Friday, May 31, 2013

An Easy Way To Find A Winning Plot

What’s the easiest way to find a plot for a story or novel? Let it find you!

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."
One bonus of this ‘easy’ approach is that you don’t have to be a highly gifted writer to produce a winning result. The theme should speak for itself. Stand back and let it speak.

‘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 passed away in 2016. He held a PhD in Creative Writing, judged the Writers’ Village story competition and was a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. Prior to getting his doctorate degree, he spent 40 years as a commercial author and chairman of a major PR company. His Writers’ Village short story contest drew 1500 on-line entries each year from all over the world. Some of his blog posts are archived here, (however the writing class enrollment and downloads are no longer available).


  1. What an interesting approach to plotting, John. I have always had a hard time just letting my characters go where they need to emotionally. Once when I was working with a filmmaker in NY, he kept asking me, "Where's the beef?" when he read a scene I'd just written. I tend to keep a tight rein on my own emotions, and I'm sure that influences how I write. I will take your suggestions to heart.

  2. I too have used a newspaper piece as a story starter, layering in other conflicts until I had enough conflict to power a novel. I like what you said about making the characters sympathetic, though—sinking into the POV of the character you like the least is always an interesting exercise, and just may reveal some secrets that can give you compassion for him/her.

  3. I wouldn't throw away the importance of word choice, though. If the writer never rises above "See Spot Run," their narrative, clever idea or not, can be pretty boring to read. Which ties into the post from yesterday: don't dumb it down. Skillful use of language is the icing on the cake.

  4. Maryann, I think that's a problem we both share. We're too nice :) One writing tutor told me that a story must have pain on every page. Without pain, there's no drama and, without drama, no story.

    BTW: Have you noticed that all television shows now are dramatized according to that precept? It's why I find television so painful...

  5. A very interesting approach to story/plot. Easily seeable as a possibility. I have to wonder though if the moral ambiguity of the ending lessens the impact rather than enhancing it since your reaction (the emotion that DROVE the story) seemed to be based on a perceived, unjustifiable wrong.

  6. My mom always told me to never make an important decision when I was angry ... I guess I apply that to writing, too. Hmmm, maybe I should listen to talk radio before I fire up the word processor.

  7. How wonderful when a plot almost falls into your lap!

    I often use my aggravations in plots, and twist them to suit the book, like in Killer Career when the main character wanted out from her job.

    Morgan Mandel

  8. The news has such great story fodder - all it takes is a little "what if" and the story starts to emerge.

  9. I have used actual events to add poignancy and reality to a story. The subplot of my first novel was domestic violence. Each brutal incident related in the book was painfully real.

    This is a great post, Dr. Yeoman. Lots of food for thought here.

  10. Dr. John, I've noticed that TV news reporting is all about drama, too. We've come a long way from what I learned as a journalist - the facts, Ma'am, just the facts. LOL

    Several of my story ideas have come from news stories, and I love it when the "what if" game leads to a full plot.

  11. I love this post! It's exactly what I believe in, and try to craft plot from. Right now I am working on a story that involves family. It's a beautiful love story whose characters remain true enough, but are embellished so as not to cause grief. But writing it in one hour??? I wish!


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