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Plot ideas --

Where in the world do they come from?

Most of the time, plot ideas pop right out of a writer's imagination, and many writers are usually inundated with these ideas. They get far more than can even be jotted down, much less incorporated into storylines. However, occasionally a writer does find him- or herself in a drought, and then it's important to know how to deliberately generate fresh plot ideas.

The drought usually comes on when a writer must turn in a piece of work, because it's all a matter of money. Let's say you're a working writer selling scripts for TV shows. Working in the US, you'll be so well paid, you'll be able to live comfortably on two or three sales in a year. Working in Australia, the pay is a lot more meager, which means you must sell a lot more scripts.

Each script is built on a core plot idea, and running dry of fresh concepts when you absolutely, positively must produce a piece of work, is a writer's concept of the classic bad hair day. So, most writers have their own system for generating fresh ideas, and we'll look at a range of them on this page.

Does a Random Plot Generator actually exist?

Unfortunately ... yes, there is such a thing. You can actually buy software which gives you what are known as 'prompts,' and by filling in the blanks you'll always come up with some kind of a plot. The question remains, is a story based on a plot idea, or a bunch of plot ideas generated this way, worth writing? This is question, you'll have to answer for yourself.

Let's look at how the generator works. Save your money. There is absolutely nothing in this system which can't be achieved with a notebook and pencil. The prompts are very like the 'when, whom where, why' model we set in motion on the What is a plot? page. Refresh your memory, if you need to. Then ... Here are the prompts:

Create a hero.
(Young guy, older guy? Tall, short? Walks with a limp due to old injury? European, Afro-American, Native? Aussie accent? Good looking, scar-faced after the old injury? Bad tempered, sweet tempered? Foul mouthed? Snazzy dresser, or grunge guy? Rocker, rapper, or violinist? College educated or dropout? Brave, or scared silly? Straight, bi or gay? Tee-total, drinking problem, drug problem? Smoker, or non-? Republican, Democrat, or couldn't care less? Religious, spiritual, or atheist? Intelligent or a bit dim? A son, a father, a brother, a nephew?)

Create a villain.
(Go through the exact same process to design this guy as you did to design the hero.)

Set the time frame.
(Ancient Greece, Rome or Egypt? American Civil War? Queen Elizabeth I and Francis Drake? Wars of the Roses? The Third Crusade? The American War of Independence? The Rum Rebellion? Columbus, or Captain Cook? World War I, or II? The Swingin' Sixties? The Cold War? Indiana Jones era? Contemporary? Futuristic...?)

Set the location.
(City or country? Coastal or mountains? Jungle or snow fields? Forest or farmland? Rainforest or desert? Hotel, farmhouse, apartment block, horse property, beachfront house, decaying mansion, brand-new home, old church, creepy old house?)

Create a pivotal event to set a story moving.
(A murder. Plane crash. Car crash. Abduction. Theft. Divorce. Marriage. Birth of a child. Death in the family. Funeral. Reading of a will. Outbreak of war. Arrival of strangers. Hellfire sermon causes social unrest. Political turmoil agitates people. Bushfire. Arson -- school burns down, or church, or mansion. Mine cave-in. Baby down the well. Thoroughbred stallion escapes. Pet dog runs away. Sudden unemployment. Sudden employment. Highway coming through. Railway coming through. Ship sinks. Ship launches. Business bankrupts. Business opens ...)

Set the mood and feel for the piece.
(Light comedy. Grand tragedy. Adventure. Romance. Slapstick. Mystery. Tear-jerker. Spooky. Thriller. Chiller. NOTE: the genre is not important here. Science fiction can also be comedy (Ice Pirates), westerns can be slapstick (Cactus Jack). What you're defining here is the 'mood' for your piece. In other words, the vein in which you'll write it: will you be trying to make your readers laugh, or cry?)

Each of those plot ideas, or 'parameters,' can be written on something like a business card blank. You can toss them in a shoe box and pull one out at random. If you have one box each for hero, villain, time frame, location, and pivotal event, a story will certainly begin appear. Using the above method, it's quite easy to find your way to Luke Skywalker standing on the desert surface of Tatooine, chafing at his uncle's demand that he stay on the farm. It could be a kid on a farm in Kansas in the great drought, wanting to join the Air Force ... same plot idea. (Of course, it's what you DO with the plot idea that makes for a good story, a boring story, or just plain plagiarism!)

By now you have at least one plot idea, and probably more than one. You can always come up with a plot this way, but we'd be remiss if we didn't include a caveat: If you don't apply your own imagination and creativity, such plots are artificial, fake, cardboard. You can write them, but the result — without the input of individual creativity — will lack the dynamism that makes a great novel. The result will be something like the pulp westerns which were churned out by the thousands, with stock situations and characters.

Give it a shot — it makes an interesting game for a rainy afternoon! But don't come to rely on this for your plot ideas. There are better ways...

Plot ideas, and how writers spark them

All writers have different methods, and here are some of the best. They're not going to cost a dime, and you can try any or all of them for the 'best fit.'

Mythology is a rich source of plot ideas. Every story idea one can imagine is to be found in the legends of Greece, Egypt, the Norse world, and China. An encyclopedia of mythology (the Larousse is excellent) is a great place to start. Inspiration abounds on every page. The Bible is a rich source of Hebrew mythology, and there are some great plot ideas among those pages ... Hollywood clearly thought so, too!

Similarly to paying attention to Mythology, you can also look at the classics. The Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid. These works are incredibly ancient, and dwell in a 'twilight zone' between fact and fable. Writers like Homer and Virgil explored every possible permutation of the human condition. Rest assured, there's nothing modern writers can dream of that wasn't written in antiquity. And these works are public domain. People will surely notice if you lift plot ideas right out of, say, The Illiad; but if those ideas were handled magnificently, you're more likely to be applauded than censured.

History is the richest source of ideas one could dream of. During several thousand years, humans have said and done virtually everything that can be said and done. The exploits of Captain Cook, or Columbus, are projected into the future and morph into Star Trek. Tales of the Black Death are redressed as stories like Outbreak, a thriller set in the contemporary age. The gradual collapse of the Roman Empire is, right now, being echoed in the demise of much of what we have taken for granted of Western civilization. If you want massive plot ideas, for massive novels ... look to history.

Like Homer and Virgil, Shakespeare spent an entire career examining the human condition. The twists and turns of Shakespearean drama, and the plot ideas at the core of each, are well worth a look. The forces driving characters like Macbeth and Hamlet are still driving human beings today; they just drive us in slightly different directions, to achieve the same ends. (For example, Lady Macbeth is less than likely to exhort her husband, who is second in command of a corporate empire, to murder the CEO at their house party. She's more likely to plot with him to assassinate the CEO's character and reputation, making him resign and maybe suicide ... leaving Macbeth to assume the corporate crown. Same plot idea ... very different story.)

So --

How do you generate fresh plot ideas when you're absolutely, utterly blank?

There's a game I enjoy, and anyone can play: watch the trailers for movies you've never seen ... just leave the sound turned off. The trailer becomes a rapid-fire sequence of almost-related images and concepts (ie., plot ideas hammered at you, one after another, to get you to drop fourteen bucks on a ticket!) and the human mind, which has a desperate need to make sense out of chaos, will race, trying to fill in the blanks. Your mind will create connections, spin stories, to make the images and ideas relate. Whole scenarios will generate themselves before your mind's eye.

You can do something along the same lines with movie stills. A picture is actually worth closer to a million words, if you ever start backstorying what your mind thinks it sees in a movie still. I recommend stills over family snapshots, because it would be the weird family album that boasted shots of people racing around on superbikes, being pursued by police cars, jumping horses over fallen trees, hanging out at creepy old houses on the moor, crashing airplanes into tropical islands, and so on. Each photo is not just a couple of plot ideas, but about a hundred of them — so long as you haven't seen the movie! Of course, if you have, all you see is Harrison Ford hauling old pontoons over a waterfall in Six Days, Seven Nights. So search the web till you find a stash of stills from movies you never saw, and probably have no intention of seeing. And let your imagination rip.

Many more ways to find a new plot idea are out there: daydreams, falling in love with someone else's characters and having them spur your own imagination, flashes of intuition ... and old fashioned hard work. The hard work idea is the least appealing, but we can inject a little fun into this, too. Just as Mel Keegan uses images to literally kickstart the mind's ability to weave stories, if you're not 'visually inclined,' you can use words.

The game could be called, "Give me a killer first line." The challenge is to write the first line of a novel that does not, yet, exist ... and make the first line so outrageous that the rest of the book almost explodes into being, given the image created by that first line. (Incidentally, publishers, editors, agent and critics love these first lines; they read them all too seldom.)

All right, let's pick up the challenge. Let's scare up fresh plot ideas. I'll give you a half dozen first lines ... then you're on your own!

  1. I came to the village of Kintyre to paint a portrait, and I stayed to marry two men.
  2. His blood was warm on my hands, looking black in the near-darkness, and the reek of chemical smoke made my head burn.
  3. Summer was gone overnight, with a storm that dumped half the Atlantic Ocean into the top paddocks, and Lassiter felt only a dark, consuming relief when the last train pulled out.
  4. Like a heartbeat, the drums called out of the high valleys, but mist still wreathed the lowlands, and no glimmer of torchlight was visible.
  5. She swore the runes and cards had foretold the man's death, and even Robert, who had spent most of his short life mocking 'fortune telling,' felt a chill in the air around Bradgate's ancient walls.
  6. Nothing moved in the shimmering, rust-red landscape, save a few tattered crows that gathered where something had perished in the heat.

The mind always generates images in response to words, and some of the most vivid are conjured when you read poetry. When you want plot ideas, read poetry with an open mind's eye.

The next chapter in this quest for a great book is about plot development. Getting great ideas is the first step, and one of the most important. What you DO with those ideas is what turns basic plot ideas into jewels ... or junk. Two writers could begin with the concept of the kid desperately wanting to get off the farm and join the military, make something of his life. One writer wound up telling Star Wars. The other chased the same idea into a pulp-style novel about womanizing drinking buddies, blood and dismemberment. Both started with the same plot ideas...

Two paths clearly diverged in that forest! One went to Tatooine (and a billion dollars' worth of merchandise), the other landed in a short, pulpy novel with a printrun of a few thousand copies and no reprint value. Can you tell those paths apart, in the gloom of the forest? They're not marked in any way. You have to choose for yourself. Plot ideas are the certainly the start of the process, and join me in the next post in this train of thought, because I'm going to catch a cab down the road to Tatooine!

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