The How-to Of Creative Writing - Part One - Ideas For Plot

Posted at 19:13pm on 16th August 2008


Last week I posted a blog about beginning a series on writing a book. The introduction was titled The How-to of Writing a Novel, but I've now decided that the series might be better titled The How-to of Creative Writing. In last week's post, I suggested that some people might be thinking in terms of writing a full length novel (min. 70,000 words if it's for adults) while others would want to accomplish something rather different. For instance, there may be those of you who want to write a personal testimony - a story covering a relatively short period of your life, which you feel may be inspiring to others.

The content of this, and future tutorials, will be the result of what I've learned from more than twenty-five years of seeing my own work published in books and articles. 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 (though that may have elements of creative writing embedded within it - more of that at a later date).


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. This is the place where you picture the characters, action and scenery of your story. 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 were 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 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, there's no magic formula: 'ya gotta work at it'.


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.


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 note book 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.


Using three of the methods outlined above - i.e. a newspaper report, some incident that struck you as interesting during the week, and a conversation you overheard, weave them together and write a summary (no more than two or three sentences) of a storyline.

If you feel you've benefited from this free tutorial, why not do one or more of the following:

  1. Subscribe (free) to receive further tutorials by e-mail
  2. Tell a friend and ask them to subscribe (free)
  3. Make a donation by purchasing A Painful Post Mortem (If purchased from this site, approximately 35% of the book price will be given to charity to support projects 'drug-proofing' UK teenagers, and for 3rd World babies born HIV+.
  4. Tell a friend and ask them to support these worthwhile causes by buying a copy of the book.


We'll be looking at Themes. And the following week we'll have a look at Character and how this can influence both plot and theme. Now mix up some ingredients and get that stew-pot going!

Mel Menzies, August 2008

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.

Her latest novel 'A Painful Post Mortem' may be purchased online here at:

Booklocker or at Amazon

Approximately 35% of book sales is for charity.

To book her as a Speaker, contact her at:

Your Comments:

sharon harvey
20th August 2008
at 11:19pm


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