You may be experienced or fortunate enough to possess the ability to come up with plot lines on demand. But some may feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices to be made, or bogged down by the common disappointment of noticing that the story you’re writing isn’t working as well as it did in your head. It’s easy to be consumed by these insecurities, to the point that we may find it hard to have story ideas altogether because in the world of untested ideas, everything can be perfect – and perfection is a futile pursuit. Here are a few tips to help you out:
- Try and become aware of what you know well already. Scarlett Thomas, for example, in her book on writing, Monkeys with Typewriters, uses a table with subtitles such as ‘Jobs you’ve done/ Identities you’ve had’, ‘Locations you know well’ and ‘What are your current obsessions?’ among others. The first reaction some may have to this sort of approach is to be dismissive of its simplicity, opting for what seems at first to be a cold, clear-cut utilitarian way of coming up with a story idea. Just by filling those columns (I’ve worked in an ice-cream ad poster printing factory; I know Santiago very well; I’m currently obsessed with hardcore punk music), you already have the bones of a premise: a teenager who wants to make it in the underground music scene in Santiago now has to take care of his dying mother’s ice-cream poster ad business while his friends get famous. Once you connect your points, you’ll notice that you had these stories within you all along.
- You may also choose to respond directly to the subjects you’re currently reading about, or presently concerned with, through your own fiction. For example, I’m currently interested, in mental health politics. Since I’ve been reading so much about that, I naturally have a lot of material I could use for a narrative.
- Make sure you’re thinking in terms of actions and images, and reduce the clutter of what may at first appear to be ‘big abstract ideas’. For example, I may very well want to write about ‘the pain of the universe’, but that doesn’t mean much unless it’s anchored in more tangible images. The hardest part can be to keep it simple, clear, and direct. This doesn’t mean your narrative will be devoid of complexity.
- You need to start framing the details you wrote down on section 1. When it comes to plotting, try and work with your premise in three acts. The three-act structure will make sure you’re being selective, allowing you to clarify the main plot points while discarding others too – you can’t write about everything at once. Scene structures will then be directed to stress specific moments, while not giving up on the pleasure of organic improvisation. It also allows you to pace chapters without having the feeling that everything you ever write needs to be climactic.
- If you can’t get as far as framing, then start adding variables to your initial list. Let’s pick an image with connotations that are easy to grasp. Tennis, for example, where two people are hitting a ball back and forth. It’s a dramatic action in that both players are ‘doing’ something within the context of clear stakes (in this case, winning or losing the match). However, this in itself isn’t necessarily a story. Let’s think of some variables. What if the players are married and one of the players is having an affair or thinking of divorcing the other? What if one of them has done something terrible and is wondering whether to reveal the secret? What if they work together and one of them agreed to play the other to get a promotion, while the boss was desperate for company after a personal loss? These questions make drama possible because they are answered by a character’s desire, prompting either success or failure – and desire is the key to actions whose consequences matter.
Gonzalo C. Garcia is a writer and Senior Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing in the Warwick Writing Programme. His recent novel, We Are The End is heavily influenced by his marked interest in Santiago de Chile, video games, digital culture and everyday constructions of narrative. It was nominated for the Edinburgh Festival First Novel Award 2017 and launched in October with Galley Beggar Press.
Directed by Maureen Freely and David Morley, the Warwick Writing Programme at University of Warwick prides itself in having writing staff who not only teach but are also published authors involved in the writing industry and literary scenes. It has just opened an exciting PhD programme in Creative Writing (https://goo.gl/3pdiB9) alongside its internationally recognised flagship BA and MA programmes. For more on the Warwick Writing Programme: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/writingprog/
Read more top tips from experts in writing, publishing, editing and more.