they can be thrown away. How much potable water is being wasted on cleaning the trash?

While I could live atop a stinky landfill, if forced to it, I can’t survive without drinking water.

It’s hard to process such niggling worries. I stand at my kitchen sink and remind myself that Agatha Christie liked to work out her mystery plots while she did the dishes. Can I plot while I’m rinsing off garbage?

So far, it’s not working for me. Instead of persuading my inner writer to start dictating … “Irmentrude picked up the last yogurt cup to be washed. It wasn’t her husband’s brand or flavor. She knew then–with a stabbing pain in her heart–that he’d been unfaithful. Once again, he’d brought infidelity into their home, sharing the intimacy of the marital refrigerator with some hussy.

Nope. I can’t get that story to flow.

Instead, I keep thinking about waste. Waste of water. Waste of unnecessary packaging. Waste of time. Waste of serenity because I’m living in an age of information overload, and there’s never time to process anything the way my artistic nature seeks to.

Do I stifle my inner artist? Nope.

Do I retrain my inner artist? Absolutely not!

Do I rebel a little and stop washing trash? Maybe.

Even better, do I figure out a way to retreat to Walden’s Pond, some quiet landscape where I can tune out, drop out, turn off, shut down, and otherwise silence the chattering beast of too much everything?

I need nothing more raucous than the song of crickets for a while. No more distractions of greedy computer companies, obstreperous insurance companies, demanding bosses, meetings, hard-to-please editors, and software updates. At least not for a little while. (Yes, folks. I know that what I need is called a vacation.)

Right now, I have an idea in my head that needs me to listen to it, to give it a chance. Just as when you’re building a fire, there’s that delicate moment when the spark is poised between going out and swelling into flame. Mishandle it, and it’s gone forever.

So, too, are story ideas. Defer them and ignore them long enough and they fade away. There will be others, of course, but sometimes you have to regret the one that died.

A month ago, a cool idea of mine faded from too much deferment. I’m too busy to develop it. Yes, I bought a notebook for it. I invited it to grow, sort of, but then I never found the actual time to sit down and mull over the characters.

It’s not dead, but it’s become pale and uninteresting.

Today’s idea is most intriguing, but I shan’t get around to it this afternoon. The phone debacle took too big of a chunk from my day. Now I have other responsibilities. I’m already telling my inner writer: just wait a while; maybe we’ll sit down together at bedtime and jot down the character names.

Inner writer knows differently. It’s not fooled. It will wait, like the child at the window who gazes across the street at the birthday party he wasn’t invited to, but after the trash of the day is washed and I’m ready to lay down my weary head, there probably won’t be any chance to breathe life onto this tiny spark of an idea.

When I began my career, I learned quickly that the world did not pause or make room for writers. But it was possible for a writer to push the world aside and establish quiet places and little rooms of solitude where thinking and writing could be done.

Now, I can’t push the world aside. I must do battle to force it back. And sometimes the battle is so fierce I’m too worn to make use of my victory.

Once I’m done sulking today and in a better mood, I’ll be less pessimistic. I’ll pick up my new notebook, and I’ll name these wisps of characters and put flesh on them and give them a setting and figure out what they want as goals so I can start building a plot.

It won’t be as bad as I’m making it today. It never is.

(Provided I can stop washing trash at the expense of writing.)

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Plotting Dots

Let’s say that inspiration strikes you–zap!

You have an idea: a family moves into a new neighborhood and discovers that the house next door contains zombies.

Zowee-wow! You’re excited. You’re eager to write. You can see the opening sequence vividly in your mind’s eye:

There’s the teenage boy slouching out the backdoor at twilight to take out the trash. He realizes the terrible smell isn’t coming from the dented trash can on the back porch but instead from the Steadman basement twelve feet away. He looks up, sees a shape shambling toward him from the shadows. He drops the trash. Tries to scream. Stumbles backward, but the door is locked. His younger sister has flipped the deadbolt. She’s laughing at him through the glass. He bangs on the door, shrieking now, but she doesn’t realize the danger he’s in. When he looks over his shoulder, the first creature has reached the porch steps. Another is staggering into view. And another. He vaults over the railing and is saved from breaking his ankles by landing in the overgrown azalea bushes. Scrambling to his feet, he flees. The zombies turn and pursue him.

What fun to write whatever’s inspired you. You feel on top of the world. You’re certain you have something viable, something others will enjoy reading. You’re psyched to keep writing what happens next.

Only … what will come next?

Much of the time, my writing students cook up story ideas that are far superior to my cliched zombie example. But once these fledgling writers envision a major scene, they become stuck. Some can’t figure out how to advance their protagonist to the next plot point.

Do you encounter this problem of transforming inspiration into plot?

 Are you able to envision your key scenes, but can’t move your characters from one to the next?

Do you clearly see your opening and your ending, but you have no idea of what to do in the middle?

Then it’s time you learned how to connect the plotting dots.

In the series to come, I’ll be sharing tips on how to plot from start to finish.

Here’s Tip #1: Know how you want the story to end.

It gives your plot a destination. That will immediately affect what parts of your idea you’re going to keep and what you’re going to delete.

Stay tuned.

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