How to Find Plot Ideas

How in the world do authors continually find ideas for their stories? Whether we’re in the pre-planning phase or stuck in the middle—where do we turn for help so that we can create stories brimming with life?

Last week I finished editing Book #2, and I sent it to my editors at Bethany House. My acquisitions editor emailed me to let me know he received it and that he “can’t wait” to take a look at it. Those two simple words encouraged me more than he probably intended—there’s nothing more thrilling for a writer than to have someone genuinely interested in reading your work.

Anyway, now that I’m done with Book #2 (at least until I get feedback in a few weeks) I’m starting to think ahead to my next novel. I’m in the pre-planning brainstorming phase, when everything and anything are possible.

I’ve already turned in a synopsis for my next book, the last one of my 3-book contract. But really, the world of my imagination is wide open. My thoughts are running free and wild, dashing from one idea to the next—picking some, discarding others.

I’ve opened up a blank spiral notebook and have begun jotting down all the possibilities, great or small, that I might be able to use. But where do those ideas come from? How do I find them? Where can any of us search to find the treasures we need to sustain an entire novel?

*Experience Life. No, I don’t think we have to bungee-jump off the Sears Tower. Or travel the world in a hot air balloon. Instead we need to we savor every emotion, feel our pains and joys deeply, experience the wide gamut of loving and losing in even the smallest and mundane of our life situations. When we slow down and absorb especially the little things, we can transfer those experiences into our stories to make them come alive. In other words, when we write, we pour out our hearts and souls; when we live—really live in each moment—we fill our hearts back up.

*Observe people. If you’ve been writing long enough you’ve probably already been encouraged to people-watch, to carry a notebook wherever you go and jot down interesting mannerisms, jobs, sayings, life situations, etc. We can do this in real life but also with movies and TV shows. Because I write historicals, I find the most interesting people-watching comes from reading biographies. I peek at the lives of dead people, pull out interesting facts or happenings, then weave them into my own stories.

*Dream big. I take those grains of ideas I’ve gleaned from my people-watching, and I ask these kinds of questions: “What trouble can I make for my character?” or “How can I make this situation even worse?” or “What would increase the conflict?” We want to give ourselves permission to dream big, to look beyond trees to the wide universe beyond. The words “what if” should become our constant companion in our sky-rocket experience.

*Go deep. There’s a surface story to everything. But what makes the plot more interesting is when we dig deeper and find the hidden story, the real reasons things are happening, the entangled motivations. Story-tellers are investigators, and we should be constantly looking for clues, for twists and turns, for the originality that will make our story stand out from others.

I must make a confession. I wrote this post first and foremost as a reminder to myself. It’s my hope that with each book I write, my plots will grow stronger and the stories more enthralling. And as I begin the process of plotting my next book, I want to practice all the above points and more.

I’ll also be re-reading James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure, my favorite plot book. I need to re-sharpen my focus and I never fail to learn something new in the process of reading writing craft books. (See the tab at the top of my blog for a comprehensive list of writing help books.)

How do you find your plot ideas? Do you ever have trouble finding enough ideas to sustain your novel? Where do you search for more?

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