Scenario #1: In revision instructions for your manuscript, your editor asks you to make backstory available through active discovery rather than dialogue. This means inserting a scene or two in the second act, which sounds great in principle. Except the book’s plot became fossilized some time ago for you, and you can’t see where to begin chiseling.
Scenario #2: You’ve written an over-the-top romantic dramedy filled with office politics and secrets. The climax requires a confrontation between three characters which will preferably take place without any possibility of interruption or escape. Also preferable? That it assumes the qualities of a Hollywood set piece, with a backdrop of cinematic appeal, stunt performances, and an outrageous budget if filmed.*
There’s a brainstorming technique I’ve used to good effect to solve challenges such as these, and I’ve recently discovered it’s not obvious to other writers. So in case this will be of help to some of you, here goes.
Begin by listing your story’s known or potential settings.
I like to start with geographical formations and move from the big picture to the granular. If I were writing a space opera, for instance, my list would begin by naming the solar system and planetary options. It might conclude with the layout of a specific star cruiser’s engine room.
In your list of assets, don’t forget to include man-made infrastructure related to politics, healthcare, education, commerce, and transportation.
As with all brainstorming, don’t limit your imagination. Later, you will discard some items as being a poor fit for your story’s genre, tone, or level of realism. For example, you’re unlikely to want a James Bondesque setting for an introspective education drama. Or a safe injection site within a sweet, fantastical romance. But for now, just go crazy.
If I were writing a story set in a small town in the Rockies, my list might go something like this:
- mountain > stream, lake, waterfall, valley, bear, moose, hiking trail, glacier, forest, squirrel!
- town > market, library, bridge, hospital, restaurant, gift shops, ski lodge, citizen’s homes
- highway > roadside pit stops, roadside camping/picnic site, gas bar, construction areas, toll booths
Then I’d take one of the above items and break it down further.
For example: glacier > tour company’s office, touring bus, ice cave, meltwater stream, crevasse
Pro tip #1: As you write, you’ll likely find plot elements start to suggest themselves. Jot them down and keep going unless you’ve stumbled over the perfect solution.
Pro Tip #2: Depending upon your general setting and characters’ resources, your location-related assets might be limited or vast. (For example, a murder mystery featuring a globe-trotting billionaire versus a miner trapped by a cave-in.) In general, the fewer the setting options, the more granular you will need to go to find inspiration.
Running dry on location ideas? Broaden your repertoire.
- Do the unthinkable and dig out a paper map. (Joke.) Online maps are good, too.
- Perform an internet search for local attractions, paying particular attention to images. Sometimes they’ll suggest possibilities where words fail.
- Go for a drive while keeping your eyes peeled. Even if you’re writing a book set in an exotic location, when your gaze lands on your city’s basement library, it might suggest a useful idea. For example, what if your character lived in Taliban-occupied Afghanistan and you made them an avid reader? How would they go about acquiring a book…?
Write activities that correspond to your inventory of settings.
Some settings offer a virtually limitless supply of activities. Others can be more limited. But now take your list and brainstorm how you can put your locations to use. Write them down.
For instance, at a roadside gas station, people might: steal gas, pump gas, repair a flat tire, buy cigarettes, discover their credit card won’t work, fight over snack purchases, slip on a wet floor and break a bone, take refuge from the rain.
You don’t need to spend forever on this but try to get at least a couple of activities for each location.
Mine your manuscript for unconsciously seeded ideas.
I’m amazed at how often my subconscious leaves plot hints. A throwaway line in dialogue can suggest a source of tension (yay, conflict!). So too, an existing character’s micro-climate can point to story ideas.
To that end, make a separate list of known or probable characters, including secondary and tertiary ones. Then take a moment to list the locations they frequent and the potential activities suggested therein.
Sometimes this works even better if you mind-map it, with your character’s name forming one center of a word cloud, and their micro-settings radiating out from it, then the potential activities from the micro-settings exploding out one level further.
Pro Tip #3: Do your mind map on a piece of butcher paper, allowing a few inches per character. Then see sit back and watch the lists cross-pollinate.
For example, let’s say I’m the author in Scenario #1 above, and I’m writing a cozy mystery set in a small mountain town. My amateur sleuth, Lula, needs to stumble over an important clue via an emergency doctor. I need a way to push them together that feels organic to the story. But Lula enjoys good health. What are my options?
Via my lists, Lula already has a known intersection with her Aunt Betty. They typically have lunch together after Sunday church, when Lula takes Betty her weekly groceries. Upon reviewing my manuscript, I see that Aunt Betty had a flood twenty years ago that warped her kitchen cabinetry such that one drawer likes to stick partway open. Betty won’t spend money on carpentry. Her hips continually bloom with bruises.
Town > residential housing > Aunt Betty’s house > kitchen > wonky drawer > bruising
Easy enough, then, for Betty to be cooking Lula lunch and suffer a particularly bad collision with the drawer. And for Lula to check her aunt’s hip, see the veritable forest of black and blue, and decide she’s had enough. For her to jerk the drawer out until she can return with a carpenter, apply too much force, and wind up with the drawer upending and a steak knife in her foot. Naturally, this will require a trip to the ER for a tetanus shot.
Lula > Aunt Betty’s house for lunch > kitchen > wonky drawer > knife accident
Alternatively, this could work if Lula is a known hiker: mountain > hiking trail > black ice > rolled ankle > ER.
Magic can arise when you add a fish-out-of-water element.
An exotic location can be rendered joyless by the entitled. (The Chads and Karens of the world who are too upset about their drinks’ temperature to enjoy a view of the Ganges.)
An everyday setting can be rendered extraordinary by an imaginative character. (Anne of Green Gables who made schoolrooms and streams burst with life.)
Contrasts create inherent interest. So as you cross-pollinate your lists, give extra thought to having your characters land in a mismatched setting while undertaking mismatched activities. The result can be great fun.
In summary, this process is somewhat like a pandemic chef conducting a pantry inventory. By knowing the ingredients on hand before cooking, they are more likely to produce fabulous and nourishing meals. Otherwise, you risk a dessert of canned asparagus. A soup made of leftover goat cheese.
Now over to you, Unboxeders. What are your favorite plotstorming tricks? Can you see this method working for you?
*This scenario is from my second novel, Cold and Hottie. The book was nearly complete but I had no idea how to stage the climax. As I went through the above process, I stumbled across a geographic feature I could use to my advantage. Then a list of activities provided an unusual mechanism to get my characters alone. To this day, that scene remains a reader favorite.