Displaying items by tag: novel writing, plotting, creative process

Wednesday, 02 July 2014 02:19

From What-if To Plot

A question writers are often asked is 'where do you get your ideas from?' For me ideas come from anything I see or experience that intrigues me enough to ask 'what-if': 

What if a woman saved a man's life and then learned he was a serial killer?

What if a woman who'd lost her son had to save a homeless boy from killers?

What-if's are seeds that stories grow from. I get what-if's from many sources - dreams, news stories, interesting facts, people I meet, overheard snippets of conversations, personal experience, even films or books that didn't go the way I wanted them to. All I need is some kind of spark that catches my attention and makes me wonder.

Whenever an idea comes to me, no matter how small or fragmentary, I write it in one of the notebooks I keep. Even partially-formed ideas can sometimes coalesce with others to form useable plots.

(I never trust myself to remember ideas. I know from bitter experience I won't; at least not with the vision and energy I got when they first came to me. Every time I read through my notebooks I find things I completely forgot putting there!)

Sometimes what-if's come with a ready-made story attached to them. More often I have to explore an idea to see what's there. Here's how the process generally works for me:

When I'm ready to start a new novel, I pull out my Ideas notebooks and read through them. As I do this a number of what-if's usually leap out at me. If one of them grabs me and won't let go, my decision is easy - I take that idea and move to the next step of developing it. Often however I can't choose between several ideas and have to go through the process with all of them.

I start by getting a few cheap notebooks - one for each idea I want to develop - and for the next few weeks my writing day consists of the following:

1. Seated in my comfy plotting chair, I open one notebook and freewrite on the idea by hand until I run out of steam.
This is literally stream-of-consciousness writing, I'm just wandering with no direction. I write down anything and everything that comes to me. Why did this idea catch my attention? Who might the story be about? What do they want? Who or what stands in their way?

Before long I start getting flashes of images, conversations or dramatic scenes that the story might contain. Paying no attention to where they'll appear in the story, I record these ideas, which generally give rise to more.

When I've exhausted my thoughts on one plot I take a break, then switch to the next notebook and do the same with that idea.

I work this way because of something I long ago learned about myself - ideas always come to me AS I'm writing. (I think because I'm hyperactive my thoughts are always racing and I have trouble focusing. Forcing myself to write out my thoughts slows them down and gives me a better chance to consider them.)

2. The next day (or next writing session) I read through my freewrites of the session before and underline the parts I like. Starting with these pieces of the plot I freewrite again, adding more bits as they come to me. If I don't like anything from my last day's freewrite I go back to the beginning and freewrite on my original what-if.

After several weeks, these freewriting sessions usually yield the synopsis of a story. For me the synopsis is 'telling' the story - it's a general overview of what will happen and the people involved. Once I have this, I then move on to 'showing' the story by creating my scene-by-scene outline. (See entries: Why I Outline and How I Outline)

The hardest thing about this initial exploration process is convincing myself I'm actually working. Freewriting feels too easy to me. If I'm having fun it can't be work!

I have to keep reminding myself that play is a vital part of the creative process. My instinct is always to try and take control of the story's direction, but in this early development stage that's not what I want.

I have to trust my subconscious (or higher self or wherever creative thought comes from) and let go of the reins. In this formative stage my goal is to simply remain silent and listen to the story seeking to emerge.

Published in On writing