Just today I read a newspaper article about the chief executive of a media company - already a millionaire - who had voted himself a multi-million dollar bonus for the fifth successive year. Then he had used dubious schemes to avoid paying tax on it.
I was outraged. Was he worth such a reward? No. Did he invest his surplus wealth in Good Works? No. He was an icon of unmitigated greed.
And a plot started to emerge...
I drafted a story in less than an hour in a white heat of anger. I added conflict. I imagined that the tycoon had an underling, poorly paid. She faced a moral dilemma. Should she stay loyal to her boss, who had done her many personal favours, or blow the whistle on his illicit schemes?
On reflection, I made the man a decent fellow, brought up in terrible poverty and driven by insecurity to accumulate vast wealth. Did he deserve to be ruined? Hm...
At the end, there was no moral conclusion, no villain or heroine. (Nor is there in life, usually.) But I hope my passion made the characters - and their conflict - real.
That’s one way to write a gripping tale.
Don’t reach for a plot ‘off the shelf’. It has staleness built in. Find a real story - perhaps out of the day’s newspaper - and feel the emotion that’s already in it.
Why does it move you to tears, compassion or anger? Speculate upon the conflict situations it might reveal, if all the truth were told. Create characters that are authentic but sufficiently fictional to avoid libel. And drop in a plot.
If the original news story reflects an issue that’s perennial in the world - in the above case it might be ‘greed’ versus ‘need’ - your tale is likely to resonate with readers long after the local incidents have been forgotten.
Now you have a great theme.
Of course, a story is no better or worse just because it’s a ‘true’ one. (New writers often cry: 'But it really happened!' That's a poor defence for a bad story. So what?) You have to imbue it with your own passion. Even better, feel the passion that the real characters in that tale must have felt!
|"Oh, my God. I can't believe what I just did."|
‘Literary’ authors might strain to breathe life into tired plots, using clever words and structures, but your tale will have a structure taken from life. It's real. It convinces. The plainest words will suffice.
In fact, the stronger your story the simpler should be your words.
No words could be simpler than those in Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. Or in the classic tales of O. Henry. Or even in Aesop’s Fables. But their themes still move us. They are grounded in human imperatives, the primal emotional drives that must underlie any story for that story to sell, command readers and endure.
So stop looking for a plot theme. Let it find you. You’ll know when it arrives because you won’t be able to prevent yourself from writing that story. In just one hour. And breakfast be darned...
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at: Writers-Village.org/Academy-intro