Great stories start with “What if?”
Maybe you recognize these what if plot starters:
- A boy discovers he’s special (just as he always thought) and is invited to a magical school.
- A farmer meets the ghost of a famous baseball player.
- A teenager is bitten by a spider and begins to experience strange side effects.
- What if we could bring dinosaurs back to life?
Did you immediately think Harry Potter, Field of Dreams, Spiderman, and Jurassic Park?
Try rephrasing your story idea as a question and let your natural need to find answers help you build your plot.
If you’re this far along in wanting to write a novel or story, then you have an idea percolating already. Let’s take that idea and add structure to help propel your story by combating three common sticking points.
I know what the main action will be, just not how to get there.
The process we use for planning events in real life is useful in planning fiction plots. You have the advantage of knowing where you’re going with your story which will be your guidepost for every scene and every character action.
You are beginning with the end in mind. Put as much detail into this aspect of the story or go ahead and write it now. You can always go back later to rewrite if needed, but this will give you an idea of where your characters will end up emotionally and physically as you write.
Panster or Plotter, you will need to build out the steps the plot and characters will take before and after this point in the story. Take on this task with the same mindset you use for your first draft and build out the logical situation (scene) that would happen just before the main event. Repeat this step until you get to a point where you find the “what if” point that triggers the beginning of the story.
If the main event is the end of the story, then great, you just need to tie up loose ends. If not, use the same strategy to bring a satisfying conclusion to the plot. I refer to these as plot points. There isn’t much detail of what happens scene by scene as you would see in a traditional outline, but rather action points that change the direction of the characters.
Now that you see the story as a whole, judge if a course correction is needed to keep the plot original. Don’t be afraid to work in a subplot that parallels with the main action. This is the story complexity that keeps pages turning for your readers.
I know the setting and main character, but I don’t know what to do next.
Not to sound too zen, but have you tried meditating or method acting techniques? One designed to bring the present into focus and the other puts you inside the thoughts and feelings of another person.
Now combine the two.
Find a place, preferably somewhere your character would choose, sit quietly and observe your surroundings from their point of view. What do they care about the most? What if you took that away or if it is threatened? What event could happen that would rock their world? Free write all of the ideas that come to you quickly and without judgment. Stories thrive on conflict. Your characters must leave the story changed from how they were introduced to the reader.
Once you have one or multiple ideas, map your plot points and see where they take your story.
(Learn how to get inside your characters’ heads. Read When Your Characters Go Public)
I know the beginning but not sure how it will end.
Your genre can suggest possible next actions for your characters.
- Mystery? Then there must be a crime. What if your character is the criminal instead of the witness or victim?
- Fantasy? Then you need to introduce aspects of the world you’re creating to define what type of story you’re writing. World-building and character hierarchy are crucial elements for this genre and will present ideas for brainstorming your plot points.
- Romance? There must be a breakup, a courtship, near misses, and complications. Will your main character find the love they’re missing or will they be the one playing matchmaker? Combine this with the setting and let your imagination take over.
I still need help writing my plot.
Try using the seven basic story plots you learned in high school or Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey as guideposts for your writing. Plug what you know about your story into one of these models and challenge yourself to fill in what’s missing. The path the reader takes is a well known emotional journey that heightens action, lets the reader feel they’ve arrived somewhere new in the story, and then elevates the action again.
What if you got started today? Right now. Set a small goal and stick with it. Make it easy, just 500 words, and over time your story will be a novel.
(Want to learn how to keep your writing on track? Read Carpe Diem – How to Set Writing Goals)