How do I turn an idea into a plot?

One of my readers asked me how I turn a single idea into a plot. Rather than just spout off some quick answer, I decided it’d make a good blog post, so here goes. To clarify, Merriam-Webster defines “plot” as the plan or main story. So, the question really is how do I come up with my story?

It partially depends what kind of idea I have in my mind.

Alaskan Healing

With Alaskan Healing, my initial idea was “What if a woman gets hired on a crab fishing boat in the Bering Sea?” From there, I brainstormed a bunch of possible things that could happen.

  • she could punch the boss
  • she could fall in love with a crewmember
  • she could save someone’s life
  • she could be injured
  • someone from her past could end up on the boat

Those are some of the ideas I had that made it into the story. I came up with 20-30 possibilities and started writing each “occurrence'”. So in that case, I just threw a bunch of possible “plot points” on a piece of paper and rearranged them until they made sense chronologically. Some I didn’t use, and of course there were areas that were missing something, so I had to figure out what happened between them.

It was easier to start Alaskan Healing because of the rough outline I had, but I didn’t stick to the outline for the entire process.

Faceoff of the Heart

Faceoff of the Heart, was written in a different manner. I sat down on November 1st, 2006, and started writing. I was addicted to watching hockey that season, but determined to complete National Novel Writing Month. A novel about hockey was the obvious solution. I could watch games and write at the same time.

I didn’t plan anything ahead of time. I just started writing and kept writing (and watching hockey) through the month, and at the end of November, I had just over 50,000 words in a rough draft. I tucked it into my “trunk-o-writing-junk” and forgot about it.

I found it last fall and decided to revise and edit it. At that point, I made a rough outline of what I had, and decided what drivel needed to be removed. That left me a really short novella instead of a novel, but I had a good idea who the characters were and how they interacted, so it wasn’t terribly difficult to come up with some more scenes to add. And I had to decide on an ending, I didn’t bother doing that on the rough draft.

I like learning the story as I write it without planning.

Another Example

Often, I only have a scene in my mind when I start thinking of a story. If that’s the case,

I write that one scene, hoping to get a feel for the characters. Here’s a shortened version of the possible ways' I’d turn that into an entire novel, if the scene really stuck in my head.

A man steals a hot dog from a vendor, running off before paying. A woman witnesses it, and for some reason, pays the vendor, makes it seem normal and then follows the man. (I’d probably write around a thousand words for this scene, just because that’s what scenes average in my rough drafts.)

When I finish that scene, I’d ask myself, “What if she found him?” And I’d start the next scene that pops into my head.

She asked the man, “Why did you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Steal a hot dog?”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“Because it’s wrong. The vendor needs the money, otherwise he’d just be giving them away.”

The man refused to meet her gaze. “He deserved it. Besides, it’s not for me.”

“Who’s it for?”

At this point, I’d have to stop and decide who the hot dog is for and whether the man is going to tell the woman anything, or walk away. Or? What else could he do?

“Here hold this,” he said and thrust the coney dog at her. The scent of saur kraut sickened her, but she held on to it.

“Hey! Come on. I got her,” the man yelled and suddenly the duo was surrounded by uniformed police officers, with shields and masks.

“What the hell?” she muttered and considered running, she hadn’t done anything wrong. But clearly, they’d realize she was innocent. It’d just take a few seconds to explain and she’d be back to work at her boring desk job, wishing for five o’clock and a martini.

So I’d figure out how this scene ended, and then ask myself, “Now what?”

Once I have an idea of where the story’s going, how the characters behave, I tend to sit down and write out a list of possible things that happens in the story.

The cops don’t believe the woman.

She ends up in jail

The vendor can’t be found to corroborate her story

The original thief shows up, wearing a disguise, and bails her out of jail

She doesn’t trust him but agrees to talk to him, there must be some crazy explanation for this.

He buys her a martini

He explains himself (not sure what his excuse is yet)

The next morning she goes to work and gets fired.

 

I consider that list of possible things in the story to be my outline. It changes as I write, but if I get stuck, I have something to fall back on.

 

My process for my current WIP is much like Faceoff of the Heart. I wrote a couple of rough drafts years ago and decided that I still liked the characters, but the two stories were similar in some ways so I combined them into one story. I’ve added a few scenes to transition, made lots of changes so they’re cohesive as one story, and now I have another idea to give the story more depth.

The plot hasn’t changed much, the main story is still “Girl wants a family of her own”, but there are more items in my outline now. I’m currently trying to fit the new “scenes/occurrences” in the correct spots in draft. Then I’ll be ready to start revising and editing.