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Monday, June 19, 2017

Coming up with a Plot (from scratch)

Anonymous said: I often have ideas for a scene or a character but there is no plot. How can I expand these ideas into stories? I just don't know what to do with my ideas to get a story out of them. Most plotting tips require that I know at least the beginning and the end of my story. But I don't even have that.

Hi Anonymous,

I've heard of other writers having this same problem, so you are not alone! Here are some ideas that come to mind when I think about this.

First off, you have ideas for characters or scenes, and that's a starting point, and you probably (I'm assuming, because it wasn't that long ago) saw my post What to Outline When Starting a Story, which can give some guidance on what to consider. However, if you have no idea where to even come up with a concept for your plot that post can only be so much help.

Conflict out of Story Elements

Since you have some ideas about character and scene, I'd try building off that. In some cases, you might need to flesh those out a bit more to continue (I don't know, since I don't know how much you have those figured out). New York Times best-selling author David Farland points out in his book Million Dollar Outlines that characters grow out of their setting. We are all influenced by our setting--where we live, where we spend our time, what century we're part of, etc.

Setting --> Character

Farland goes on to say that out of character (and setting) comes conflict:

Setting + Character --> Conflict

Plot obviously comes from some sort of conflict, the character reacting to and trying to solve that conflict or conflicts. But let's finish out the diagram/equation.

Setting --> Character --> Conflict --> Theme

How conflicts are dealt with in the story create the theme.

It should be noted though that this diagram may not be helpful to everyone, and it's also possible to work backwards from it. For example, I personally don't like the idea of starting with the setting--although, realistically, pretty much all stories start there, if only to the most basic degrees (time period, real world vs. fantasy world, Earth vs. space, etc.). I often like to start with character. But as you work on your character, at some point, you are going to be looking back at what kind of life he grew out of and where he came from, and where he is now. Other people may like to start with conflict, and work back into character and setting. So, it doesn't have to be linear.

But let's look at the conflict part. You need some form of conflict to have plot. As I mentioned a few weeks ago in my post Are Your Conflicts Significant? the conflict should either be broad (far-reaching) or personal to the character. If it's not either, it's probably not that significant. However, it should be noted that you can make almost any conflict broad, or personal.

But how do you even get to that point? If you like Farland's diagram, what I would suggest would be looking at those characters and setting. Brainstorm conflicts by asking yourself questions.

  • What conflict can come out of this setting?

For example, in some stories, major conflicts come straight out of the setting. Most if not all dystopians, like The Hunger Games fall into this category. You can even look at movies like Interstellar, which deals largely with space travel. The major conflict came out of a setting (Earth will soon be inhabitable). In a fantasy story, conflicts can come out of the world and worldbuilding (setting), whether it's the magic system or the world itself. In Lord of the Rings, the major conflicts often come from the setting (Frodo has to make it to Mount Doom) and magic (the One Ring is a magical object that must be destroyed). In historical fiction, it can come out of setting--what are some of the conflicts the world was dealing with during WWII?

But what about something more small-scale than Panem, outer space, and Middle-earth? Setting can play a role there too. What kind of conflicts can come out of attending high school in 2017? What conflicts might be present there? What conflicts might come out of trying to start a career as a woman centuries ago? The story doesn't have to be epic for this sort of brainstorming to work.

Les Miserable is a good example of how setting can play into conflicts, whether it's being a struggling young mother, a convict, or participating in politics.

  • What conflict can come out of this character?

Once you have your character, you can try brainstorming conflicts for her. Now, there are sort of two ways to approach this.

One, you look at your character--her personality, strengths, weaknesses--and ask yourself, what would this character want? Figuring out what your character wants is often vital to a good story. In some stories, it can be more simple, basic, or straightforward. Maybe your character just wants money. In other cases, it might be bigger. Maybe your character wants to defeat an evil ruler. It can be somewhat philosophical. Maybe your character dreams of ridding the universe of a false god, like in His Dark Materials.

When you know what your character wants, you can start brainstorming conflicts by considering what could stop her from getting what she wants. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo volunteers to destroy the Ring, but there are literal obstacles in his way. Space, for one thing. He has to travel for miles and miles and miles. Then there are other people and creatures: orcs, Shelob, Sauron, even his own companions--these people are in conflict with him. He has to deal with getting hurt, wounded, and fatigued. All these things are keeping Frodo from his goal. And of course, his ultimate want is to return to the Shire, but he has to destroy the Ring first.

If your character wants to be in a relationship with someone, there are obstacles too. Maybe the love interest doesn't know he exists. Maybe there is a family feud, like in Romeo and Juliet. Maybe there is a love triangle. Whatever your character wants, you start brainstorming what could keep him from getting it.

A second approach to brainstorming conflicts with character is to look at your character and consider what kind of situations would be difficult for them, what would make them grow. In some cases, they might be the reluctant hero. Love him or hate him, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, Edward Cullen is a good example of this sort of thing. He's a "vegetarian" vampire living his life, and then out of nowhere, a girl shows up that is basically his personal brand of cocaine. How is he supposed to deal with this? Worse. He has feelings for her. Immediately, Edward is in conflict.

Now, you can combine both methods. And in reality, both those examples have both. Sure, Frodo volunteered to take the Ring, but he was basically the only person who could. But look at him. He's just a humble hobbit. He doesn't do magic, he doesn't know warfare, and he knows very little about the world. But he's thrown into a situation where those characteristics will be tested. Similarly, Edward is thrown into a situation, but he ends up having wants too. He wants to be in a relationship with Bella. But the fact he is a vampire and she has potent blood is a conflict that impedes that.

So you can brainstorm conflicts from setting and character.

Plot out of Conflict Types

Let's look at this another way.

There are five types of conflict.

Person vs. Person: the character is in conflict with another person. For example, Harry Potter is in conflict with Voldemort.

Person vs. Self: the character is in conflict with himself. Edward is in conflict with his vampiric interests and his romantic interests, his moral desires and his natural desires.

Person vs. Nature: the character is in direct conflict with the natural setting. In Hatchet the protagonist has to survive the wilderness.

Person vs. Society: the character is in conflict with a group of people or a culture. For example, Katniss is in conflict with her dystopian society.

Person vs. God: the character is in conflict with a god, or the concept of god. In His Dark Materials, many of the main characters are in conflict with the Authority, a being who claims to be the Creator of the worlds. (I did a whole post on how this conflict can be used in modern times here.)

Looking at the character or scene you already have, you can brainstorm using these five types of conflict. Who would this character be in conflict with? What kind of person? Does she have conflicting desires? Weaknesses that keep her from getting her wants? Is there a natural mishap or disaster or plague she needs to deal with? Is she different from the town, country, society, or culture she is surrounded by?

Usually the best stories have more than one type. For example, Les Miserables uses all five.

Conflict by Genre

Another helpful way to come up with a conflict is to consider your genre. If you are writing a fantasy that deals with magic, then your conflicts should probably include and deal with some magic. For example, in the last two books of Harry Potter, one of the main conflicts deals with understanding and destroying Horcruxes.

If you are writing romance, you'll need to brainstorm conflicts that relate to the relationship.

In science fiction stories, there should probably be a conflict that involves science.

In dystopians, there should probably be a conflict involving the society.

In a mystery, conflicts might come from trying to find information and put it together in the correct way (hint: most of the time the character is wrong about some facet).

In a young adult story, there will probably be a conflict specifically about identity.

In a story about a cancer patient, there will conflicts that deal with cancer.

So the premise of your story should hopefully give some direction too.

The point of including conflicts that deal with your genre is that they contain the sorts of draws that your audiences is looking for.

Taking Conflict into Plot

Hopefully with these approaches, you can begin brainstorming interesting (and significant) conflicts. Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm. Sometimes it takes a while to get the thoughts going. Also, often the first things that come to our minds when brainstorming are the cliches, so give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm beyond that. I've found that usually things are difficult to write because we haven't brainstormed enough.

Once you have some good conflicts, you can start building from there. Some people say there are only three rules for story middles: Escalate! Escalate! Escalate! As your characters are pinned against conflicts, they will be faced with trying to resolve or escape them. Ideally, the outcome leads to bigger conflicts. "Out of the frying pan, and into the fire," as they say. The conflict grows, either by getting broader or more personal. Some stories center on one or two main conflicts. In other stories, one or two conflicts lead to different, bigger conflicts. So for a murder mystery, the conflict is going to revolve around figuring out who murdered someone. But in His Dark Materials, the protagonist Lyra's first conflict comes from overhearing a murder plot, then grows into having her friend kidnapped, then grows into learning and participating in a war on Heaven, rescuing the dead, and saving all worlds.

Some writers will say that for plot, all you need is to set up your character's goals against conflicts, and have your character try and fail to resolve those conflicts multiple times, until the climax. But in truth, you can also have stories where the character succeeds in resolving a conflict, only to realize it was part of something bigger. In Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, the main goal is to defeat an evil ruler, but after defeating the ruler at the end of book one, we realize that they had actually caused a bigger problem, one that involves gods at war with one another, and that the ruler, while evil, was actually stabilizing the world.

If you are a discovery writer, you'll sort of discover the plot of the story as you go. If you are an outliner, you'll need to start outlining the structure of your story. Remember that there are different kinds of story structures, and different kinds of stories. But all successful stories have a rising action, climax, and a denouement. More on all that process here.

* Have a writing question for me? Leave it in the comments or check out my contact page.

Further Reading

Are Your Conflict Significant?
What to Outline When Starting a Story 
How to Outline When Starting a Story
The Oft Forgotten Conflict and How to Make it Work: Man Vs. God
Les Miserables: Dissecting a Masterpiece
Ramping up Try/Fail Cycles


  1. Thank for making these articles freely available, September! I decided to pick up writing as a pandemic hobby, and this article was just what I needed since I have TONS of scene ideas but can never figure out how to make a full story out of them.

    1. My pleasure! Writing is such a great hobby--and a pandemic is a great time to pick it up. I'm so glad this was helpful. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Good luck with the story :)


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