Help me plot a novel I don't even have an idea for!
June 2, 2011 10:16 AM   Subscribe

Novel plotting filter: how do YOU do it? Do you think of a character first, devise the end and work backward from that, have a world/location in mind and try to discover what stories would occur there, what?

I've decided I want to try my hand at writing some fiction. As I don't really have a story burning a hole in my pocket (so to speak), I'm going to have to brute-force this thing.

If you're a fiction writer (no need to be published), what works for you? I'd be especially interested if you've tried multiple methods of crafting a plot and could compare/contrast the process/results with what worked well and what didn't. I'm sure some NaNoWriMo stories would be applicable here, if you've got 'em.

Obviously, there are a million suggestions via Google, but I didn't notice anything quite like this having been asked here previously. If I missed it, sorry.
posted by jasondbarr to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 87 users marked this as a favorite
I think of a moment when a few characters meet and then I go from there. I don't think of "plot" as such. I think of my characters, and the more real they become for me, the more they tell me what they're gonna do.

This occasionally results in bad guys not being so bad, or people falling in love when they really weren't supposed to do that.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:20 AM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Check out Steven King's "On Writing". His advice for new writers is spot-on -- in that following your characters around to see what they do is a good one.

Although, I sort of do a mix of both. I get a general idea ("two teenagers meet -- one is being 'punished' by being sent to live with her aunt for the summer, and the other is a boy with the habit of breaking into abandoned and foreclosed houses") and then come up with the characters, and generally once I figure out some things about the characters I figure out details about the plot ("Hey, if he's doing this breakin thing becuase his own house was foreclosed on and he's homeless, then that means he'd really not be cool with her stealing stuff from the houses -- I'd better put in a fight scene").

That's a very simplistic way of describing what I do, but there it is.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:31 AM on June 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I keep my mind open on this one. I tend to come up with all kinds of different plot elements - a castle, a mysterious death, a teenage runaway, a mystical portal, a trebuchet meant to hurl Jell-O at one's enemies, zombies in traditional Samogotian dance outfits, a quest to claim a McGuffin which requires climbing a mountain infested with poisonous spiders, a cast of people who hate each other but can't survive without constant physical contact, or whatever. Eventually one or two of them will stick in my head long enough to develop a plot.

I tend to focus on character motivation first, timeline and conflict definition next, and resolution last. For my 7th National Novel Writing Month project, I knew who the main characters were, then how they got to where the action took place, then the mechanisms of that world's magic systems, then the motivation of my antagonists, then the structure of the narrative, then the identity of the antagonist, then the reason there was an actual story, then the engine behind the major conflicts between characters, then how the story would end, and last of all, how the characters would pull off that ending. I didn't answer that last question til maybe 30,000 words in. And a lot of the answers changed en route to the finale.

I find that reading TVTropes helps a lot when I'm having trouble knowing what kind of story I want to tell.
posted by SMPA at 10:35 AM on June 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

Typically I start with character, I think; I start with yearning. If I don't have yearning then I don't have the raw ingredients to start the story with. You can brute-force some things but I, at least, have never been able to brute-force that part.

So, in my first published novel, I started with a girl on a bicycle, standing in front of a field of wheat. It's summer. She's wearing a bicycle helment, and sweat is beading on her forehead underneath it. Her hair is sticky. She's very lonely but very purposeful; she knows where she's going. It's very far. She's going to get there.

This brought up a whole raft of questions:
-If she's going for a really long bike trip, is this something that her parents have given her permission for? Is she running away? What kinds of parents would give her permission?
-Who is she, and what does this trip mean to her, that it's what she needs in order to solve her problems?
-What problems, exactly, is she trying to solve?

So I began answering those questions from intuition and from personal history and from practical considerations; the answers to these questions implied a huge number of different stories, some of which I was interested in telling and which ones I wasn't. At the end of all this I knew what kind of character I was dealing with, and what her background was, so it became a matter of figuring out what kinds of obstacles I could put in her path, and what kinds of adventures she could have, and what she would need to do to get what she needed and what she wanted. So, for example, she's determined to get her best friend's ashes to the ocean, but she's also very conflicted about her sexuality; so if she falls in love along the way, that brings her story forward in one way while pulling it back in another way. That's interesting. You can work it two ways: work it from the end of "If I were this character, in these circumstances, what would I do?" and from the end of "What can I throw in this character's boat that will force her away from the path of least resistance?" Anything that makes your main character's life harder is good, but if you can make her life harder in ways that force her to grow emotionally, that's more interesting.

There's a lot of daydreaming involved.

I usually have a sense of some of the big scenes from the beginning, and some of them are implied in the set-up : unsafe working conditions implies an industrial accident. Treachery implies a scene where the betrayal is discovered. But if I have the plot totally worked out from the beginning, I find it doesn't give me as much room to discover things along the way. This is just me, but if I try to plot out a book without writing it, I find it copying things I've picked up from Hollywood or Joseph Campbell; when I actually write it, I start putting in all kinds of weird things that subvert or complicate the cliches, and that's a more interesting story.
posted by Jeanne at 10:37 AM on June 2, 2011 [10 favorites]

I'm a screenwriter, but this is how I do it.

1. Inspiration strikes! Usually this is a character, setting, or broad overall type of story I think would be interesting to explore.

2. Figuring out the broad strokes and filling in the blanks depending on what form the inspiration struck. For instance on the project I'm working on now, setting came first. So my next step was to figure out who the protagonist should be and what form their broad overarching "journey" will take. Not plot points so much, but like in the grand scheme, what is going to happen?

3. This is the step where I deal with specific story structure/important plot points and fill out the cast a little bit more.

4. I also try to do as much research as possible, so I don't write myself into a corner. And/or fixing any "wrote myself into a corner" mistakes I may have made in previous steps. For example it turns out that a major plot point I came up with early on is historically unfeasible and needs to be massaged a bit (at least). Whoops.

5. Now it's time to actually write the thing! Minor characters, less vital plot points, and changes as needed can happen here, that's OK.
posted by Sara C. at 10:37 AM on June 2, 2011

Most stories of mine have started out with a single image or idea -- often something very simple, like a single doodle of a character in my notebook, or a single element of a magic system, or a fragment of a setting. Then I spend a great deal of time thinking about it, until the idea begins to branch out and expand into a larger world and cast of characters, which I slowly build on and revise in my head for anywhere from a month to several years. Eventually, when opportunity or desire strikes, I'll pick whichever bare-bones story I like the best out of what's floating around in the back of my mind, and set about expanding it into an actual text.

If you're looking to shorten that process somewhat, I'd recommend picking a topic that interests you -- historical, scientific, cultural, whatever -- and start researching it in your spare time. (For instance, one of my current projects sprang from the enormous amount of reading I was doing on the Japanese civil war[s] of the mid 19th century.) Be careful about current events, of course -- it's tempting but often unwise to use things like recent natural disasters as inspiration, as it's easy for your work to come across as exploitative. But generally speaking, a lot of good ideas for fictional stories can emerge organically from the process of learning about topic you enjoy.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:38 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hi! I write books for older teens. I know many people who outline the whole book before writing a word, but I don't really outline until I'm a few chapters in. Typically, I start with setting and premise. Premise can be super simple -- just the vignette of an idea. Next, I figure out who my main character is, and envision her situation in the opening scene, in the same way I would with a short story. Then the surprises begin. THIS IS THE BEST PART.

As far as finding a premise, one thing I do is make a list of topics or ideas that interest me. Such as: Cults. Hoarders. Child Beauty Pageants. Communes. Intense female friendships. Geology. Overbearing mothers. Claustrophobia. Forest survival. Stuff like that. All my books take on multiple topics I find intriguing, crashed together in a compelling setting, with characters I'm obsessed with. That's really key -- becoming obsessed with your characters. If I'm sort of meh about a major character, I rethink them to give them backstory and qualities that fascinate me.

As far as plotting goes -- that's the most difficult part for me, but I find it absolutely necessary that I know something about my climax and how the book will end when I'm a few chapters in. Also, when a scene further along comes to me in a cinematic way, I let myself write it -- I don't force myself to write chronologically. I think I'm rambling at this point, but hopefully some of this helps. It's an impossibly hard journey, but there's nothing like the end, when you have a whole book and you're just in awe that you created this massive, complicated thing. Best of luck!
posted by changeling at 10:56 AM on June 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

I have a general idea of what I want to accomplish--a plot idea, a message, a character I want to explore, and I go from there. It usually doesn't end up going anywhere near where I thought it would, but that's part of the fun and joy of writing.

For example: My plot idea for NaNoWriMo last year involved a ghostwriter of memoirs who discovers a disturbing secret about her client. By the end of November, it turned into a ghostwriter of memoirs whose experience with her client closely (and distrubingly) parallels the Bluebeard Tale.

If I had outlined my plot before I started writing, I may have stuck more closely to the original story--but I think what I ended up with was much more interesting.
posted by litnerd at 11:08 AM on June 2, 2011

As I don't really have a story burning a hole in my pocket (so to speak), I'm going to have to brute-force this thing.

Uh oh.

I'm of the opinion that one can brute-force many things, but a story isn't one of them.

This is why published authors find the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" so perplexing. Equally confusing are offers/solicitations along the lines of, "I have a great novel idea! Want to write it for me?!"

If you're going to make this work, you have to open your mind to ideas--you have to get good at grabbing them as they float by you on long car rides; you have to learn how to nurture them and devote time to them. Stories are all around you. They're on TV and in books (both fictional and non-fictional) and in train stations. I've gotten story ideas from the following:
  • Dreams
  • Episodes of the X-files that I thought I could do better
  • Song lyrics
  • Short stories by James Joyce
  • Conversations at parties
  • People watching
  • News stories
Your ideas don't have to be terribly original, particularly at first. At this point, you just need to figure out your own process and not blatantly, terribly rip someone off. One of the first novels I ever finished was spurred by reading about "colony collapse disorder" among bees. I turned the phrase over and over again in my head. Then it hit me--what if a space colony collapsed the way a bee hive did? What if someone arrived and found it empty as a ghost ship?

From there, more questions were raised: who would find the colony? What would be their reaction? What might cause such a collapse? What would be the impact across the galaxy among other communities of humans? Why were humans colonizing the stars? When does this take place? What sort of community would this need to be? How would it function?

When an idea has legs--and not all ideas do (Stephen King advocates not jotting down story ideas, and I agree--the really good ones won't let you forget them; the rest deserve to be forgotten)--it will basically walk away with huge chunks of your mental processing power, raising questions and forcing you to answer them. You're ready to write when you can't imagine not writing it all down--when the story feels as real to you as you do.

I don't outline. However, I always have both a first line and a final scene in mind before I sit down. By the time I begin writing, I usually have the general shape of the book, including characters (but usually not character names) and several scenes in mind. I write linearly, from start to finish--I figure that I'll work harder if I have to cut through the cruft in order to get to the yummy stuff. I've had a few stories stall, or stutter, or die altogether. It's almost always because of a few similar problems:
  • Lack of conflict. This is a book-killer. You need to establish your protagonist, and their problem in the first scene or chapter. This will carry you through the first half of the book--and carry readers through it, too.
  • Wishy washy, bland characters. They need to be thorny and interesting. If they're not causing fights with your other characters, they're probably too bland. Give each character at least one primary motivation. If you know what a character wants, he or she becomes exponentially easier to write.
Anyway, once all of this stuff is in place, the important thing to remember is constant forward momentum--I like starting at 500 words a day, and upping it to 1000 if you can stand it. Keep writing until you finish. Most people will stall somewhere around the 20k mark, where it stops being all passionate fun and starts being work. Ignore how painful it gets. Keep moving forward. It'll get fun again around your climax, promise.

All of this is terribly subjective, of course. Maybe you need to outline. Maybe you need to plot things out in detail. Maybe you can write out of order. But those details don't really matter so much as your own passionate engagement in and about your story, and then tireless work until it's all written down.

Best of luck to you.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:11 AM on June 2, 2011 [10 favorites]

I'm a comics artist/writer.

I start out by reading as much as possible: histories, fiction, poetry, Wikipedia binges. (No comics.) I also cultivate an interest in the stories of people around me. I grill my friends about their dreams, their relationships, their childhoods, their work, whatever. Eventually something will catch, I'll discover an object, character, or event that interests me and a scene will start to form around it. I ask myself questions. What would lead up to this moment? What would be the repercussions of this? What kind of people would end up in this situation?

Once the initial scene is pretty solid I start creating support for it, like I've got this chair I love and now I need to pick out a rug and curtains and a table and a vase to make it into a whole room. I keep a scrapbook of inspirational images and ideas on tumblr and sometimes I rummage around in there to see if there's something I can integrate. I think about what my characters would likely be doing during the day and show that. I hate stories where people have a lot of free time to just hang out with their friends and ruminate on their crazy situation, so I show them at work or on the bus or washing dishes. When I get stuck I ask myself, what's the worst thing that could happen next?

I think the most important element of my plot-creation process is that I try to write stuff I want to read and haven't seen anyone else write (at least not well). And anytime I get self conscious about what I'm writing, like people are going to think I'm a freak when they read it, I tell myself that means I'm probably on the right track.
posted by milk white peacock at 11:17 AM on June 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

There are a lot of different ways to do it. You can start with a world, or a character. Or elsewhere. Sometimes I start with a specific moment in mind and kind of work completely backwards.

There's a lot to cover in the space of one comment so here's what I can come up with just now.

Some people really love worldbuilding and then turning their characters loose in that world. That's fine, but it can (and often does) result in bad attempts at genre fiction. If I don't care about the characters and their story then I'm not going to care about the third-person narrated tour of the world they inhabit.

If you're going to write, then read. Don't watch movies (or: watch movies but be conscious that your storytelling style isn't influenced by them very much). Read. It's normal and fair to visualize your book as a movie playing out in your head, but that's a bad trap to fall into if you do it regularly. So read, and read as many different things as you can. There are probably exceptions to this but every bad attempt at a book I've ever seen was a genre work written by someone who only read genre novels, and they were awful. Just awful. Broaden your horizons and learn to fall in love with reading. Don't read the kind of thing you plan to write.

There are millions of books out there which open by describing the weather. It's okay if your book is not one of them. Trust me.

While you're reading, here's a neat trick: Find the things you like by the creators you like, the people who influence you - and then read stuff by the people who influenced them. It's hard to put into words what this accomplishes but it's worth it. It gives you a much more thorough understanding of the actual mechanics behind the things that work, where they come from, etc.

If you're just starting writing fiction then start small. Write short stories. Don't start with a novel, that's a recipe for disaster. Work your way up to a novella. The one thing had in common by everyone I know who just up and decided to write an entire novel one day is that they all believed that writing a book was only slightly harder than reading one, and it showed in their work.

Please, no vampires. I'm actually in the minority on this and in fact if your thing contains vampires it will likely be fairly popular, so chalk this one up as more of a peeve of mine. Moving on.

Nothing in your story is sacred. Everything can be moved, edited, changed, collapsed, condensed, or removed entirely. Trim the fat wherever you can. If you have two ancillary characters who can be combined into one, do it. If you find upon rereading that a plot point does not actually make the book more interesting, excise it. I can't stress this enough: Don't be afraid to let a story change as you work on it. It may even wind up being a completely different story. This is fine. There is no dogma. Just create.

There are people in the world who will tell you that fiction should be realistic. These people are schmucks, and you should not listen to them. Realistic fiction would be catastrophically boring. It should instead be believable, which is different, and much harder to master. As you read more, you'll begin to understand. You want realistic? This* is realistic (though poorly-formatted [and poorly-written]). It is unbelievably realistic. People have conversations that go nowhere and someone tries on some clothes, AND NOTHING HAPPENS. Strive for believable, and interesting.

Dialogue has three jobs: Establish character, provide information, or move the plot along. At any given moment, try to have your dialogue do as many of these at once as you can manage. If it isn't doing one of these (and you can establish character much more easily by the way a character says something than by what they actually say), cut it.

Okay, now to the meat of the creative process. Typically I'll have a rough idea for a story I want to tell and once the idea is there, I know I need to have answers to these questions:
1. Who is (or are) the protagonist(s)?
2. What do they want?
3. What's in the way of them getting what they want?
3a. What happens as a result of that obstruction?
4. Who are they at the beginning of the story, and who are they at the end, and what's the journey like for them?
Because that's your story. Conflict and resolutions and the way the events of the tale complicate the lives of the characters.

I usually then put my headphones in and go for a bike ride and think about what I'm trying to say, with the story, and sort out everything else. When I get home I write things down if I think I'm going to forget them, but I usually don't need to.

There's a book called The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes. A new copy is two bucks. Buy it. Read it. Learn it.

And now, a secret, to be used wisely: If you're really stuck for ideas then just remake an old story you like. That probably sounds pretty crass or mercenary, right? Yeah, well, it kind of is, but it's good practice. That process has given us a lot of really well-regarded stuff: A Fistful of Dollars, Star Wars, The Thing...the list goes on. Try it, just for your own edification. Mix up characters and change things. Sooner or later it won't resemble the original work; I think of this as the Stone Soup approach. By the time you're done you should have a clearer idea of how to construct a story.

Anyway, there's probably more and I'm sure others will cover similar ground. On preview, PhoBWan has it exactly right: It really will start to feel like work before long. Stick with it.

And good luck.

*I didn't have this in the holster or anything, I literally just went to and looked in the Harry Potter category and there it was. There are a lot of stories like this. Don't make more.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:29 AM on June 2, 2011 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: These are awesome, people! Thanks, and keep them coming.
posted by jasondbarr at 11:59 AM on June 2, 2011

nd now, a secret, to be used wisely: If you're really stuck for ideas then just remake an old story you like. That probably sounds pretty crass or mercenary, right? Yeah, well, it kind of is, but it's good practice. That process has given us a lot of really well-regarded stuff: A Fistful of Dollars, Star Wars, The Thing...the list goes on. Try it, just for your own edification. Mix up characters and change things. Sooner or later it won't resemble the original work; I think of this as the Stone Soup approach. By the time you're done you should have a clearer idea of how to construct a story.

This is great advice. I would add, don't re-write something you love, just something you liked. Love will make you stupid.

(As you will read dozens of times) What happens in a narrative is a character's experience. So, you better find/build a character that you both want to spend a shit load of time with and feel you need need need other people to know about. Otherwise you'll quit within a week - I mean, you'll just put it aside and not go back to it, let it die of neglect.

As my faculty advisor in college once told me (a composer) 'If you can find anything else to do with your life and be happy at, do that.'

Have fun, because that will come through the page. (cf. almost the entire oevre of P.G.Wodehouse).
posted by From Bklyn at 1:40 PM on June 2, 2011

Nothing out of the ordinary, but here's the basic procedure that works for me. In terms of preparation, I practice the following:

- Rarely without a notebook, never without a pen. If something drastic happens and I'm penless when an idea hits, I call my google number and leave myself a voicemail.

- Always open to sources of inspiration, and constantly questioning "what would happen if..." with situations or characters, both fictional and non. I put down everything that interests me, even if it has nothing to do with any book I've thought of writing... yet.

- From the bits of gathered information, I assemble one character whom I find compelling on a personal level, and flesh out aspects of his or her life as it stands when things start.

- Then, since I write those kinds of novels, I think about what type of person would be wrong for my first character in all the right ways, or whatever, and assemble their personality and situation in the same way.

At this point, a person can coast along comfortably for months on end, living with their characters and their families in their head and spending pleasant hours researching the minutae and embroidering their characters' lives to the last detail. I have a good dozen or so someday-novels at this embryonic stage. But when I actually want to become seriously productive, as opposed to being merely enjoyably creative, I force myself to do the following:

1. Sit down with all of my notes, read through everything, and then (on paper, since that works best for me) number a blank page from 1-30. I then force myself to stay at work until I've managed to put down thirty separate incidents in blurbs of a few sentences each that can or should happen in the course of the book, based upon the initial situations I've created for my characters. The first few tend to be simplistic or obvious, but as I work my way through, they begin to build upon each other and I can start to see exactly how I'm going to change my characters' lives. I may set aside a few slots for incidents of a certain type, such as subplots for this or that character, or specific things that will result in dark-nights-of-the-soul or what have you for my hero/ine. Once this is complete, I let it ferment for a few days, adding and subtracting and obsessing happily over it.

2. Then I take this list and draw myself a full timeline of when exactly each of these incidents will occur over the timespan of the novel, adjusting when major scenes will need to occur and when subplots will play out so that everything can run on the proper schedule and resolve (or not) at the correct time. I then fill in any blank spots with descriptions of what everybody's doing during those times, and check to make sure that it all flows logically.

3. Then I sit down with my own real schedule and carve out some time every few days when, barring emergencies, I will be able to give my full attention to writing. When these times come, I take everything I need to write and I go to the place that offers the least distractions, and I sit there for the full length of time scheduled. Setting myself a target word count is futile, so I don't bother, but showing up is enough on most days.

4. During these scheduled times, I use my novel timeline and write scenes in exact sequential order, whether I'm feeling that scene or not. If I don't have the proper research done to be able to name an item or place or person, I use "*****" as a placeholder and move on. If I'm feeling too lazy to write a decent line of dialogue, I put the gist of what I want the character to say down as though it were polished speech, and I move on. The grind of writing my way through is not nearly as tiresome when I allow myself the absolute freedom to suck. Without this permission, self-derailment is one attack of perfectionism away. Also, revising something that exists is usually easier than putting it down for the first time. The first draft always contains multiple scenes which may be nothing but stream-of-consciousness exposition which I would never let anyone I liked read, but once it's out of my head, I can pare it down and bring out the dialogue and tighten the action.

5. Outside of these set times, when inspiration strikes, I let myself write whatever scene interests me. Forcing myself to do the grindwriting ensures that some part of the story is always extremely fresh in my mind, and I'm almost never without inspiration on how to improve it or what will happen as a result of it. During other free times, I go back through the placeholders and research as needed to swap them out for the right words.

6. Revision happens mostly during scheduled writing times, and going back and doing it in sequence usually is enough to make the first scenes fresh again so that I can see them somewhat objectively.

7. I give it to other people to read. See upcoming question about how to pay people to do this constructively...

Forget whatever advice from any source if it doesn't work for you; learning how to translate your thoughts into the language of print is something you learn by doing, so look for the things that help you accomplish that.
posted by notquitemaryann at 3:43 PM on June 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've thought about asking a question similar to this, especially because I've read books on screenwriting, and none have really satisfied me in the nuts and bolts of actual plotting. They seem to go from "Here's the classic 3-act stucture" to basic "Dos and Donts" to "Okay, now that your first draft is done...!"

I like the answers given so far, especially since none consist of the cliched "Just keep writing." Sure, it helps, but "just keep fishing" doesn't teach you how to fish, and "just keep baking" doesn't teach you how to bake. That just wastes time and leads to frustration.

One good tip, once you have a rough idea of how the story ends, is to backtrack and think of a way to set up something mundane earlier in the story, which eventually leads to a tasty payoff at the conclusion. Using something in a way it wasn't intended, or exploiting a villain's weakness that was heretofore innocuous. Nothing too contrived or convenient, though. And it's better if it's the result of quick-thinking resourcefulness. Hitchcock stuff like "Rear Window" and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" are good examples.

There's the old line about "If there's a gun on the wall, it ultimately has to be used." But it's more interesting if the gun isn't shot at the bad guy to save the day, but rather to ignite something on fire that sets off the sprinklers, or to crack open a walnut with the secret microfilm in it.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 11:38 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

TheSecretDecoderRing - you want Story, by Robert McKee.

I was stuck somewhere around step 2 of my above answer to the question (in other words I had a kernel of inspiration for a world I'd like to explore in a screenplay, but didn't know whose story it really was or what the plot structure should be like), and then I picked up Story. Now I have almost a complete plot outline, most of the major characters, and I'm extremely close to the point where I can just sit down and start with


NATHANIEL [Starbuck-esque, approaching middle age] sits in front of the dying embers of a fire. His wife, LOUISA...

So yeah, Story. It's what you're looking for.
posted by Sara C. at 5:31 AM on June 3, 2011

I've always rooted my stories in characters and dialogue, so I usually started with a character who wants to do something. I drop the character into the world and, picking up on King's language, I follow him around for a while to see what he does.
posted by craven_morhead at 5:57 AM on June 3, 2011

I recently read Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and I think it's about the best practical book on plotting I've read (well at least since Nancy Kress' Beginnings, Middles and Ends). He has several different methods (on top of loads of theory on what makes a plot work) depending on how much pre-planning you want to do. Using one (basically writing each scene idea down on a file card and moving them around/filling in the gaps) I was able to sort out the plot of a novel that had had me mired for ages.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:44 AM on June 4, 2011

On Writing by Stephen King is a great book for inspiration (as EmpressCallipygos, mentioned above).

He suggests putting a group of characters in some predicament and watch how they get themselves out of it. Your job as a writer (King says), is to be a documentarian of what happens. King notes that you are not responsible for solving their problem. And if the action is too slow for your liking, throw something else at them. Or kill of boring people.

If you do get the book, skip to the second part for practical advice.
posted by ALLLGooD at 10:09 AM on June 9, 2011

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