Friday, April 25, 2014

I Have an Idea. Kinda. Tips On Plotting Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Story ideas can come from anywhere, and those are the easy part of writing. It's figuring out what to do past that glimmer of an idea where it can get tricky. Let's look at some common places ideas start and ways to find a workable plot from those sparks.

Ideas From Setting

Sometimes story ideas come from a place. A haunted house, the bayou, a colony off Jupiter. Some location captures your imagination and you just can't shake it. But you also have no clue what happens in that place. Since all plots need conflict, a good place to start is to look at the possible problems.

1. What are the inherent dangers of this setting?
2. What are typical problems found in this setting?
3. Are there any past disasters connected to this setting?
4. How could someone use this setting to their advantage? 

The dangers of the setting might provide natural problems for your protagonist to overcome. They can also be things an antagonist might be trying to work with for some fiendish purpose. Here's a quick example using the haunted house setting:

1. What are the inherent dangers of this setting? Ghosts who want revenge
2. What are typical problems found in this setting? Local kids trespass, daring each other to stay the night
3. Are there any past disasters connected to this setting? The murders that spawned the ghosts, missing kids who stayed the night and never came out of the house.
4. How could someone use this setting to their advantage? Criminal on the run wants to hide in the house to escape the police.

These are ideas I came up with off the top of my head, so they're not the most original, but see how easily a plot is unfolding here? You could take these four details and write a book about a cop who's trying to find some missing kids and goes into this haunted house, gets into trouble with both the criminal, and the ghosts. 

Ideas From an Event or Situation

Sometimes the idea is a situation or event. A sun going supernova. A threat to a place or person. Discovery of something profound. Something is happening or about to happen, and someone is going to have to deal with it in some way.

1. Who has the most to lose in this situation?
2. Who has the most to gain in this situation?
3. Who has the freedom to act, but is also restricted in some way?
4. Who can be hurt the most from this situation?
5. What must be done to resolve this situation?

Situation plots usually need the most work on the character goals and stakes, because we know the what, but not the who or why. It's easy to find surface goals and stakes (to save the word, to stop the bad guy, save a life), but you often find that those aren't deep enough to help you create the plot. You run out of stuff for the protagonist to do pretty quickly. The trick is to find the personal stakes, and then work from there to determine the scene-advancing goals. People act when they want to (something to gain) or have to (something to lose).

Ideas From a Personal Journey

Journeys are big in character-driven and literary novels, and even in fantasies. A woman tries to find herself after a failed marriage. A man takes to the sea to live the last months of his life after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. A group of adventurers go on quest for an item of importance. The journey is what matters most, not what's found on the other side.

1. What are the inherent dangers of this journey?
2. What are the inherent joys of this journey?
3. What resistance would someone get from friends regarding this journey?
4. What fears would keep someone from attempting this journey?

Character growth is key in a story like this, as the journey almost always is what allows them to find what they're looking for. To grow, you need to overcome things that were holding you back. Learn things and put them to use. Goals are just as important here as any other story, but they'll probably be more personal and internal rather than external. The external obstacles are often the ways in which the lesson is learned. 

Ideas From a Premise 

A what if? idea is a common start to a story. What if someone developed magic powers? What if a mother of three had to become a thief to support her kids? What if a foreign sleeper agent actually became president? Cool ideas that can be explored in a myriad of ways. The trick is to narrow that grand idea down so to find the personal connections that will give you your protagonist.

1. How would this person/people react to this idea?
2. How would others react to them?
3. Who is personally affected by this?
4. What do they have to lose by this?
5. What can go wrong were this to happen?

Getting personal can help figure out who your protagonist is and what they'll have to do to resolve this what if situation. Even epic thrillers like Tom Clancy writes have characters with personal things at stake so the idea isn't taking over the story. Readers still need to care about someone before they'll care about the problem that someone is in.

Ideas From Characters

Starting with a character is probably one of the most common idea generators. A girl who can shift pain. A man grieving over his dead son. A woman who reads tea leaves. You hear lots of writers talk about that voice that wouldn't stop talking to them. Take a moment and listen to what they have to say.

1. What does this character do that might put them in danger?
2. What terrible secret or tragic event is this character hiding?
3. What is special or unique about this character?
4. What or who will this character risk all for?
5. What do they want most?
6. What do they fear most?

Odds are if you have a character in mind, the plot will be much easier to figure out, since characters drive plot. Focus on the goals of that character. What they want, what they don't want, what they fear. Figure out what they want most, then put the things they fear most in their way.

All of these questions can help aid you in plotting, so mix and match. Put the terminally ill man on a space freighter secretly concealing a pirate with a evil plan. Let the woman who can read tea leaves try to find the missing kids last seen in a haunted house. Plots are formed when you start asking questions about what people will do and why, and what will happen if they fail.

Plot is people doing stuff to get stuff. All you have to do is figure out the stuff.

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. This page of questions will be a great reference to use when filling out stories for those one-liners in my Idea File. Thanks, Janice.

  2. These are some excellent questions to ask at any stage. I am in that murky developing the plot phase that always makes me feel a little lost. I can use these questions to point me in the right direction.

    Thanks for the great insight! Your blog is so helpful.

  3. Characters definitely drive plot! When I know a scene's characters well enough, the writing can flow so readily. :)

    When scenes aren't working, I've learned to step back and double-check WHO is in the scene.

    There's one scene in particular that flowed well, even had description I liked, but it sent the story down a path I didn't want it to take, so I went back and changed which bad guys were directly involved in the kidnapping. :)

    ...Now, to figure out which kind of story this year's NaNo idea is. *eyes questions in above post*

  4. I've actually never done NaNo. I should try it one year, but not this one :) I need a break not a big deadline, LOL.

  5. I use NaNoWriMo for "break" stories, ones outside the worlds I usually write in, just to get a draft out. My NaNo story from 2 years ago is still sitting, and the one from last year needs rethinking (just about everybody's psychopathic O.o Eeep!). I'm finding NaNo good practice for learning to draft quickly so I have something on the page to be edited.

    Enjoy your break!

  6. This is fantastic, thank you! I'm filing it away for next time I'm stuck at a crossroads.

  7. This is so hopeful. I've been a little lost in the new wip and I think this will help me clarify some things. Thank you! Found you from Stina's post, btw.

  8. Great advice. I'm gonna comment here pretty much just to make this post easier for me to search for later. ;)

  9. Thank you! This just happens to be exactly what I needed. I always have trouble going from an idea to an actual plot... Doing it step-by-step, asking really basic questions about what could happen usually works for me.

    1. Oh good :) Best of luck with the plotting!

  10. I have a problem and maybe you could help me. I have the idea, I have a loooot of notes, I have the characters... it is based on something that really happened but... but... I can't decide how to write it. Should I write a non-fiction? Or a novel? For adults or forolder children like MG or young adult?

    I am all mixed up. It is a story on bullying... adult bullying with unusual events popping up... Could be good also for children or young adult if I modify a bit the age of the characters or...

    Is somebody would have a bit of advice for me... please?

    1. Most things "that really happened" don't make good non fiction books unless they're pretty spectacular, so I'd suggest a novel. That way you can change what needs to be changed to make the best story possible.

      As for the rest, that's up to you. Is this a story that would appeal to younger or older readers? Do you have a preference for what age group you like to write for? Writing for a younger audience is different from writing for adults, so if you don't read and/or write for that age group normally, you're probably better off sticking to adult. (unless you really want to try writing for teens of course) You describe it as adult bullying, so that makes me think maybe it is an adult novel. Odds are how the problems are handled will be from an adult perspective since it happened to adults.

      But mostly, what kind of story do you want it to be? What do you feel would be the right way for you to tell it? Go with a gut reaction.

      There are so many variable it's hard to say, but hopefully this will get you pointed in the right direction.

    2. Well, it was not spectacular for say but mostly "surreal", so convoluted that people who knows about it tell me that readers will say I have a darn good and wild imagination and that it would make an awesome movie :) :) So, I don't think it will be an easy one to write...

      Usually, I am writing for children and MG... and it is there it gets confusing :) as the event happened to an adult but... in another way... Oh! It could have happened to a single mom with her kid... hmmmmm that could be an idea... I will go simmer this... thank you for the brainstorming :)

      Friends push me to write it as it is quite an adventure and this project is on my mind for quite a while now and can't decide how to write it and it is bugging me off. It is the first time I am stuck that long with a book idea :)

      Thank you :)

      Ok! Going back in thinking mode!

  11. Janice....
    Great post. I love the examples you used in the "Settings" section. Please keep those coming as they make things even easier to understand.