Finding my Way into a Story: Plot

Check out Episode 4 of Exhuming the Bones podcast with my co-hosts, Mary Leoson and David Williams. To prepare for recording, I sketched my thoughts and wrote a brief summary of my co-hosts’ points. Each of us approaches plot differently.

Mary finds her way into a story through the setting. She places herself in time and space and then focuses on an object or several objects. Of this place and these special objects, she asks questions, launching her out of the dreaded white and wordless space and into that wonderful place where we can use creative intuition to make choices.

I find my way into a story, not by starting with setting, but by starting with plot. I ask: what if? The what if of my novel Never Mind went like this: What if SOMEONE had to hear what people thought about them? Now onto character. What if a MUTILATED TELEPATHIC WOMAN had to hear everyone’s disgust?

Once I checked my gut and was sure I felt strongly enough about that speculation to write 80K words about it, I asked myself, where could this happen? It may or may not relate to the what if. In this case, it didn’t. But I was writing at the beginning of the pandemic and had just lost a Caribbean cruise, so my scarred telepath was on a cruise, hearing how ugly she was from her fellow passengers. I liked the dissonance between luxury and leisure and ugliness and shame. And I liked imagining being on a cruise. Being a telepath allows for all sorts of play. It’s a challenge, too. Keeping things straight. What’d she hear from a mind? What was spoken outright?

But that’s not all. I can tell you where else my what-if came from.

Yours truly woke from brain surgery in 2018, so I was writing what I knew. Stephen King’s Dead Zone is about a telepathic guy who wakes in the hospital after being in a coma for five years. He has to touch people to hear their minds. His son, Joe Hill wrote about a guy who woke from a hangover with devil horns to find he could hear minds (mostly the depraved parts) just by being near them. Hill’s character could also exert control over people, could insert thoughts into their heads. Horns is a fresh, clever story that explores human depravity and self-sacrifice. I used what I knew and what I’d been reading to make something new.

And another example of how I enter a story with a what-if question:

My recent WIP involves more of a moral dilemma. What if a timid man, trying to exact revenge on his bully co-worker, accidentally kills his boss? That’s a good start. What if he gets away with murder and begins doing anonymous acts of kindness for his boss’s daughter to atone for killing her father? What if they fall in love? Again, the setting could’ve been anywhere with this particular what if. But I love beer, so I put them in a microbrewery. And can I tell you how much I’ve enjoyed the research on this particular work?!

A what if can be character-driven. What if an arrogant narcissist was turned into a beast? Beauty and the Beast. Or morally-driven. What if the devil was the good guy? Paradise Lost. Or, object-driven. What if a real-hair wig I put on gives me power (or memories) from the hair’s original owner? Mary’s story, “The Braided Veil.” What if a car shows up that abducts people and releases alien plants and monsters into the world? From a Buick 8. Setting driven: apocalypse stories, war stories. The Matrix. How will people act in this crazy setting? There are innumerable what if vehicles that can drive us into our stories.

If that’s your mojo. We’re all wired differently.

David enters his eco-horror stories through the process of freewriting, inspired by role-playing games and a calling to preserve and protect nature. It matters not how you get through the door and into the world of your creation, just that you do.

Credit: Anatoly777

I’m ever-learning. If you have a unique entrance strategy into plot, I’d love to hear it in the comments section. Happy writing!

8 thoughts on “Finding my Way into a Story: Plot

  1. This was very interesting. I go with the ‘what if’ approach too when I’m writing novels. I day dream for weeks before putting pen to paper. After that, the writing seems to take on a life of its own. I used to write serials, and often by the seat of my pants to stick to schedule. It worked out for a while, but then burn out…Ugh!

  2. Kelly, you’re so great on the podcast–super cool. I love what you had to say about the plot types potentially rescuing that saggy middle. Been there, that’s for sure! I think I’m often drawn to “what-if?” as an entry to a plot. But for the stuff I write character usually come first. However, writing historical stuff, I do feel the setting is tightly tied to the story. So, I don’t know. I guess I do a little of each. You’ve given me so much to think about here. Thank you, thank you!

    1. Thanks for listening! As I read your comment, I’m thinking that I should really experiment and enter my stories differently than my knee-jerk way. What fun that would be! I do love talking about writing and feel blessed to have the opportunity.

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