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I'm pretty good in the writing department as far as prose, it's just that I'll sit down and have no idea what to write. Perhaps it's a creative problem, I just don't know. I cannot figure out any plot whatsoever. Specifically, for me, I like to read science fiction, so my goal is to come up creative science fiction plots. That seems impossible to me because, no matter how hard I try, I always end up conforming to some dumb cliche. How do you guys do it?

Thanks.

P.S. Why am I asking? Well, I read a book called Snow Crash recently by Neal Stephenson, and I decided I was going to write a novel/story/whatever that was a humorous cyberpunk themed kinda thing. But everything I think of just seems so cliche!

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    People don't 'think of creative plots,' they think of plots creatively, or rather, they just think, and happen to come up with great plots. In short, 'everything I think of just seems so cliche' -- this is just because you are aiming at being creative, which is the reverse of the above process. – Kris Dec 30 '11 at 8:54
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    See this related question, this related question, and this related question. Also see this on some perspectives on how to start. – justkt Dec 30 '11 at 13:32
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    Then see this question for places to find prompts to get your mind working. This question talks about how to go from idea to story. In addition to answers to this question, those should all help. – justkt Dec 30 '11 at 13:34
  • Please keep in mind that this question is not a good example of an answerable question for this site. We're not closing it at this time because it's an older question that also may be of interest to the community. – Neil Fein Oct 22 '12 at 16:44
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Don't be afraid of using cliche plots. Plots are all cliche. Think of architecture: for the most part, buildings all follow the same general rules. That's because these rules are necessary for the building to be structurally sound.

Plot is much the same. A standard frame with which you hang all the unique flourishes and twists that will set your work apart from the rest.

Some books on plot that have helped me tremendously:

  • No problem! I've struggled with the exact same issues it sounds like you are having. But these books have helped me a lot. – oldrobotsneverrust Dec 31 '11 at 18:30
  • I came up with a pretty good idea, backstory, for the plot, posited as a what-if: what if corporations bought stock of people? the main character would be one of such people. I figured that the plot would have something to do with the implications of such a misfortune. The problem is, I can't figure out what the impact of buying stock of a person would be, specifically on the person. can you guys help? – m4tt Jan 1 '12 at 0:24
  • do you think the backstory is strong enough for a novel? – m4tt Jan 1 '12 at 0:25
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    I don't recommend story Engineering, and I'm an Architect when it comes to writing. I have a few friends who are the 'Gardener' type and Story Engineering didn't work for them either. Writing is as much about finding your own process as it is about learning from others. I'd suggest going to Barnes & Noble to read a bit to find out if it is your cup of tea. An even better idea is to use The Snowflake Method, consult TvTropes to find similar plot ideas, and then sit down and ask yourself, how can I make my narrative different? – James F. Oct 24 '12 at 1:47
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When you say you suck at plots, you may be looking at the wrong level. Everyone sucks at plotting in the beginning. I suspect that a plot never comes fully formed to anyone. You have to tease it out. You have to play with the tools of writing.

I am currently reading Story Engineering and loving it (long as you skim over the first 50 pages of sales pitch.) He talks about the six core competencies of writing fiction. I've heard good things about all four books oldrobotsneverrust suggested. Just because a good writer makes it look easy, doesn't mean that writing fiction is easy. Takes work.

But shy of reading a whole book, you might try what Stephen King does (and me) and talks about in On Writing. He starts with a few characters and the concept question, a what-if question. What if a regular kid found proof of alien visitations? And what if his most trusted punker friend wants to steal it from him and destroy it for no apparent reason? OR: What if a punker geek met a pretty preppy girl who just happened to have more info about conspiracies than he did? How would his attraction move the story forward? What if two punkers competed on a trivial task, and what the winner created turned out to have galactic significance?

This is referred to as a pantser, writing by the seat of your pants, and is considered by most to be very hard, unless you are Stephen King. But for me, learning to create good concepts was a powerful exercise. Never mind what they do when they meet. Just put them in a room and see what they do. Tease out the inciting incident that launches the journey of the story. Create interesting characters and let them tell you where they want to go. Just put them in interesting situations.

As for whether a plot is a cliche, I agree with @oldrobotsneverrust. Don't worry about it. If you characters are rich in depth, inner demons and complexity, it won't matter if the plot has been done a dozen times.

So just start creating lots of concepts and ask people if they would want to read such a book. Or start to look for the concept in books you've read, so you get good at understanding what a concept looks like. You might even start with writing short stories, rather than the daunting task of writing a book first.

Another exercise I created was fictionalized reality. Start to notice when some trivial event happened in your life, one that happens to feel more rich with detail that most events. Write it up with all the texture of a novel, learning to add setup, backstory and voice.

Like this:

"He sat at the computer answering yet another question on the writers board, still irritated at that last BSOD crash. His desk was littered with scraps of do-lists and scattered index cards from his recent novel project. He had no time for such attempts to help, when his own novel had fallen so far behind. Maybe he'd never finish it. Maybe it was true what they say. Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.

"But he couldn't just quit. He'd just made a brilliant point, one that needed follow up. One last thing and that would nail it. He needed to do this. He needed to be helpful.

"He turned to look out his apartment window, looking onto the deserted church parking lot. The service seemed to have ended early. No, wait. It was the 4 p.m. service and the time was now approaching 6 p.m. Ali would be waiting for him, complete unwilling to press play on the DVR before he got there for their ritual viewing of Warehouse Thirteen."

See. Just learn to capture the voice, and remember to add more texture like colors, sensations of the wood, smells, anything to make it more rich than it is. Just remember, that the reader will cut out half or more of the details you add. So add at least twice what you need. Hope it helps.

  • I wish I could just write something, it seems like it would be more fun that way (like reading a book, but writing it), but alas, no, I can't. Thanks for helping. – m4tt Jan 3 '12 at 23:13
  • "Pantser" is a pejorative term, Stephen King (and I) are discovery writers, discovering the story and plot as we write. If you call me a "pantser", I'll call you a "plodder". :-) – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 4 '18 at 15:07
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Take your eyes off the plot. Focus on originality in your characters and setting.

I'm not saying this is easier, it isn't always easy to create new characters and new character dynamics, but this approach can work to create interesting plots simply because the plots are "natural" outcomes, not pre-engineered to look like something else.

It is true there are a limited number of plots, various works classify them in anywhere from three to thirty six basic plots.

Three, Six or 36: How many basic plots are there in all the stories ever written?

The Thirty Six Dramatic Situations

The Seven Basic Plots

The 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them (by Ronald Tobias).

They can all be valid; the number depends on how much detail about the plot one takes into consideration. (The more we generalize the plot, the fewer plots there are.) Regardless of the exact number, there are really not very many plots considering the million stories they claim to cover.

However, for your problem, I think it is important to point out something important about these analyses: They are all after-the-fact. Good stories existed long before anybody tried to classify their plots and develop point by point outlines of them.

The reason that is important is because it proves the plot is an artifact, a side effect of just telling a good story. The original authors of these plots did not follow any guideline, they sat down to tell a good story and entertain or educate people that way, and it so happens that enjoyable stories tend to share certain kinds of common structure. It is built into the typical human psychology, somehow, that (for example) the "try-fail, try-fail, try-win" structure in a story resonates with us; or that (post-childhood) we don't care much for stories that are an uninterrupted series of successes for a hero (wish fulfillment stories).

Why is that? You will notice most of the plot elements match life experiences, metaphorically or allegorically, for typical people. Troubles with evil, or romance, or taking on adult responsibilities, dealing with disaster in health, or nature, or accident. Finding justice, protecting your family from predators (animal or human), finding safety and prosperity, navigating sexual maturity, becoming an independent adult, becoming a parent. Dealing with corruption or tragedy.

Why is that important, that plots are characterized after the fact?

It means that good stories will naturally fall into one of these categorized plots. So you don't really have to plot in advance to tell a good story, just like the originators of all these plots did not follow any guideline.

Instead, find a favorite you understand, whether it is 7 or 20 or 36 plots. But put it aside; this is a reference work for later, it is not a planning document!

Instead, think of the ONE plot: A hero has a big problem to solve.

A mother with a sick child that doctors have given up on. A soldier uncovers deep corruption in his own government. A girl gets accidentally pregnant. A spy is ordered to kill a man he knows is innocent, and doesn't want to do it, but if he doesn't a fellow spy will and that isn't acceptable either.

The next thing to understand is the Three Act Structure of a story; again this is another after-the-fact analysis of how good stories work, not an iron framework to follow. So consider it a generalization of a million good stories and not something you have to follow religiously; not every good story does. What follows is a pretty detailed reference that is useful, it tells you to plan your story using the three act structure, you can take that advice or just use this later as a reference, to see how your story is turning out.

How To Plan Your Novel Using The Three-Act Structure.

As a discovery writer, I discover my characters and stories by writing about them. Not in the "questionnaire" style, or listing a bunch of traits, I write actual prose, dialogue, and scenes. I present small day-to-day problems for my character(s) and see how they would solve them. This is not intended for publication, but to help me find the voice and personality of how my characters work.

I know the beginning of the story should open on the hero's "normal world" before they meet their "big problem to solve", so that is how I begin. No big problem, some small problem she has to solve; e.g. she woke up, there has been a power failure, she is late to work and has no frikkin' lights or electricity to get ready for it.

Make your character's personality original, not a copy of any other hero you have read, and if you feel yourself writing some hero you know then back up and change your hero. Think of something else.

Do the same for your setting. Recognize clichés and break them; if you can't break them (i.e. you need FTL) then use them without fanfare or explanation at all, don't make them part of the PLOT. e.g. There is FTL, we use wormholes, with no backstory. Not how they were discovered, or by whom, we don't explain wormholes any more than we'd explain horses or who invented wagons in an old west story. I don't think Star Wars ever explains FTL.

If you feel forced to use a setting cliché then use it casually without celebration, take it for granted, as you'd use guns, horses, wagons, sheriffs and saloons in an old west story. I've never seen an old west story in which they try to ground the audience with a story about who invented the saloon or the rifle or the stirrup. Treat SciFi clichés in the same way.

Still, do try to make as much of your settings as possible original with you, and try to give your characters non-stock personalities, a mix of likes and dislikes that don't have to be over-the-top but aren't immediately reminiscent of Gandalf, Han Solo, Jason Bourne, 007, or any other famous character.

That is how you arrive at a unique story even if your plot will (inevitably if you find a good story) kind of fall into one of the standard plots.

My approach is to NOT plot, exactly. I start with a big problem. Maybe there is a villain, maybe not. I have an idea of how this story could end, often a standard ending: e.g. She defeats the villain in battle. But once I have a mental model of my character, I roughly follow the three act structure, introduce the problem, and (while making nothing easy for my hero) I try to think of what she would do, and let her take that path, scene after scene.

As Stephen King says, if you keep advancing the character and don't let her stall out, the story has to come out somewhere. As an author, don't make choices or write scenes in which nothing changes. If a reader could just skip that scene, and learn nothing about the characters, setting, or problems to be solved, get rid of it. Every scene must step to somewhere different, internally or externally. Obviously if the character succeeds at something, that is an advance. But if they fail (as they should), that should produce an advance in their understanding of the problem, it should narrow the range of possible solutions.

If you do that often enough, the story must arrive at some destination, you cannot let the failures go on forever or readers will get bored. if the hero's understanding is increasing, and the options are narrowing, they will finally come together and you have begun Act III.

(If along the way, your characters most likely decision will preclude the ending you have in mind, find a better ending that is not precluded (3 out of 4 times I can); or undo the decision so your ending is not precluded. Don't keep writing without some not too vague idea of how it can end.)

Then analyze your story.

Now is the time to break out those references. How well does your story fit into the three act structure? Start tweaking it until it does; that is what good stories look like. Delete stuff, add stuff, follow the percentages (see below, to meet word counts per plot event in the Three Act structure).

Which of the "standard" plots is most like your story? Figure it out, go through your plot points. Are you missing something the standard plot has? Is it necessary? Can you fit it in, would it make your story stronger? You don't have to change it, I just want you to make an informed decision. These standard plots are a distillation of what good stories look like, but it doesn't mean every good story contains each and every element of that distillation.

And that is the final thing to know about stories. There are thousands of books in each and every one of those standard plots. Obviously with so many, all following the same plot, if we sort them by how much readers love them, there are going to really good stories on top and really bad stories on the bottom, all using the same exact plot!

What makes your story good or bad isn't the plot, but how well you immerse the audience in your characters and setting, and the imagination you can put into making them and the obstacles they face original. For example, when Luke battles the wampa on the ice planet Hoth, nothing is original about the plot points of that encounter. But the setting, the characters of Luke and the monster, the light saber, using the Force to get it, the TuanTuan he rides, are all original, making that encounter, battle and resolution all fresh story.

Your "creative plot" will arise naturally out of creative characters and settings, those will produce both fresh problems and fresh solutions we haven't seen before. If you avoid the clichés in the setup, you will avoid the clichés in the resolution. Of course with enough generalization you will, like all good stories, fit into one of the standard plots, but it won't seem like it and that alone will not give away enough to the reader for them to be bored. They will want to see how your hero solves this problem.

By analogy, every time we watch a RomCom we know the boy and girl get together. But we watch to see how this boy and this girl get together.

Edit: Following the percentages.

Added in response to comments. If you look at the three act structure (especially as applied to movies), in the link I provided, they suggest 27 chapters; 9 chapters per Act, in three blocks of three. If the chapters are of equal length, then each chapter is 3.7% of the total. I do not work to fractions of a percent, I roughly work in chapters of 5%-10% of the total, and end up with something in the teens for total chapters. Which is roughly what I see in other novels.

Nevertheless, the ideas are the same:

  • Block One (of 9 blocks) – Introduce Hero in Ordinary World
  • Ch 1 Introduce Hero in her Normal Word
  • Ch 2 Inciting Incident
  • Ch 3 Immediate Resolution

Of nine equal length blocks, this first block is 11.1% of the story. I expect about the first 10% of a book will introduce my character in her normal world, without any hint of the big problem, but I do give her some "throwaway" problems to solve just to provide some conflict and give me a chance to build her character and the setting; the nature of the world she lives in. It has magic or does not, it's medieval or modern or futuristic, I want to show what kinds of morality, religion, politics and resources are available; not just hers but what she must deal with. In this block, she will also encounter some inciting incident (read from the link). eventually (in block 2) this is going to disrupt her life and plans. By the END of ACT I (for me in the 25%-30% range), she will leave "the normal world" (physically or mentally or both) in order to solve her big problem.

I kind of write to these percentages by instinct. I don't worry while I am writing if I am going long or running short, I just write. I don't know how long the book IS yet, so I am unconstrained. But when I try to fit my finished story into the Three Act Structure, I let that guide me on what pieces are too flabby, and what pieces are too skinny: I want to hit the points at roughly the right time, give or take a few percent. So if I finished at 400 pages (at 250 words per page in submission format, so 100,000 words), the first block (above) should be 10% IMO, 40 pages, 10,000 words. I will go through and clean it up several times, but if it is running 55 pages, I know on the first pass I need to cut hard and tighten it up. If it is running 25 pages, I need to see if it is too skinny and can be fattened up, probably with a whole new scene, but perhaps I can find a way to do more world-building, ore create a richer setting, or find a scene that reveals more character.

In the end I don't much care if my novel is 90,000 or 130,000 words. It takes what it takes! But after writing I do tend to push my stories in the direction of what a good story looks like, both in the Three Act Structure, and in terms of the standard plots, because I find these tend to make the stories stronger.

As you can tell from this post, I have a tendency to overwrite and have to condense; but as a saving grace, I can be pretty ruthless with cutting my own writing! I've always thought it is better to write six hundred pages and sell three hundred, than to write three hundred and not sell any. Perhaps because it is fun for me to write scenes, and my fun is not diminished if something I wrote is cut because it wasn't necessary, or was repetitive, or just didn't fit right. So I don't mind "experimental" scenes and wandering about on a tangent and having to back up and discard something.

  • What do you mean by ‘follow the percentages’ on the 1st paragraph on analysing stoires – Edmund Frost Aug 5 '18 at 14:20
  • @EdmundFrost I added to the post to respond to your question. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 5 '18 at 16:47
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I find that using dreams often leads to creative plots, if you reset the dream in another location and change some of the events to fit your genre.

Also, collaborate with your friends and family on your ideas, many of the stories I've written have come from discussions I have had with friends from my creative writing group.

I hope that helps :D

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The best beginners book for plotting I've read is My Story Can Beat Up Your Story by Jeffery Alan Schecter. He shows a method - exactly beat-by-beat - for building a plot that'll work for pretty much every type of story, and he uses Star Wars to demonstrate his example. It's more than just plot though, he talks about characters, relationships, arcs and a lot of other stuff and how it all feeds your plot. It's really very good if you're struggling.

If you want to know specifically how to find ideas for stories and building a sci-fi plot then I suggest you wait till April 2013 and buy my book! It's called Writing The Science Fiction Film and it's published by Michael Wiese Publishing.

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If you have nothing to say, it doesn't matter how nicely you write it, it'll just be nothing in a pretty bow.

Simply put, if you don't have a good idea, nothing driving you, then for the time being, say nothing at all.

Check out 'so you want to be a writer' by Charles Bukowski, that's a summary of your problem.

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    This doesn't answer the question at all. If you don't have a good idea, say nothing at all. Shouldn't you be taking your own advice? – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 4 '18 at 18:04
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    You confuse 'nothing to say' with 'nothing nice to say'. – Matthew Dave Aug 4 '18 at 18:18
  • You seem to forget (or haven't read) that the official policy of this site is "Be Nice." If you have nothing nice to say, here on Stack Exchange, you should still say nothing at all. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 4 '18 at 19:09
  • It was genuine advice, kindly-worded or no. A forced idea isn't one worth writing. If you want to write, write with something in mind, or not at all. That's not unfair, and it's not a non-answer. Call me unkind, and call me a rulebreaker, but don't imply that I'm not following my own advice; I had something to say, and that something was 'if it's not something you want to write, don't do it'. – Matthew Dave Aug 4 '18 at 20:38

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