Turning Inspiration into a Plot
When inspiration strikes, it is awesome. It is that moment we were waiting for. We quickly drop whatever we're doing, pull over if we're driving, and un-crumple gum wrappers, turn over that important memo, or flatten that Starbucks cup, and scrawl down the idea as quickly as possible, lest we lose it. If we are in the unfortunate position of not having any way to record the idea, we repeat it—sometimes even out loud—so as not to lose a single syllable. And our coworkers think we are crazy. But we know it’s worth it: after all, how often does true inspiration strike?
But the next part—turning it from idea into a plot? That part’s why so many people hate outlines. Inspiration is easy because it’s unlooked for. Plotting and outlining are hard work, even with the best of ideas. But there are some tricks that can make it easier. Here are a few techniques to play with the next time you want to try to wrangle that flash of brilliance and turn it into something storylike.
Determine the Conflict and the Characters
Everything comes back to your initial inspiration. All the events and characters have to make sense in relation to it, and every choice you make, defining those events and characters, closes off some options and opens up others. Why did the world chess champion kidnap a hacker? What made him so sure he would lose his next match against the computer, and why is it so important that he wins? How does he let the hacker do his job without giving him a means to escape and while ensuring he’s working with him—not against him? By following each thread, you will soon arrive at the beginnings of a plot.
It's usually easiest to start by exploring that initial inspiration. If the inspiration is an event, then explore the conflict at the heart of the event: who are the characters, what brought them to seek conflict over peace, and what is at stake? If, rather, your inspiration was an image, try to determine who the characters are in the image, where it is, and what events would lead to such an image. With an object, you’ll want to explore who it belongs to (if anyone—and if not, why not), what its significance is, and how it got to be where it is. And with a character, you’ll want to figure out their problems, their desires, and the things that stand in their way.
Once your little nub of inspiration turns into a big, sprawling idea—with some characters, a central conflict, and some events--then you’ve probably played with it enough to start to try to find its heart.
Find Its Heart
Stories aren’t just a random sequence of events: they have a meaning. Even if the meaning is that it is meaningless, the story has to be carefully constructed to avoid giving it an unintentional theme. It doesn't matter if we're just writing a playful romp, we can’t help it. When we write, we are sharing parts of ourselves. And when you have a story idea that really resonates with you, it is because you have something to say. Of course, flashes of inspiration rarely come with thematic taglines. But it’s there nonetheless: you just have to learn to look for it.
Start with your characters—and not just what drives them, though that is vital as well. But what do they represent? Why is it important to you that a certain character succeed or fail at a given task? What does it mean to you? And then think about how you are already expressing that meaning symbolically in your writing. Are they smaller and weaker than those around them—and yet accomplish great things? Then perhaps it is about not letting the expectations of others limit your potential. Are they monstrous on the outside, the subject of fear and distrust—and yet they prove better people than those with angelic appearances? Then perhaps the message is that you are as you act, not as you appear.
Whatever it is, when you discover it, it will resonate. It will feel right. So don’t settle for less. When you have it, write it down. Post it above your computer or on the front of your notebook. Keep it in mind at all times when you sit down to write. This way, you will write what you really think, and not what you think you ought to think. And for that, it will feel much more real.
What Happens Next
Now that you have the heart of it, the rest is “easy.” Or less traumatic at least. This often feels like the hardest part because, once you know the heart of your story, you know that while there are a million directions the story could take, not everything will prove equally resonant. What you want to do is start to build your plot from that initial point of inspiration, while keeping the heart of your story in mind.
The events of your novel usually serve to do one of two things: to make things meaningful or to make things interesting. Some events will even do both. Meaning often comes from events that build or display character, and the “interesting” bit often comes from events that move the plot forward. So, figuring out what happens next in your story is a matter of exploring your characters and plot, and determining how to balance them. You need to give enough character context so that we know why the events are meaningful—and enough plot to push the characters into being interesting. Of course, your choices in both plot and character should also work to display the heart of your story: what you're trying to say.
In order to make the events of your story meaningful, you want to explore every aspect of your characters, as they relate to the plot. What they are like, what made them that way, and how they will change (or resist change) over the course of the story. If the action depends on them being anxious and having a hard time trusting others, then you need to show how and why that anxiety and those trust-issues developed. If the action depends on them being a consummate manipulator, then you need to show how they got there, what their trade is, and what background made them so good at it. If they are to learn to trust others over the course of the story, then you need to show what happens that drives that character to change.
In order to make the events of your story interesting, you’ll want to keep in mind that the shortest route is rarely the most exciting. This means that if your planned resolution to a conflict shuts down the plot, then it’s the wrong answer. You need for your character to choose to do something that does not win the situation for them—or for their opposition—but that opens up the plot and displays their character. But you also can’t just have a character choose not to do something logical and obvious because it’s inconvenient for you. You need to come up with the reason as to why. And that’s where the real story—and the fun—begins.
Choose the Right Moments
So, that “what happens next” title was sort of misleading, wasn’t it? Plotting in this fashion is hardly linear. It’s a big bushy process, creating a world and characters and context and story whose size far outstrips what you’ll be able to (or want to!) show in your story. I mean, really, what reader wants to read through a hundred pages of exposition before they get to the damned plot?
But that’s not wasted effort; that’s good. The author is, in some ways, like a photographer. You have the lens through which the audience will see the story. So, as such, it is your job to see the whole picture and to select exactly which frames you are going to capture to best tell the story you want to tell. And every choice you make here makes a difference: the order you show the pictures in, whether a given picture is tightly focused or panoramic, what the focus of each picture is, and what you choose to include in each picture.
That’s why your story will be different than someone else’s, even if they’re writing about the same events. Because you’re telling it—so you will choose different moments, different focuses, and a different order, thus telling a different story. Your story.