A Handy Trick for Brainstorming Your Plot

From Writers in the Storm:

You don’t have to know everything about your story before you start plotting.

Since writing is fairly split between character writers and plot writers, you can bet that half the writers you meet have had struggles with plot (the other half with characters, but that’s another post). Even when you enjoy it, and are good at it, plotting has its challenges.

How do you know what your protagonist has to do? What types of problems and conflicts should your protagonist face? How do you fill in the middle so it doesn’t drag?

Figuring out how to get from the inciting incident to the climax is a head-scratcher—even for hardcore plotters like me. But the key to making this easier is structure.

Structure helps a lot when figuring out your plot.

Structure is like the line drawing of your story. It contains all the key turning points and general flow of how the novel will unfold. Once you know the general shape of it, you can color it in any way you want. For genre novels, it’s even easier, because you’ll have expected tropes to further guide you. You won’t have to draw the image from scratch—you only have to color in the lines.

For example:

  • In romance, there’s a meet-cute that leads to romance, and eventually a Happily Ever After.
  • In mysteries, there’s a body or crime that leads to an investigation, and eventually solving the crime and finding justice for the victims.
  • In non-genre novels, there’s a problem discovered that leads to attempts to fix that problem, and eventually resolving that issue and the protagonist finding happiness.

These turning points and expectations can help you develop a rough concept of your plot.

Maybe you know the details early on, maybe you don’t, but that’s okay. The goal here is to find that general framework for your plot to get you started.

I’m in final edits right now for a science fiction detective novel I plotted using this concept. Detective novels have a “formula” of expected tropes and a very clear structure of what happens when. But that didn’t mean my plot would be the same as every other detective story. The tropes and structure gave me a framework that helped guide my brainstorming. I made it unique to my story, based on what that story needed.

Let’s look a little closer.

Readers expect a detective novel to open with either the crime or the PI getting hired. But I didn’t want it to open with the client hiring my PI, because I felt that jumped in too fast. I wanted time to set the scene and ground readers in my science fiction world first. If they didn’t understand the world, they wouldn’t understand the mystery.

So I knew I had to have an opening scene that included the two big tropes of my mixed genres—introduce the PI nature and establish the science fiction world. I didn’t know what that scene would be at first, but it was clear I needed to show my PI at work in that world to accomplish both of those goals. That gave me solid place to start brainstorming.

Using that and the general trope and structure format, I was able to craft a basic outline:

  • Protagonist’s job and world introduced
  • Client hires protagonist to solve problem
  • Protagonist investigates and finds connections to his past
  • Crime escalates and new problem occurs (in most mysteries, this is another body)
  • Protagonist investigates new crime and tries to figure out the personal connections
  • Suspects stack up and are investigated
  • Connections are figured out and perpetrator is revealed
  • Perpetrator apprehended, case solved

It’s rough, but it’s something I could work with.

This works for genre and non-genre stories.

A romance novel will have a similar conceptual outline. It begins with the two love interests and their problems. Then the plot moves to the meet-cute, the attraction dance, problems with getting together, getting closer and then being torn apart. It ends with working things out, and then finally getting that happily ever after.

A non-genre novel will be more general, beginning with the protagonist living their life. They then encounter a problem and make a lot of mistakes that create more havoc in their lives as they try to solve it. Eventually, they face a moment when they want to give up, but they struggle to pull themselves together and keep going. Finally, they face the main conflict and resolve the problem.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm