Brainstorming Your Plot


A little backstory: I quit a good job as an academic to devote myself entirely to my fiction (and poetry and screenwriting). After cutting the cord, the first step I took towards building a literary career was deciding to take a visit to the Clarion Free Library in Clarion, Pennsylvania.

Once there, I pulled an assortment of books written by many of my favorite authors off the shelves. I brought these books over to a table and started analyzing how these authors constructed sentences and paragraphs, how they segmented their stories into chapters, how they wrote description, how they wrote dialogue, how they fleshed out character. I tried to understand the “bones” of quality writing.

After this exercise was complete, I penned my first short story in years. Rairigh Drum, my friend and editor, told me that this story was good enough to be in The New Yorker (not quite yet, I’m afraid). However, there was one problem that continued to come up as Rairigh edited my short stories. The plotting in my stories left something to be desired, necessitating numerous rewrites.

Rairigh shared this one secret with me that has made my job (and her own) quite a bit easier. When you’re plotting your story, always think of the possibilities of what could happen immediately after a major action.

For example, imagine that your story is about a firefighter in love with a plumber’s daughter. You might start the story with the plumber taking the firefighter aside and telling him in a cryptic fashion that marrying his daughter isn’t advisable. You want to end your story with the firefighter and the plumber’s daughter getting married with her father’s blessing. You know the beginning and you know the ending, but how do you fill in the middle?

Rairigh explained that for every starting point, you should brainstorm an assortment of possibilities of what could happen next. I would add that it helps if you put yourself in your character’s shoes. What are the possibilities of what you would do if you were the firefighter? List as many ways that the story can go as you can imagine (I hope you’re good at divergence tests), and then for each action brainstorm the many possibilities as to what would happen if you take that road and keep doing so until you reach the finish point.

You may have a great idea, but it can be hard to sustain it to the end without a strong outline. This fun exercise makes plotting easy, which in turns really speeds up and improves the writing process. I hope this practice helps you as much as it has helped me.

How about you? What fun strategies do you use to plot out your stories?

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