Creative Writing Workshop: Digging Deep For Plots

Posted at 08:38am on 30th March 2019

In the Introduction of this Creative Writing Workshop, I asked the question, Are You On the Right Track? There was nothing flippant about this. Before you begin to write your book, there are questions to be asked. And answered!

The content of this, and future tutorials, will be the result of what I've learned from more than thirty-five years of seeing my own work published in books and articles under various pen names. These lessons have already been proven in writing workshops which I've led and will, I hope, be of help in all aspects of creative writing. That is to say, fiction, biography or autobiography. Anything, in fact, which isn't journalistic reportage, instructional or educational, or a how-to book - all of which I shall be tackling in another series.


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. That's good. This thinking time - rumination - is crucial to the success of your venture. Author Joyce Meyer writes: Consider a tree for a moment. As beautiful as trees are to look at, we don't see what goes on underground - as they grow roots. Trees must develop deep roots in order to grow strong and produce their beauty. But we don't see the roots. We just see and enjoy the beauty. In much the same way, what goes on inside of us is like the roots of a tree.

Plotting is the place where you picture the characters, action and scenery of your story. It's the path ahead. To be accurate, it's not really thinking time. Not in a cerebral or analytical sense. It's rather 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.


For others, with only a vague notion of wanting to write, that process may not yet have begun.

'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 baulk 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 per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.'

In other words, there's no magic formula: 'ya gotta work at it'.


It's easier for some writers than others. Some say they have an instinctive brain pattern that takes in news items, and other people's experiences, and turns them automatically into stories. Some prefer a more pro-active approach. Trawling through news of the criminal underworld, they find inspiration for the gritty novels they then create. While yet others take a real-life personal experience and turn it into fiction. All these methods have the ability to open up a world of options to a writer. Your preference depends upon your particular bent of mind.


It's not always easy to pull off if you're using your own life-history for inspiration, but this is what I did in my 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 (which we'll come to 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.


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, and mixing up the threads of each, can become the basis for a plot.

For instance, supposing you read 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. You're regaling a friend with this tale when she says, 'Oh, I 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.'

Mmmm, you think. I'd probably kill him if he were my son or husband.

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.

So, 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 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? 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.

If you thought like that, congratulations. You've just plotted a modern take on the nursery story about Jack and the Beanstalk. You see how easy it is? Now read on:


Here are some ideas about how to get ideas for your book! See if you can add to them.

  • Some writers advocate the use of a notebook in which to jot down ideas as they come to them. See if that works for you. I frequently wake early in the morning with my head full of plot twists, character development, or dialogue. At one time I even used a voice-activated Dictaphone to get it down in a hurry. Now I just slip out of bed and put my computer on.
  • Read the obituaries - there are some fascinating stories there which usually cover a large chunk of a person's life. From that you may be able to trace the development of the deceased's ultimate achievements in life: from germination to fruition.
  • Look at newspaper reports, and ask yourself questions: what if the protagonist hadn't taken that course of action? How else might she have responded to what happened to her? What would the result have been? Would it have been better or worse? If worse, how might she then have reacted?
  • Listen in on snippets of conversations overheard in the bus queue, or on the commuter train. (Actually, does anyone ever talk there?) Try to figure out the bigger story of what you're hearing.
  • Take the events of a friend's life and put a different twist on it. But be careful. You could lose a friend and gain an action for libel.
  • Turn a nursery rhyme into a contemporary story - as above.
  • Use a Bible story as the basis of a modern take on life.

If you feel you've benefited from this free tutorial, then do tell a friend about the course.

NEXT TIME: We'll be looking at The Riverbed of Theme. Following that we'll have a look at character and how this can influence both plot and theme. Now get digging, mix up some ingredients and get that stew-pot going!

The author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No. 4 Bestseller, Mel is also an experienced Speaker and has addressed live audiences of between 20 and 700+ in addition to participating in TV and Radio chat shows. To book her as a Speaker, contact her

LATEST BOOK: PICKED FOR A PURPOSE, Bearing Fruit Through Times of Hardship
Poor body image, broken relationships, gang culture and drug addiction may seem like negatives, but there are positive answers here for young people suffering with mental health issues, and for their parents, teachers and social workers.
Mel writes with honesty and openness, and her words are laced with hope: we are ordinary, but not useless, lonely, but never alone. Read this book and find hope rather than cliches, substance rather than slogans. Highly recommended. Jeff Lucas, Author, International Speaker, Broadcaster
ALL proceeds are to be donated to The Prince's Trust, a charity set up by Prince Charles in 1976, which empowered 58,000 young people last year alone!


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