Nearly every book’s plot starts with a question. Sometimes this question will be, “What if….” Sometimes it’s a flash of a storyline. C.S. Lewis imagined a picture of a fawn carrying packages and an umbrella hurrying through a snowy wood. What that fawn was doing and who he met because the seeds that created “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Sometimes a story will start with a concept: e.g. I want to write a story that will show the problems with modern-day slavery in a way that any American can relate to. So go ahead, grab a notebook or the worksheet here and jot down your own “what ifs.” Brainstorm as many scenarios as you want and choose one for your major plot. Got it? Great. Now, we’re going to brainstorm as many ideas of subplots, conflicts, and elements to drive your story from beginning to end without running out of steam.
Think about the physical elements that your character deals with, including his body, his culture, and the world around him. Some conflicts that this could include could be:
- Illness, injury or physical defect he or she must overcome, co-exist with, or battle.
- War, cultural hatred, forces of nature
- Lack of food or water, physical confinement or abuse, poverty
- A place that is physically challenging or constricting.
Write down as many physical conflicts as you can think of that your character may be facing. When you are finished, circle five of the best ones that creates the most excitement in you and makes the story begin to flow in your head. Add these physical conflicts onto the line that contains your story.
All stories are character driven and characters are driven by their emotions. Looking for a characters core need will give you a framework for the storyline and also help you analyze the character’s responses and actions on a scene-to-scene basis. Emotions are the #1 way that a reader will connect with your character. Don’t be afraid of emotions, or feeling the emotions as you write for the character – when you connect emotionally with your character, your reader will too. Remember, a great tool to use for each scene is finding out what the character is trying to get from the person he or she is interacting with: e.g. “I need you to…”
Emotional concepts to explore can include:
- The need to feel safe, validated, loved or anything that is granted by another person.
- The need to survive, to meet a physical or emotional goal, or find something that is lost.
- The need to alleviate guilt, restore something they broke, or come to peace with a difficult question.
- Spiritual Concepts
Do any of these ideas spur what could be a secondary plot? If so, take a moment to choose a place in your storyline that you could explore this concept. Remember as well, that not everything will require it’s own chapter. Many of these emotions and need will weave naturally through your existing plot. Take a moment and look through your plot for places that they could emerge. Add them to your plot where they will fit well.
No one lives in a vacuum. We all have family, friends, enemies, and a myriad of relationships that we navigate day to day. None of these relationships are all good or all bad either: our best friend can drive us crazy, our spouse may be a competitor, our boss may become a best friend. Who are the characters most influential in your character’s life? Can any of this spur a secondary plot? (The answer is yes.) Go ahead. Add it to your main plot!
- Love interest
- Immediate and extended Family
- Best friend, enemy, a figure of authority, dependent or mentee
Now, you have a main storyline inspired by your “What if.” It will have an opening, a minor source of conflict, your character’s action against that conflict, a build up to a larger conflict, the clash, and the conclusion. Do you know what all these points are? Great. Write them down.
Now go over this lists above and pick your favorite idea from each type of conflict and make each into its own storyline. Now you can weave this lesser plot, into the events of your main plot, giving it two layers, then three, then more until you have a fully-fleshed out character. Here is how I created my own. Print out your worksheet here: Plotting Your Storyline