Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Writer’s Bread and Butter: How to Hunt Down Those Elusive Plot Ideas

by David Field

Inspiration strikes differently for different writers. I recently got to hear Stephen King speak in Hartford, and he said that the inspiration for most (if not all) of his books stemmed from a single, powerful image. His most recent novel, Joyland, was inspired by the image of a boy in a wheelchair flying a kite on the beach. The image refused to let him go, and as he mulled it over, the early threads of a story started to take shape. Then he envisioned a fairground in the background of this beach scene, and it was like the skies had opened. Just like that, he had the framework for his newest crime thriller ghost story.
This whole novel was spawned
from one clear, crystal image.

Unfortunately, those brief, brilliant flashes of insight tend to be pretty random. You’ll never get any writing done if you keep waiting for that perfect idea to hit you like a bolt from the blue. So to push past that initial writer’s block, here are a few tips you can use to help develop ideas for your potential novel or short story.

It helps to start with an object. It could be a half-eaten sandwich or a box full of dusty old letters or a crinkly orange leaf. Any object will do, really, as long as it resonates with you or carries some sort of emotional weight. You might not know why a particular object has resonance, but if you keep coming back to it, chances are it has story potential. It’s okay if nothing comes to mind right away. You can always go for a walk and keep your eyes peeled for a particularly striking image; you might even spot something interesting just by looking out a window. If the outdoors aren’t your thing, try browsing stock photos or social media sites to see if anything stands out to you. Once you’ve got an image, describe it in as much detail as you possibly can. Use all five senses. You’ll probably find that the more you try to be objective, the more those little subjective details will creep in. And that’s good! It means your object has weight, that it has a story to be told.

What story does this sandwich have to tell?
Now it’s time to construct your setting. Every object has to exist in context, so build an environment around yours. Again, stock photos or social media can be a great help if you’re having trouble thinking up a setting of your own. Maybe the half-eaten sandwich is lying on a checkered picnic blanket in the park; maybe the box of letters is buried under a mass of cobwebs in the basement of an old plantation home. Try to be as specific as possible when you describe the scene. You should be starting to get some inkling of a story by this point, but if not, ask yourself a few clarifying questions. Why was that sandwich left unfinished? What do the old letters say, and who stashed them away?

Once you’ve figured out the answers to these sorts of questions, you’ll be working on the inevitable next step: introducing your character. Before you place them in scene, write up a detailed character bio. Get down their name, age, appearance, favorite books, hobbies, fears, hopes and aspirations, etc. Whatever you can think of. Laundry lists of description are fine for now; just make sure to avoid them when it comes time to actually write the story. Let’s use our sandwich-eater as an example. Her name is Molly Price, age 22, and she’s just finished her degree in Psychology at UVM. Now she’s back in Brooklyn searching for a job. She’s got a pale complexion, with green eyes and unruly brown hair that always seems to be floating around her face. Right now she’s standing on a bridge near the picnic blanket, brushing her hair behind an ear and staring out across the water. Her eyes are blank; her sandwich forgotten. What could she be thinking about?

How much conflict could you get
out of this image?
Here’s where it gets interesting. Time to establish the conflict. You can do this however you’d like, but it usually helps to add a second character to the mix. This doesn’t necessarily have to be an antagonistic sort of character; they just need to bring some kind of tension to the table. They don’t even need to be present in the scene as long as their influence is clear. When you write up a character bio for this new person, try to develop specific details about their relationship to character #1. When did they first meet? Are they best friends or bitter rivals? Is one of them keeping a secret from the other? Think about all the ways you could introduce conflict between the two. For Molly, character #2 is a childhood friend  (let's call him Derek) who she used to date in high school. Molly felt a bit displaced after coming home from college, and she was hoping to have a familiar face she could rely on during this stressful transition period. She was thrilled when Derek agreed to meet her for lunch at the park. After three hours, though, he still hasn't shown up. Molly tries eating her sandwich as she waits for him, but eventually she gives up. Now she’s staring out at the water and wondering what she could possibly do next.

Sounds like we’ve got a decent basis for a longer story here! With a bit more planning, this could even find its way into a novel. And just think: all of this originated from the image of a half-eaten sandwich. Pretty amazing, right? Even the most mundane of objects can have a story packed inside it. You just need to do a little digging to get there.

What scenarios did you come up with using this prompt? Do you have any other strategies that help get your writing juices flowing? Share your comments with us here, or join us @GodinePub on Twitter!

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