How to write plot

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“I have a great book idea, but I have no plot.”

I hear this pretty frequently. Most new writers seem to think that plot lines are supposed to spring into their heads fully formed. Then they feel deficient when they come up dry. But plotlines rarely appear out of the blue – and never fully formed. More often an idea is nothing but a world, a character, a single scene, or a mere image. We must take these fragments and grow them into stories.

But how? Yes, some of it still has to be inspiration, and I can’t teach you how to be inspired, but here are some methods that will help:

Image – have nothing but a picture in your head? Don’t fret. C.S. Lewis started out with nothing but a mental picture of a faun carrying an umbrella, and got the seven-book Chronicles of Narnia out of it. Let yourself daydream about the image for a while. Once it has grown into a scene, read below.

Scene – Markus Zusak got the idea for I Am the Messenger when he noticed a 15-minute parking zone outside a bank and wondered what it would be like to be stuck lying on the floor of the bank during a robbery, worrying about a parking fine. So start by writing down everything you know about that scene. Is it a beginning scene, a middle scene, or the climax? Who is there? How did they get there? What will be the result of their actions ?

World – maybe your idea centers on a world that has some interesting little difference from ours (like it’s full of mutant humans with magical powers). How did the world get that way? (Are they mutating due to a nuclear explosion, or are they doing it to themselves intentionally?) What are the social, political, religious ramifications? (Are they suing a power plant? Are they fighting laws against genetic manipulation?) What are the real-life ramifications for an individual person? (Is the psychic teenager ostracized by his parents? Is the housewife fighting crime at night?)

Character – maybe you’ve invented Sherlock Holmes, Sydney Carton, or Margo Roth Spiegelman and this person is begging to have a story written about them. Again, write down everything you know. Pretty, plain, strong, smart, cowardly, kind, mean, funny? What is the most important thing in the world to this character? Maybe it’s his wife, maybe her son, maybe it’s getting into Harvard or on Broadway, or escaping prison. Then, threaten this thing. Take it away and make them rescue it. Endanger it and make them protect it. Entice them to pursue it, and throw obstacles in their path.

Moral – Stop. Rewind. I forbid you from writing a book based on a moral alone. It will come off as salesy, preachy or both. Come up with some other idea, follow the directions above, and if a moral happens to grow naturally out of the story you are already writing, more power to you.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.

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16 Comments

  1. My book/trilogy started as a concept that I’ve obsessed over since I was like 7, but most of the plot is centered on key phases. The way my writing works, I use lyrics, concepts, and a couple phrases, then just interpret them.

  2. I think the advice I see running through each of these is to keep taking notes; keep writing from whichever angle you are looking from at a particular time. That is super advice to me. Just keep writing.
    (I use Michael Hague’s six stage plot structure to create the framework for my stories. His structure works best for me, but there are plenty of other good ones.)

    • Yeah, a lot of it goes back to writing as a sixth sense. There’s a lot of stuff you know know right off the bat. Then you have to know which questions to ask yourself, and then you will probably have to go back and rework everything once you finally figure out what it’s really all about. At least, that’s the way it’s been in my experience.

  3. Most of mine start with a very vivid image in a dream and then I imagine a story around that image. Good advice here!

    • I’ve always wanted to write from a dream, because, like you say, the vividness is inspiring. It’s just so hard to put into words. I do have a couple of dreams typed up in my “Book Ideas” file, so hopefully I’ll actually do it someday – and maybe get some pointers from you?

  4. Great info. I particularly like the idea of not pushing a moral intentionally. Good storytelling entertains, and then, sometimes sneaks in a moral when we aren’t looking, creating the “Ah ha!” moment we love at the end.

    • Yes, sneak the moral in! Even bestselling authors are way too blatant in their preaching—I honestly don’t know how they get away with it. Lisa Gardner, whose suspense novels are pretty good, said in a recent book something like “because she knew that the smell of a freshly powdered baby was the best smell in the whole world!” Yikes! And John Sandford, writer of many police procedurals, had his MC say “atheists are people who work at MacDonald’s.” Meaning we’re stupid? Insulting to MacDonald’s employees too. It’s unnecessary and annoying, and does nothing to connect me to the MC.

      • “Atheists are people who work at MacDonalds”?!?!? Where does that even come from? Even if I was stereotyping, I wouldn’t put an atheist near a MacDonalds. An agnostic, maybe, because they don’t know what they believe or what they want out of life. I would probably make an atheist a professor of Religious Studies at a university.

    • Exactly. The moral has to fit into the story organically, the way it does in real life. Otherwise it falls flat.

  5. Fantastic post! I have but one quip: “But plotlines rarely appear out of the blue – and never fully formed.”
    That depends on what one considers “fully formed.” If you mean in every tiny detail, then you are correct. If you mean all major plot points are there, I can attest from personal experience that, sometimes, they do. It has only happened to me once and it was… disconcerting. Normally my stories develop exactly as you say, over months or years. This one came, in its entirety, in under an hour. It was complete with characters, world, and everything. I still wonder how/why it happened… if my subconscious had been brewing unbeknownst to me, and then exploded up into my conscious mind, or if it was something from outside me. I really don’t know.

    • Fascinating. Now that’s got to be Providence–and might teach us some interesting things about the stuff I discussed in my “sixth sense” post. One spark of an idea can naturally grow into a whole story very quickly under the right circumstances, when you just instinctively feel who makes what happen and why. I’ve never had it happen that quickly, however. That could be a really interesting theological/psychological discussion – is it just your subconscious? Is it God? Is it some mental connection to an alternate universe wherein the story actually happened? ; )
      The power of stories…I think there’s more to it than just their power to persuade. Some breathe. Some seem to have minds of their own. Many are true whether they happened or not.

      • I certainly hope it never happened anywhere, and so does the protagonist 😉
        If it is Providence, then I hope God also provides me the skill and fearlessness needed to write it, for it is an intimidatingly epic (though ultimately simple) story. I’ve started it, but it is the most difficult of my stories to write. Part of it weaves through the story I am currently writing for possible publication, but then my stories tend to do that.
        I suspect that any story, well and honestly told, takes on a life of its own. They can be powerful in very different ways, though. And I agree, truth is not always dependent on fact or fiction. Jesus told true parables, after all. 🙂

        • He will. But it still won’t be easy. Sometimes I think God has a dark sense of humor. Like sometimes if I’m frustrated about something I can just feel Him chuckling at me. In a loving way, I guess, but I’m still like, “yeah, Lord. Laugh it up.”
          I hope that’s not terribly blasphemous of me, haha.

  6. I don’t think it is blasphemy, so long as one remembers that He’s not all humor. The way I look at it, He wouldn’t have made us, if He didn’t have a sense of humor. We’re hilarious, especially when we don’t intend to be.

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