“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.