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How to Find Plot Ideas

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

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?

55 comments:

  1. Dreams. My dreams are no end of wonderful ideas for plots. I am currently writing a book based on an idea from a dream I had a few weeks ago.

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  2. Sigh. This is an area where I struggle. It seems to take SOOO long for my plot to develop.

    The Holy Spirit plants that unforgettable scene in my mind, and then it goes from there.

    Slowly.

    Good post!
    Patti

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  3. Watching documentaries ignited my imagination a number of times. People watching, ah yes, that's true. Then again some folks can be waaaaay too colorful, truth being stranger than fiction and all.

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  4. My current book came form a real life experience that turned into a game of "what if." What if the experience had really happened like this...

    I also get alot of suspense story ideas from watching and reading the news. It's amazing what you get from real life.

    I like how you say, "Go deep." That's where the story actually comes from.

    Congratulations on getting Book #2 to the editor and puting final touches on Book #1. So very exciting, Jody!

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  5. All my ideas seem fabulous for about...ten minutes. You know the feeling? You get this 'aha!', imagine all the possibilities...then, ten minutes later, it seems like the dumbest idea ever. LOL

    So I allow the idea to simmer. If, in a few days, the idea seems better than it did at first, I may have a new story. If it seems cliched, dull, or unlikely, forget it.

    Great post, Jody!

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  6. My ideas usually stem from one question. It's amazing what one question can birth.

    For me the trouble comes finding the best, most workable ideas.

    Sifting.
    ~ Wendy

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  7. I love the thought of limitless possibilities. Can't wait to see what comes out. Better than you could have imagined, I am SURE!!! :O)

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  8. I've learned to jot ideas down even if I'm not ready to pursue them. But researching and reading always helps. But really they come from different places - reading, a conversation with a friend...

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  9. I have a really weird imagination, so that's where I get my ideas from. For my sandwich book, my daughter and I were sitting in the car, waiting for hubby to get back in (I think he ran inside for milk or something) and I said, "Hey, let's plot a book!" My daughter was SO very excited, she helped pick names (I ended changing one of them) and hair color, and a little bit of their background, and we mapped out the first scene, which surprisingly enough, I've kept!

    Most of the time, they just rumble around my head until there is enough of an idea to sit down at the computer and fiddle with it. If nothing comes, I scratch it. But if I get a good enough start and feel confident, well, there ya go:-)

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  10. It's fascinating where we get our inspiration from. For me, I follow your words of staying open. Sometimes I get an idea from life happening around me. Other times, an idea just pops into my head or I dream about it. Congrats on getting book #2 into hands that can't wait to read it!

    Marissa

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  11. I just got a great plot idea from a news story I saw on the Internet. I'm tweaking the story to fit my writing line, but I can't wait to explore the idea.

    Great Post!

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  12. Thanks for the great post. Needed to read it this morning. In the midst of my rough draft, I'm feeling all sorts of doubts and insecurities....thoughts like, "Oh my goodness, this story is horrendous." It's good to remember to pay attention, people-watch, think big, imagine ways to ramp up the conflict. All of those are great reminders. Thanks, Jody!

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  13. I;m learning to open my mind to the possibilities areound me and also the deeper motivations that exist. Thank you!

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  14. Because my writing depends so heavily on realism, I find that simply watching the world gives me the best ideas. Truth is always stranger than fiction and keeping an eye on the news can present great ideas for plot twists and story ideas.

    I keep a file called 'Potential ideas' and tuck away news stories and other tidbits to come back to at a later time because you never know when something like that will be useful.

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  15. Observing people is the key to my ideas. I might see a group of people sitting at a table at Starbucks and wonder: why are they a group? Then: what are the dynamics of the group? Who's the leader? Who's the follower? And the questions pour forth.

    So, for me, my own natural curiosity becomes the catalyst for many ideas.

    I was at the bar once and walked into the dance floor area and there was a single person on the dance floor just dancing away. That person was a heck of a lot braver then me. I ended up writing a short story about that person as I explored why he was on the dance floor.

    Then, there are the ideas that come to me while reading or watching TV. I'll get a gem of an idea, toss it into the deep well of my imagination, and hope for the best.

    Still, there are times when the ideas slow down. I normally figure that's my brain telling me to give it a rest, take time to experience life, and . . .

    Great post.

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  16. My ideas come from everywhere! At times I'm bombarded with them and other times I feel like I'm on a huntfor them.

    My ideas come from past experiences, life stories shared by others, pictures, movies, reading and so much more.

    And I love to use the "what if" with each new idea/story line.

    As always, you've written a great post that has been so helpful to many!

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  17. I am an old classic movie watcher - have been all my life. I tend to lean towards those simple stories of old. You know, the ones that have characters that ring true and plots that don't have too many twists and turns. I love this post, as I do all your posts. Thanks for the great insight. Now Im off to order that book you mentioned!

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  18. I love that you said storytellers are investigators. That is such a great way of explaining the tenacious, obsessive life I lead!

    Excellent post!

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  19. Ack, I wish I could run out of ideas! I have so many that want to be written.

    Most of my ideas I get from movies and other books. I start wondering what would happen if the MC had done something else, or if a minor character was the main character, and then it just takes off until the original story is unrecognizable. News articles, and random other things trigger my story-dreaming mind, too. :)

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  20. This whole post is so true! There's a reason why writers are thinkers, I guess. We just have to remember to give ourselves new things to think about. I find it interesting that while writing a lot makes you a better writer, your writing also suffers when you play the hermit 24/7.

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  21. Those examples are all great idea generators. I'm constantly asking "what if?" in my plotting, and I often go try to imagine what would make my character the most uncomfortable right now. Who would she least want to see in a particular situation? What would happen if...? It usually gets the grey cells churning.

    Life is such a rich experience. There are a million stories that surround us everyday. :)

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  22. I haven't ever really thought about where my ideas come from. But, for my current WiP, I know that a big chunk of my mythology for it was sparked from just one little bit on the Wikipedia article about my paranormal element that I've included. I expounded on it and complicated it and such, but that initial spark was there.

    My last project came about from the meaning of my main character's name. Lots of other stuff came about from other things and I'd gone beyond that initial spark, but it's there still.

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  23. Thank you for this post, Jody! My ideas have come from history triggers--an unusual setting, a chance story revealed in family history, an obscure event that calls "there's a story here!" My problem is in your third point, Go Deep. On the surface it sounds like it would make a good story, but always I have to go deeper to find it.

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  24. I love the dream big advice. I look for big ideas, and like you said, try to take smaller ideas and make them big. Great post!

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  25. I have no idea where I get my ideas from. I have got three new ideas in my notepad, and goodness knows where they came from.

    Thanks for the resource list,Jody. It is most useful.

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  26. I don't have a problem with coming up with ideas. I have at least 20 novels waiting to be written, but what I do have a problem with is making those ideas fresh or unique enough to make editors want to read the stories. I think that's probably my weakest area. So, my question to you...or anyone for that matter...is how do you create fresh or unique plots. There are only so many plots, so the challenge is to make them stand out among the crowd.

    Great post, Jody!

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  27. Great post as always. I write thrillers, so i watch a lot of documentaries, then fill in the blanks. For instance, the fiction I am working on was inspired by a book I read about post WWII. There was a Nazi research facility called "The Bell" that was rumored to have all kinds of Nazi super technology--everything from foo fighters to stealth jets to time travel. The thing is, most of it was gone by the time the Russians leveled the place. So what happened to all that technology? What happened to thousands of SS who never stood trial for war crimes? My fiction gives an alternate explanation.

    So...long answer. Documentaries are GREAT.

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  28. I love posts like this because I'm fascinated by the possibility that there are people who have trouble thinking of plots and ideas. I am inundated with characters who live in my head and want to tell their stories. I have ideas for no less than five novels right now, one of which is a trilogy.

    My biggest problem is follow-through :-)

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  29. Ideas are everywhere but most of my stories begin with one image. As Patti has put it, "The Holy Spirit plants that unforgettable scene in my mind". I see someone and when the image keeps coming back to me I start asking all the "W" questions: who is this, what is he/she doing, why, where and when is this happening, what might be the outcome? I write the details of the scene in my notebook, mull it over a bit and after a bit of planning finally start writing.

    The basic story is there, but it's all the bad luck, bad timing and conflicts that my poor characters encounter that keep it interesting for me (and I hope for readers), and they just keep turning up out of nowhere as I write. Sometimes I feel sorry for my characters with all the misfortunes I heap on them! LOL

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  30. Timely post for me as I'm in the middle of plotting my next project now. These are great tips. Thanks!

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  31. I like the idea of digging deeper. I often will have a surface concept, but when I start digging into the characters' motivations and goals, that's where I find the heart of the story.

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  32. Although I'm knee deep in my WIP, I do like to stay an idea ahead of my work if at all possible. I'm at the same stage with anything and everything being possible. I'm looking forward to going back to one POV. So that gives me something to look forward to.

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  33. I'm always creating stories in my head. I get my ideas from movies, biographies (like you), memories, observations, settings, human nature, and asking "What if?"

    Jody, you used some words I love..."a blank spiral notebook." Such promise and fun awaits with a blank spiral notebook!

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  34. Plot ideas come from everywhere. The more I toss them around in my head, the more tangled they can become. But this is a good thing to inspire and move me forward. Good post! Thanks for sharing it.
    Blessings,
    Karen :)

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  35. A lot of my plot ideas come from wandering through a museum or from reading a history book. I am currently reading pioneer accounts in Minnesota history in a book called Old Rail Fence Corners.

    I never thought I'd want to set a book in 1840's Frontier Minnesota, but these pioneer stories are bringing the place and time to life.

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  36. I get most of my ideas from daydreaming, and from wondering, "What if".

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  37. Many ideas come from other stories I've heard, read or watched in movies. I love asking the "what if?" question to alter the plot and come up with something different and complicated. I get ideas all the time but I struggle with whittling them down to the ones that will be strong enough for an entire novel and the ones that won't.

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  38. Jody, this is such a timely post. I'm plotting book #2 right now (using your book suggestion, Plot & Structure). I feel like I have the surface ideas, but definitely need to dig deeper. Thank you for your help!

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  39. I have to think about my problems (because I sometimes have difficulty realizing what could go wrong 400 years ago). However, for the contemporary novel I'm working of, actual events are the catalysts to my stories.

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  40. Jody, this is the perfect post for me to read right now. Thanks! I might have to get that book too. Appreciate the suggestion!

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  41. What great ideas! And it was a reminder to me as well ... I liked Karen Templeton's rule of three. She used it when finding synonyms, but it works for plot ideas, too: jot down three plot points -- or answers to what could happen next -- and most likely #3 will be the most original.

    And, hey, I left a blog award on my blog for you!

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  43. I think you have to talk to people, listen to their stories. Also watch the papers for interesting people - someone who is a tad off - who pursued something the normal person wouldn't. Not necessarily something really big, but just a different route, or a sacrifice made for someone else. Yep, talking to people. Hearing their stories. Often gives us places to begin.

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  44. I think you and Rachelle were on the same page!! LOL

    People inspire me to daydream. Esp. kids. I look at them, in all their beautiful, free childishness, and wonder who they'll grow up to be. What kind of person will they fall in love with?
    Sometimes I don't know where my ideas come from though.

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  45. I'm reading Plot and Structure right now and scribbling down all his exercises and ideas. It really helps me to think through my plot ideas and to go deeper:)

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  47. Ohh, great ideas. But my problem isn't finding a plot idea (there are WAY too many of those swimming around in my head), it's actually sitting down and writing the whole thing out because usually I get bored with one idea and leave it half finished only to move onto the next idea digging its way to the surface. They're worse than pesky moles I tell you!

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  48. My best ideas come early in the morning when I'm alone and letting my mind wander or in the evening when I'm letting my mind drift as I fall to sleep.

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  49. Great article! Thanks so much for writing it! I enjoyed it immensely. I am in the beginning of my first book and seem to be losing my steam already. I will re-examine with the ideas you have proposed. Congrats on your first and second book!!
    God Bless!

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  50. I have more ideas than I will live on this earth long enough to write. I find them everywhere--at church, on a trip, watching my cat chase all manner of rodents, etc.

    Perhaps I should share half, then you all can write the stories. Hmmm?

    Love you,
    Jen

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  51. Hi Jody -

    The idea for my first book came from an experience in Gettysburg. When I hit 96,000 words, I brought book one to a satisfying (I hope) conclusion.

    Since the first book sparked new questions, I couldn't stop. So, I wrote book two. Book three is a WIP, again because the ideas keep flowing.

    Am I done with the series? Hmm, time will tell. Right now, I'm saying, "yes."

    Blessings,
    Susan :)

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  52. I know exactly what you mean. I am writing a series, and I can't help but do some people-watching as you out it. If only they knew...

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  53. I'm printing out this string!

    I get ideas in the cemetery, too. Reading headstones. Wondering.

    Also, I haven't had the nerve to try this, but I'm reading Julia Cameron's The Right to Write. She suggests reading tabloids. :)

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  54. I have just started to plot my second novel and even though I have managed to come up with a good premise I'm finding it quite a challenge to develop the idea into something that will last. I have however written my blurb already which sounds really good. So I'll just continue to read the other comments on this page to see what may work for me. Thanks for the blog.

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  55. Hi Annie! Thanks for stopping by! I hope that you'll find some good ideas! Keep searching hard! Wishing you all the best!

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