Anything good can be subverted, and we can find malaise in things that were joyful once. We are acutely aware of our flaws, wearing them as a shield in one moment, and denying their existence in the next. Those we trust could be a breath away from betrayal, and the unexpected moments in life are never a reason to smile; taxing our time, money, energy and patience when each are already strained.
On the precipice of failure, sometimes there’s an undercurrent of belief that things could be managed. Perhaps success isn’t likely, or even possible, but we can wade the tide. We can find new people, new places, and new reasons; each giving hope and wonder, each promising to be worth the troubles that came before. We know our virtues, and the things within our reach that nobody realises we can do. We can be inspired, and find ourselves reach beyond our limits, doing remarkable things not only for ourselves, but change the lives of others for the better.
These two thought processes appear at odds with one another, yet somehow they dance around each other, switching places in the limelight in a strange circadian tango. There are rises and falls, ups and downs, boons and banes (no, not mills!). This needn’t just be with life, but in your fiction as well.
You tend to know the overall idea of your story. Two people meet, fight, fall in love, fight, get back together. A soldier goes AWOL, trying to track down his brother who was lost in enemy territory. An insecure woman finds out she was adopted, goes on a trip around the world to find out who she is. What you mightn’t know beyond the kick-off moment, and the glorious final page, is what happens. Many of my writing friends have issues with knowing exactly what might happen, and yes, I’m not immune to it either. Each of my stories have been subject to revision, changes, and even characters being added or removed because I needed to change what was happening. The overall idea remained the same, but the specifics were altered.
In the past, I used to be a lot more organised with my writing – to the detriment of actually writing it. I would plan out every shift, every twist, every rise and fall, and reached a point where I didn’t feel like the story needed to be written because I’d virtually read it. I do mostly write for myself. The way I’ve had the most success has been to write out a ten point plan of where the story is going to go, giving myself a loose set of reigns. Each point would escalate the story in some way, providing tension or conflict. The woman finds out the man lied about who he was. The soldier is robbed by a civilian, losing his passport and his calm. The woman is approached by a man who knows more about her than she does.
The point with the initial musings-about-life, and with each of the points, is that sometimes things we’re so sure of can go wrong, and at other times it’s the people we have no reason to trust that come through for us.
The number of points you need for your story varies on the length of the story, and exactly what you’re going for. Tension, conflict, action, stress – they all work differently, and the way you do each can change the pace of your story. Sometimes you need to dwell on an idea in the story to give it the proper tension or weight that it needs. Sometimes you need to have the action happen abruptly, so that it doesn’t feel drawn out. It could be the case that either option would work if done right, but you need to choose the way. Creativity definitely comes into it, and while I think everyone has the capacity to be creative, it is something that gets easier the more that you work at it. Whether you’re the sort of person that likes to plan out every detail of the world, character and story – or one of those that make it up as they go along – there are things you can do to help you generate ideas for the plot.
- Know your characters well enough that when pushed, you can answer any of the questions from here.
- Knowing their virtues and flaws not only helps you understand how they would react, but can inspire ideas for the events to push them.
- Test their virtues against their flaws.
- Think motivations.
- What do others gain from their success or defeat?
- What outcomes exist in their goals that benefit neither them or their obvious antagonist?
- Could someone share the same goal, but use methods set against theirs? The opposite?
- Push their virtues to excess, where it then becomes a flaw.
- Lose when they are gracious, and succeed when selfish.
- Look around you. Observe.
- Your characters can hesitate, hide their pain, lash out, cry behind closed doors, lie, make foolish decisions in the moment.
- They have their conscience to answer to, and their own fears to face.
- Many can suffer because of the decisions of one, even unwittingly.
- Let them act for acting’s sake, though it doesn’t further their goal – or let them wait for absolute certainty rather than entertain risk of any kind.
- Make a list of things that could happen to your protagonist, or someone close to them.
- How could their success harm them? What possibilities exist.
- Even if your core characters are resolute, those around them may not be. People buckle under pressure.
- Let the resoluteness or pride of a character lead to them overreaching.
- Talk to others about your character – they may have questions that leads you to answers.
Each point in the plot should have repercussions – and in many cases, be caused by preceding events. Most stories will lean toward the un-obvious turn of events, having what takes place be not quite ordinary. A death, a betrayal, a loss. These need to be treated like bullets. Fire a gun once, and the sound echoes. A hundred bullets and we become desensitised. Make those moments mean something, and not become a new form of punctuation in your work. Having a thread (or threads) through the events gives them a weight that they wouldn’t have on their own. You could connect the three example ideas, so that the two people are the woman and the soldier’s brother, having the man she meets on her trip being the soldier, and the reason for the brother’s disappearance being trying to discover more about the woman’s past. On their own, story. Linked liked that, plot.
You can also take inspiration for this events from your life, but do show restraint – and try to ensure that those involved in the real event are not likely to be insulted by it. Far better to eviscerate a character inspired by a rude commuter, than to trivialise a former friend’s existence – nobody needs to read a personal vendetta. They might want to, though.