Creative Writing Techniques: How To Find Ideas For Plots

Posted at 17:00pm on 1st December 2008

It seems that these days almost everyone is writing a book! Despite the fact that we’re told that computers have dumbed down and depleted our appetite for reading, increasing numbers of would-be authors are emerging. So with apologies to those who may already have read the following, I’m revising an article I wrote some time ago when I was leading Creative Writing Classes.

ARE YOU WRITING A BOOK FOR THE FIRST TIME?

If you’re like most would-be authors, you’ve probably been thinking for years about your book. The one that’s been inside you waiting to get out. Whether it’s fiction writing or a short biography, that’s good. This thinking time – rumination – is crucial to the success of your venture. This is the place where you picture the characters, action and scenery of your story; the place where you imagine personality and gender, and the all important matter of conflict resolutions.

To be accurate, it’s not really thinking time. Not in a cerebral or analytical sense. It’s more like a private cinematic viewing of your story. It’s when your characters come to life. Inside your head is where you may hear them conduct their first dialogue with each other. This is where the creative cauldron bubbles and simmers. It’s where all the ingredients of your story – be it fiction or biography – are combined. It’s where they are gently stewed in the juices of imagination and innovation – until they emerge tender and succulent, pithy and pungent, or sharp and aromatic.

A PLOT IN A NOVEL? OR A NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK?

For others, with only a vague notion of wanting to write, that process may not yet have begun. Quite simply, when it comes to writing a book for the first time, there’s no magic formula!

‘Where do you find your ideas?’

That seems to be the main preoccupation of most would-be-authors. Even those with the plot outline of a first book in mind balk at the thought of having to produce ideas for a second.

It’s certainly a valid point, because without ideas, any book would be dead in the water. In fact, it would never have life breathed into it. A similar query is implied in the phrase:

‘Where do you get your inspiration from?’

To which, at risk of repeating myself, I would reply, quoting Thomas Edison:

‘Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.’

In other words, as I said earlier, there’s no magic formula: ‘ya gotta work at it’.

WHERE ESTABLISHED AUTHORS FIND THEIR IDEAS

It’s easier for some writers than others. Veronica Healey, whose 60th novel False Picture, came out in June, says that God gave her a peculiar brain which takes in news items, and experiences that other people tell her about, and turns them into stories. Richard Price, bestselling American author, prefers a more pro-active approach. Trawling the criminal underworld of New York for inspiration for his gritty novels, he believes that this method opens up a world of options to a writer. And sometimes, authors like Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose books cover a wide range of topics, take a real-life personal experience and turn it into fiction – as in her novel Falling.

It’s quite difficult to pull off if it’s your own life-history you’re using for inspiration, but this is what I’ve done in my latest book, A Painful Post Mortem. The central storyline – about the suspicious death of a young woman – was something I, personally, experienced when my daughter died. But the characters and sub-plot (we’ll come to that at a later date) are fictional. What drives the story and gives it universal appeal, is the ‘who-dun-it-style’ quest for justice when the deceased character, Katya, is written off as a drug-addict. That phrase in the Pathology Report is what sends her divorced parents and mixed up sister into an uncomfortable trip down memory lane. In other words, Katy’s death is the catalyst for what turns out to be a painful post mortem – not of her demise – but of their lives.

DEVELOPING IDEAS FOR PLOTS

Real life stories are as good a source of material as any when looking for ideas. Note that I’m not advocating that you actually use a real person’s life as the plot of your next book. But it’s not a bad place to begin to kick around other angles. Using anecdotal material from the lives of several people, together with random circumstances or events, can become the basis of a plot. For instance:

  • You’re reading a newspaper story about someone who falls on hard times and who, in order to make ends meet, sets out to auction off the family silver.
  • Your friend tells you she knew someone like that, but instead of getting a good price for the silver, he was an absolute idiot and swapped it for a camera.
  • You’re hanging the washing out next day, when a bird overhead drops a bit of twig it’s carrying to build a nest.
  • Now why would it do that, you wonder? Could it be that a tasty morsel of food just flew by? The temptation of a meal on the wing must surely far outweigh the importance of a nest-building twig? After all, the twig can be reclaimed or replaced at a later date. The gnat can’t.

You continue, putting all three incidents together:

  • Supposing the man who set out to sell the silver and instead swapped it for a camera, unconsciously – like the bird tempted by the immediacy of a meal – saw greater potential in a piece of equipment by which he might be able to earn a living than in a one-off sum of money for the silver.
  • Supposing – your imagination is running riot by now, and you haven’t even noticed that it’s beginning to rain on the washing – just supposing that he becomes a David Bailey?
  • Could it be that his prowess with the camera is such that he’s not only able to save the family fortunes, but also to buy back the lost silver? Yes it could!

Congratulations! If you thought like that, you’ve just plotted a modern take on the nursery story about Jack and the Beanstalk. You see how easy it is?

HOMEWORK

Using the method outlined above write a summary (no more than two or three sentences) of a storyline.

If you feel you’ve benefited from this free tutorial, please consider doing one or more of the following:

  1. Click the Send this to a Friend button
  2. Buy A Painful Post Mortem (ALL PROFITS TO CHARITY to support projects ‘drug-proofing’ UK teenagers, and helping 3rd World babies born HIV+).
  3. Leave a comment about how you find plot ideas.

© Mel Menzies, December 2008

A Bestselling Author, Mel is also an experienced Speaker,
has addressed live audiences of between 20 and 700+
in addition to participating in TV and Radio chat shows, and
led Family Forums, Marriage Enrichment, and Writers' Workshops
To book her as a Speaker, contact her here:
author@melmenzies.co.uk

Your Comments:

Dygroulgavara
20th December 2008
at 9:30am

A good resource should be bookmarked

20th June 2012
at 8:33pm
Now mostly books are not hand written, they are typed on computers and printed. Yeah apatite of reading books is diminishing now. E books ...everything is transforming to E...But reading a book is far better than reading something on the internet.

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