I like to be surprised. Fresh implications and plot twists erupt as a story unfolds. Characters develop backgrounds, adding depth and feeling. Writing feels like exploring.
~ David Brin
Tell me a story
Tell me a story. That’s all. The plot will work itself out. Unless you are telling an epic tale worthy of Tolkien or a mystery intricate enough to stump Agatha Christie, plot can take a backseat to good old fashioned storytelling.
As David Brin says in the above quotation, writing can feel like exploring. It is one of the joys of the craft – learning the story as it unfolds under your fingers. Start with a character, a voice, a need. Start with a setting, a conflict, a hero or villain. Explore the character or setting. What’s he like? What’s the town like? The haunted house? The deserted space station?
As the author you have to know more than anyone else — more than your main character, more than the villain. You learn by exploring the edges of your story. You don’t have to dive right into the action (though you can!) You can warm up by writing about the restaurant where your hero likes to go for breakfast.
Nothing is wasted. Don’t feel like it’s a waste of your limited writing time to write on the periphery of your story. You never know when you will be able to recycle a scene and incorporate it into the body of the story.
In that same vein do not be afraid to use a trope as a placeholder for later development. A classic love triangle, a son avenging his murdered father, a woman seeking revenge on her cheating lover… there is a reason these are time-tested plots. They were good enough for Shakespeare; they will certainly serve their purpose for you.
Your characters will tell you what they want, and what they want equals plot. Character + desire = plot. So write some scenes! Write a scene with your main character. You have a main character, right? What does she want? If you’re not sure, than write a scene where she’s hungry and decides to make a sandwich. It’s that simple. What she does now will tell you depths about her.
Does she go to her kitchen and make a brie and apple slice sandwich on homemade French bread? Does she find a slightly stale bagel thin and some baloney with a dark edge where the package wasn’t sealed properly? Does she get a bowl of cereal because she’s out of bread? Does she grab her car keys because she never cooks, not even a peanut butter sandwich.
You have a flow going with your character now. Respond to what your brain is giving you. This is a “Yes, and….” moment. Don’t stop to edit. Don’t re-read it (not yet). Just respond to the narrative and keep writing. Plot is happening. You’re writing about one woman’s epic struggle to get lunch in Boone, Idaho, and that is the heart of the scene, and scenes are the bones of your story, so keep writing. Keep “Yes and”ing until you run out of steam.
Now relax. You’ve gotten good work done, and you can take a break. Your story needs to sit for a bit, resting like bread dough. And your brain needs a break, too. So relax and let your story develop in the back of your mind. What happens next? What’s the next thing your hero wants now that lunch is done?
Don’t sweat plot. The first draft is called first for a reason. The second and third draft will give you the depth and structure of the full narrative. Right now you are just walking around inside your character’s head. Be content with that. It’s the stuff of great stories.