Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. —Ray Bradbury
One of the most common complaints I hear from writers who want to write a novel is, “I need help with my plot! I don’t know what should happen next!” Often when writers struggle with how to plot a novel or story, it’s because we are overlooking hints and clues in our own work.
What does plot even mean? A plot is just the events in a story and the order in which those events are placed. The “events” are things with emotional significance that cause a reaction and response in the character—not just a hurricane, but a hurricane that threatens something/someone the character loves, therefore causing the character to make a choice about what action they will take. If you’re interested in writing a fiction book, the following exercises are fun ways to look for plot points that can add some motion to your story.
1. Look for clues in your setting.
Chekhov famously wrote, “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off.” And yet we often brainstorm elements for our setting and forget to ponder the relevance of these details. Scenes are always emotional moments, and your characters’ relationships to the things around them can inspire a large array of plot points. If you are struggling to think of something that might impact your character, consider the objects in their lives. Choose a character and try answering these questions:
What is one object that is important to this character?
Why is the object important?
What might happen to make the object even more wonderful and special than it already is? How would the character react?
What might happen to cause the object to be destroyed, removed, or threatened in some way? How would the character react?
Use this list to brainstorm ideas for multiple objects until you find something that holds emotional meaning for your characters. And if you haven’t brainstormed your setting, try working backwards: brainstorm ideas for your setting now, and then ask the questions. You’ll be surprised at what your setting can reveal.
2. Find your character’s passions.
Have you ever known someone with no interests? No hobbies? No job? No relationships? No? Me, neither. That’s not how humans work. Whenever I feel bored with myself, I know it’s time to pick up a new book or watch an interesting movie. It’s time to learn something. Because, frankly, people with no interests are people with nothing to say. It’s hard to be interested in people who have no interests.
The same rule applies when we craft characters. Readers will have a hard time sustaining attention toward a character who does not have any interests. That’s why I often give my character a passion. This passion often drives an external want, otherwise known as the plot or a subplot. It can be a passion for a person, a passion for caring for animals, a passion for an art form, a passion for moths, a passion for wizardry—it can be anything. A passion does not have to be a talent. In fact, readers often identify more readily with a character when they struggle.
For example, in my book Apartment 1986, I wrote a character who was passionate about positive thinking, but was terrible at it. She really wanted to come up with inspiring original sayings that she could eventually make money off of, like the Life Is Good T-shirt guys. The thing is, though, her sayings are awful and don't really make much sense. So this functions as comic relief, and also drives a subplot in which she--eventually—realizes that you can't always positive think your way into a fabulous life. And, in the end, she manages to come up with a saying that does actually make sense...for her.
This week, consider your characters’ interests. Do they have interests? Do these interests show up on the page? Ideally, a character’s passions can help guide you toward interesting plot moments and collisions (both positive and negative) with other characters.
3. Consider the neighborhood.
When I teach writing fiction, I often say that settings are opportunities. When students tell me that they are feeling stuck in their plots, I will often ask them to stop writing and, instead, draw a map. (This can work for memoir, too.)
There are many different ways to use this exercise, but one of the most useful is to map your main character’s neighborhood. This is useful for all kinds of stories, from science fiction to realistic fiction. Mapping a neighborhood can give you many opportunities for interaction and conflict. Knowing the businesses nearby, perhaps the library, the location of the school, the community park, can give you opportunities for problems and for characters to run into each other.
If you choose to draw a map, be sure to note the homes or businesses of other relevant characters. Imagining where people live can give you a sense of social hierarchy. It can inform allies and enemies. Is there a rich old lady in a mansion at the top of a hill? Or is there a friendly gentleman who lives in the apartment building across the street, who shouts down at all the neighbors passing by? Like it or not, if you are a kid and you live next door to someone about your age, you probably know that person pretty well.
My maps are not beautiful, but they are very useful. I usually post them near my desk to use when I’m brainstorming plot ideas. Try taking a break from the written word and see if a map helps bring your character relationships and plot points into focus.
4. Investigate the routine that gets interrupted.
Fiction (and many forms of nonfiction, such as memoir) are built on relationships, and many of our most formative and important relationships are found at home. Sometimes, the home itself even reveals or dictates the way our relationships grow. I once had a student who was stuck in her story—she wasn’t sure how to make anything happen. So I asked her to draw her main character’s house and the people in it. When she drew the family’s house, she was surprised to realize that grandparents were living in the home. The presence of the grandparents was an essential element that gave the rest of the family vibrancy and managed to move the story forward.
When fleshing out character motivations, it can be helpful to imagine the home life of your main character/characters. Who lives in the home? Are there pets? Who shares a room? Do characters have to share a bathroom? How long have they lived there? Do they eat meals together? If so, which meals? Who prepares the meals? Once you have imagined this, try imagining a typical morning or evening for your character in this home. What happens when everyone wakes up? What are the traditions? The typical arguments? In the evening, imagine what people are doing before bed. How do they relax? Do they spend time together? Separately? Are there chores? Understanding an ordinary “baseline” day for your character will help you understand the close relationships and ordinary frictions that are, inevitably, interrupted when something “happens”—such as the inciting incident of your story.
5. Ratchet up conflict.
The motion in any story depends on conflict, and the easiest place to find conflict is through characters. Placing two characters in opposition to each other helps motivate both and also helps move your plot forward. In other words, if you’re looking for plot points, place your characters in conflict with each other. I’m not necessarily talking about protagonists versus antagonists. Even people who care about each other and want the same outcome for something could disagree, and this is where rich characterization and interesting plot points often reveal themselves.
Strong desires are an effective way to bring about conflict. If you’re looking to develop plot points through conflict, one way to do this is to figure out what one of your characters wants. Then, make another character want the same thing OR want the opposite. For example, if a character (Leslie) is in love with another character (Sam) and is hoping to get married, a well-intentioned best friend might object for very legitimate reasons. Several plot points could arise from this conflict alone: for example, the friend tries to set Leslie up with someone new, or the friend tries to “prove” that Sam is the wrong future partner, or the friend tries to steal Sam, resulting in an enormous fight with Leslie.
Play around with this idea and see what you come up with. Choose something from the list below for your character to want. Then, come up with another character who wants that thing for themself or who wants the opposite outcome. Make a list of possible ways the conflict could play out, and explore one in a scene.
Things a character might want:
A prestigious scholarship
To move away
To quit a job
To arrive at an interview on time
To become friends with someone
To reconcile with someone
To go on a fabulous vacation
6. Remember that everyone has a secret.
Everyone has secrets. Secrets tease the reader. An artful writer gives hints and clues that will leave a question in the reader’s mind that leaves them with a hunger for the answer. That secret can affect characters’ decisions and actions, and the revelation of the secret can often drive an important piece of the plot.
Are there secrets in your current work-in-progress? If not, one way to uncover a secret is to investigate what is in a character’s room. A secret always leaves a clue. Is there a box under the bed? A trinket on the shelf? An unexplained piece of jewelry? A scrap of paper? The fact is that people don’t usually collect objects at random. They surround themselves with things that hold meaning and importance to them. These objects always hold a history, a trace of the truth they hold.
If you’re trying to uncover or understand a secret, spend sixty seconds brainstorming objects that might be in your character’s room. Once you have the list, pick three things that might hold a secret. Then take ten minutes with each one. Explore the history of each object, writing how it came to be in your character’s possession and why they kept it.
Delving deeply into your settings and relationships will help reveal what might happen that could hold that kind of emotional importance. Enjoy exploring these key details—they’ll absolutely help you move your plot forward.
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