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I keep scrapping the plots I have, as I deemed them to be uninteresting or complicated. At first I just have some characters for fun, then I learned the importance of characters in a plot.

I only have another possible work that I have. However I decide to make another story, and I keep scrapping it. How can I get plot ideas?

5 Answers 5

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I found my way to plots by giving up on plots.

Here is the thing to understand about a good story: It is about a struggle. Somebody wants something that will not just come to them. They have to do something to get it, and the "something" is difficult, it is not easy.

Whether this is a stone age hunter just trying to feed her crying child, or Luke Skywalker fighting a vast empire. A person trying to get together with the love of their life. A company owner trying to resist a superstore that sells for less than his costs.

The best way to find conflict that I have found is in the character design. I design my heroes with both powers and weaknesses. Some things they are incredible at. But I keep the coin balanced, for every asset, they have a distinct deficit, and I make sure that deficit is exercised.

I devise my characters and think about their "asset" and balancing "deficit", and then I think about the conflict: A problem they have in which their asset is not easily deployed at all, and what they need to solve the problem is precisely what they don't have; it falls squarely on their deficit.

Say they are not diplomatic, they don't care if people don't like what they say, they are honest. And their problem demands diplomacy, or people our hero wants to save will die. His skill at fighting is useless here.

Or say our hero is a brilliant child. Say she is ten. We show her in the setup, she's inventive and intelligent. But obviously she's not physically capable of much. How does she cope in a situation where physicality is what is called for?

Devise your characters with both strengths and weaknesses that really matter. In fact, the story has to be about those weaknesses. We begin with the character thriving in an environment where her strength works for her and her weakness doesn't matter too much. That is her normal world, and we show that.

But then something happens, she is thrust into a world where her weakness matters a lot and it isn't easy to overcome this with her strength. She is forced out of her normal world, into a "new world". A world in which she must struggle. And that struggle, and how she finally overcomes her weakness and either returns to her normal world, or creates a new world for herself where she can thrive again, is what the story is about.

Google for "pictures of 3 act structure", you will find a ton of images. Here is one I like:

The Three Act Structure

These are the turning points of a good story. The way I use this, though, is not to plot out the story in advance. I begin with characters that have both strengths and critical weaknesses.

Instead, I use it as a compass. See those percentage points? That is the time (in a screenplay) or pages or word counts (in a novel) where certain events should occur. So I plan a word count, say for a novel 80,000 words. So my Act I is going to be 20,000 words, and there are things to do at 6/12/19/25%. Basically 5000, 10,000, 12,500 and 20,000 words.

I don't plan these in advance, I just know from where I am writing that those particular signposts are what I am writing toward, the thing that has to happen. If a page is 250 words, that is page 20, 40, 60, and 80.

For me this makes the writing task manageable. Every 20 pages has a goal to reach.

Remember the 3 act structure is not some mandate handed down from on high. It emerged from the study of best-selling, popular stories (just like "The Hero's Journey" emerged as a distillation from studying cultural myths retold for centuries.)

You don't have to hit every point precisely. And you can go back and rewrite if you want. But you should study many of the reincarnations of what is called the 3 act structure (really it is 4 equal acts of 25% each). It reflects a consistent and persistent aspect of how we humans process stories and what we think is a satisfying story, and what we expect in a story, across both centuries and cultures.

Now these are averages, you don't have to follow them exactly. You can miss these beats, the important points, by 5% either way. There are alternative structures. In the movie Rocky, Stallone extended ACT I to much of the movie, it was necessary to build sympathy for the deeply flawed hero, Rocky. The crown Jewel of that movie is the fight, but we wouldn't care about it if we hadn't spent so much time with Rocky, building sympathy for him. Stallone knew that, expanded the first Act (Rocky's normal world) a lot, but necessarily had to compress the rest. That was okay, the fight can move fast, the audience can get restless if a battle goes on for too long.

So there is more to understand about story than just the Three Act Structure. And there are other informative things to google, the Four Act Structure and Five Act Structure; they both work too.

But to get over your block, begin with the traditional three that is by far the most used and expected across most storytelling venues, books, TV series episodes, and feature length movies, even movie series (like Lord of the Rings). (It gets "nested", there is a long overall 3 act structure, but each episode is a 3 act structure in itself.)

The way I write is called "Character Driven Stories" and "Discovery Writing". Stephen King uses this approach, as he outlines in his book "On Writing". He invents characters, introduces them, then as he says "put them in the cooker."

Gives them a new problem they cannot easily solve.

For me, my stories follow one character, always. There are other interesting characters, partners, villains, blockers, and problems.

I typically do have some idea about how the story might end, but I have often revised this completely 3 or more times in the writing of the story, as I have thought of better endings. When I do think of a better ending, I go back over my story and fix it, to make sure the new ending does makes sense.

Discovery writing, in my experience, takes a lot of rewriting. But I cannot follow a pre-devised plot, for me it makes my characters feel (to me) as if they are being forced to do things they would not naturally do, based on what I have had them do previously. And I lose interest in a pre-devised plot, for me my characters start to feel wooden and forced. That doesn't happen if I write the story as I go, they are always doing what their personality dictates, or at least they are in distress being forced to go against their nature; like lying to somebody they love, to keep them out of danger.

I'd recommend changing your focus to your characters, and devise them with built-in conflicts that spring from their personality. I think most people have these conflicts, we tend to focus and get better at the things we are good at, the things we enjoy, and we may even make our living from those aspects of our personality. And we all tend to downplay the areas where we are marginally competent, and engineer our lives so those things don't matter, and we let those fields lie fallow.

The story, in a Character Driven story, is often about flipping the script on a character's life, making them a duck out of water. Giving them a problem that (at least initially) they can't solve with their primary skills, and requires those undeveloped, marginally competent parts of their personality. For example, the consummate battle hero, struggling with caring for a child (or children). That has been the premise of many a story, from Kindergarten Cop (on the lighter comedic end) to Man on Fire (on the darker tear-jerking end). (Man on Fire is a quite masterful "redemption story" for the badly flawed main character.)

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Sounds to me like you don't know why you're writing when you start. I believe that plot comes from character and that means putting your character in the worst situation possible for their personality and 'character' e.g. if they’re claustrophobic then shut them in somewhere, if they're rich take away their financial resources, if they’re lazy, make them work.

You need to work out your character first, then place them in their world, then work out the worst thing that can happen to them and make it happen, preferably as a small series of things that gradually builds to a crescendo. Each scene or act is a problem to overcome in an effort to overcome the big problem and get back to where they were - or not depending on the outcome you want for them.

Your plots might well be too complex because the big thing happens straightaway and you don’t build up to it, but it still comes down to making the conflict/jeopardy match the trait of the character.

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  • This is almost verbatim what I would have said.
    – DWKraus
    Apr 17, 2022 at 17:43
  • A.k.a. the sadistic method. :-P
    – Pablo H
    Apr 18, 2022 at 15:30
  • Worth mentioning: The "Bad Things" should move your character towards what you want them to be. If you want your Rich Guy to relate to the working class, you challenge them with one set of Bad Things, but if you want him to hate other rich people, you challenge him with a different set. Decide who the character is and who you want them to be and then apply Bad Things you close the gap.
    – codeMonkey
    Apr 18, 2022 at 16:09
  • +1 AGONY and protAGONIst have the same Greek root (struggle, compete)
    – wetcircuit
    Apr 22, 2022 at 10:45
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Don't scrap it, recycle it.

One thing that has been recommended to me over and over again is to just keep writing. Even if it seems like you are going nowhere with it or the story isn't quite making sense anymore, just keep writing. The plot will develop out of the chaos if need be. That said, the chaos left in your wake is an excellent place to find material for the future.

Suppose you are writing a short story and you write a rather spicy scene between two characters who really shouldn't have that sort of relationship, or may not have even met. Cut and paste that bad boy into another file as 'ideas for later' and then either use it when the time is right or switch out some names and give the spotlight to some other characters.

Or maybe you have this elaborate backstory plotted out for a main character, but the character is coming across as flat because the character development happened in two paragraphs. Take that backstory and either turn it into the current events, or give it to another character. Mentors are great for this because they usually already have tragic pasts and making the details only slightly different gives clear parallels.

Honestly, I developed whole new characters out of exactly that. It could really be any scene though, and the setting can be shifted to fit as well. The point is that sometimes it is better to let the ideas get on the page first before they start making any cohesive sense in the story.

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  • Well a problem i've encountered multiple times are when the worldbuilding are involved with it. Ofc that's what worldbuilding does. And i sometimes put unnecessary rules while developing both the plot and worldbuilding.
    – Crimsoir
    Apr 16, 2022 at 8:43
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Great question. As others have mentioned, plots are based around characters. Each character in a story has their own story line and that story line can follow a number of plots. Christopher Booker has suggested seven (including comedy and tragedy). You could explore how any of these relates to your characters. Joseph Campbell has outlined a 'monomyth' that has come to be known as 'The Hero's Journey'. This might apply to your protagonist. But what if it doesn't? Other theorists have taken a different approach - Georges Politi and Vladimir Propp posit sequences of events that make up a story line. But what's the internal logic that these sequences follow?

What's important is to separate story structure from plot pattern. Story structure follows a sequence of events that happens in a character's story line in chronological order. Plot patterns has to do with the way you tell their story - and at that level, events do not need to appear in chronological order.

I take story structure first. My simple approach to solving the problem you're facing is to whittle a character's story line down to its bare bones and map it using six symbols. The first gets you to think about the opening and closing of a character's story line - where do you drop into their story line; how does it come to a close. The next gets you to think about the character in terms of 'who, when, where, in what condition' at the beginning and the end of their story line. What gets them from start to finish is a series of forward or backward steps, which either propel them towards their goal, or which hinder them from reaching it. These usually come in pairs. In fact, that paired quality, that ebb and flow, provides the heartbeat of story. Sometimes characters can be surprised, or tricked, and that sets up puzzles or riddles that need to be solved. They keep readers reading. As stories flow, and the writer starts to think about what the plot pattern will be, about how they intend to tell the story, the writer needs to become more aware of patterns of suspense and surprise in the telling - which brings a more dynamic quality to the writing.

There are 18 identifiable story structures I work with (excluding, contra Booker, comedy and tragedy which I see as structure neutral). These are detailed in 'Story and Structure: A comprehensive guide' (The Squeeze Press, 2022) - part of 'The Unknown Storyteller' project. There's an introductory overview here. Further info in my bio on StackExchange.

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There are many ways to come up with plots, and one that hasn't been mentioned yet is: borrow from existing works.

There is a long tradition of authors borrowing from, and building on, earlier works. For example, "The Lion King" drew inspiration from "Hamlet" and the biblical stories of Jozef and Moses. "West Side Story" is inspired by "Romeo and Juliet". "Romeo and Juliet" is (through a long line of translations and reworks) based on "Pyramus and Thisbe" (among other things). And who could forget "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies".

The clear benefit of drawing inspiration from existing stories is that you know they work. And if you run into a problem with the plot of your adaptation, you can look to the original for how they solved it there. The difficulty is to still end up with something original. But I'd argue that what makes a story unique and interesting is more the setting and characters than the basic plot. The plot is like the journey from A to B, but the setting is what you see along the way and the characters are your companions on the trip.

Many plots, if you boil them down to the basics, are not in fact that novel. Some people even go as far as to say there are only Seven Basic Plots. It depends on your level of abstraction how closely that approximates the truth, but it illustrates the level of similarity between stories. Like the three act structure, these "basic plots" can serve as a scaffold for your story. So that's another way to develop a plot, if you don't want to borrow directly from existing stories.

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