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If you’re not sure how to start writing after you get a story idea, you’re probably here looking for answers rather than questions. Yet asking the right plot questions will help you develop a single idea into a complete story.
Every element of a story, whether it’s a character, a setting or just a certain mood, has multiple directions that it can take you to. And how will you find these directions? By asking a lot of questions, and then answering them yourself. It’s the most magical thing when you realise you had the answers with you all along.
Just remember that these examples aren’t ALL the questions you need to be asking, just a place to start from when you have very little materia to work with. If you think you’re going to need more help with writing your story, keep reading to the end.
When you have a character but no plot idea
I’m actually currently developing a new story because what I was previously writing just didn’t feel right. I kept ignoring my gut feeling throughout the outlining process, which is a silly mistake to make. As is typical of me, I have a few character ideas in my mind for the new story, but nothing in the way of an actual plot. If you’re in the same situation, here are some questions you can ask yourself that will help you figure out other story elements.
Questions to ask about your character
What is the most interesting place for your character to live in? You shouldn’t be choosing any of your settings at random, and instead they should bring the most out of your characters and complicate things in the best way possible. If you have a character whose lifelong dream is to work in fashion, could you complicate things by having her live in a rural area away from glitzy capitals? If your character has magical properties, where might they cause the most trouble? You don’t only need to think of settings that make your character’s life difficult, but it’s a good place to start.
What does your character struggle with? Things that your character struggles with can help you choose your story’s big problem as well. How? Because you should always aim to make your character’s problems bigger. A story is always about the transformation that the character goes through because of the plot events, so it’s always a good idea to use the issues that your character already has as a starting place. For example, maybe someone who struggles with standing up for themselves would be a more interesting candidate for saving the kingdom than someone who’s already brave.
What would your character never want to happen? You don’t want to make it too easy on any of your characters, so figuring out things that your character doesn’t want to happen helps you come up with stuff that absolutely should happen. To add extra depth to your story, maybe the worst does happen, and it ends up being the best thing that has ever happened to your character.
What kind of advantages and disadvantages does your character’s strengths have? What about weaknesses? You’re thinking too simple if you assume that strengths only have advantages and weaknesses only have disadvantages. Someone brave could end up doing something stupid and someone very nervous could save everyone from a danger that no one else could see coming. Learning how to grow your character into a complex, lifelike person helps you come up with a better plot, too.
When you have a premise… but no story
What is a premise? Simply put, it’s your story condensed into one sentence, and it usually contains a character, an event that starts the action and some reference to the outcome. It’s often the thing that people have when they say they’ve got an idea for a story. A boy wizard needs to find his way in the world of magic in order to destroy an evil wizard before he destroys him. Six friends are navigating through adult life in New York. A god from Asgard needs to save earth from his brother even without his powers.
My premise-writing skills probably aren’t the best in the world, so in case you didn’t get them, those were Harry Potter, Friends, and Thor. (At least I think that’s what happens in Thor – I’ve seen it multiple times, but I’m usually more interested in Loki than in the plot.) If you want to read more about why your premise matters, Anatomy of Story goes over it in detail, but here’s a quick explanation: Your premise is like a focus that keeps your story on the right track.
The problem with having a “cool premise” is that if there’s no other substance to your story, you don’t really have material for much more than a few scenes. If you’re writing a full-length novel and not a short story, that’s going to be a problem.
Questions to ask about your premise
Showing what questions you should ask about your premise is easier with an example. Let’s say our premise is this: Four elderly, single ladies live together in the same apartment. What kind of questions would this premise raise? And yes, I AM thinking about Golden Girls.
How can the differences between these characters bring conflict and humour into their lives? Now, if you’ve watched Golden Girls, you know that the four ladies – Rose, Dorothy, Blanche and Sophia – are very different personalities. Many of the episodes revolve around the misunderstandings and arguments you can have with people who live in close quarters with you.
What advantages and disadvantages does being an older woman bring to the dating scene? Blanche in particular has a very active social life and most episodes have a new gentleman caller with new shenanigans. Rose, on the other hand, doesn’t date much and she doesn’t seem to get over her late husband at all. Any element in your premise will bring treasures and difficulties to your story, so make sure to find them when you’re mining for plot ideas.
What kind of inner struggles does the everyday life of an older single woman reveal? Golden Girls isn’t really about having roommates and dating, it’s about valuing people at every age and about having self-worth, about outliving your loved ones and how to deal with loss, about your children flying from the nest, etc. Your story’s “outer stuff” should help reveal a lot of “inner stuff” as well, no matter what you’re writing about.
Naturally, your premise will be different, and it would be impossible to list all the questions here that you would need. Just remember that every element of your premise needs to bring something interesting to your story as a whole, not just a scene or two. If you’d like me to help you with these questions, you can share your premise in the comments.
What to do when you have a few plot events in mind but no actual story?
This is a common issue for beginner writers who think of something interesting that could happen and then start writing the story without further planning and no idea how to get where they want to go. This course of action usually leads to either frustration or to a flat, uneventful story. Fortunately, we can employ the powers of cause and effect to help us.
Plot development questions that help you uncover missing parts of your story
Working backwards, what could lead to your plot event? Let’s say your character is looking at her parents’ yearbooks in the local library and she finds out the two people with her mum and dad’s names look like complete strangers. If you’d want this to be the dramatic event at the midpoint of your story, there’s quite a lot that needs to happen before that. So how did she get the idea of looking at the yearbooks? Who was trying to cover up the truth about her parents? What specific event got her wondering about her parents anyway? How was life already a little odd to begin with?
What should logically happen next? Remember that it’s your responsibility to infuse the logic into your story and it doesn’t have to be anyone else’s logic. If your protagonist is very erratic and makes rash decisions, her logical next step wouldn’t be the same as some guy’s who loves to plan everything before ever doing anything. So what would your heroine do next after she finds out her parents have fake identities? If she contacted their old maths teacher, where would that lead? If someone found out what she’s trying to uncover, what kind of consequences would that have?
What if you have a story setting in mind, but no plot idea?
I’m no stranger to this problem. I often see pictures of a really interesting place and I start thinking that I should write a story that takes place there. Obviously I can’t go after all those ideas, but if you have an idea for a setting that just doesn’t let you go, you can ask yourself these questions. Ideally, you should never choose a story setting at random, so finding deeper meaning wherever (and whenever) your story takes place really matters.
Story plot questions to ask about your setting
Who would thrive in this setting? Who would struggle the most? Let’s think about Hogwarts for a moment. Who struggles there the most? Of course, it’s the muggle-borns and the students who have never quite got the hang of their magical skills. And who thrives? Anyone who is already clever enough outside school, anyone who is ruthless enough to try and get their way and the students who come from prestigious wizarding families. When you ask yourself these questions, you can come up with multiple character ideas for your story that you can develop further.
What kind of conflict is inherent in your setting? If you want your story to take place in a remote hut in the Scottish highlands, you’ve got material for a lot of conflicts there. The remote location, the unpredictable weather… maybe even the Loch Ness monster. (If you need more ideas, I have written about seasons and weather in your story setting.) And what about the era that your story takes place in? If your story is set in the 1950s, what kind of problems might your characters have? What about in the 1800s? The possibilities are endless.
How does your setting’s history affect present day? What kind of future seems likely? A city that suffered greatly in Word War 2 is a completely different place than a booming metropolis that was nothing but a small town just thirty years earlier. The past or the future might not be relevant to your story’s plot, but they might have an effect on what your characters are like and they will definitely offer more context to anything that happens.
What are the most important questions to ask about your plot idea?
Actually these questions shouldn’t be applied just to the plot idea, you should ask them about everything you write.
So what? This simple question is more powerful than you think. If you can’t explain why anyone would care, you probably shouldn’t be writing it. So what if someone wants to kill Harry Potter? So what if Blanche can’t get along with Dorothy? So what if your character lives up in a mountain where no potential wife will want to go? You need to have the answers.
What if…? This question is my favourite part of the whole brainstorming process. What if they accused your white trash character of murder? (Where the Crawdads Sing) What if a single mother had to ask for a loan from her estranged parents? (Gilmore Girls) What if you were seeing poverty for the first time when you started working as a midwife in east London? (Call the Midwife) And don’t just stop at one question, keep going until you can’t think of anything else. Write down all your ideas, no matter how ridiculous or unusable.
Now that you know what to write about, isn’t it time to figure out how to do it?
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