I have a book on my library shelf entitled, 20 Master Plots (And How to Build Them). The plot themes (or ideas) range from escape, to adventure, to rivalry, to transformation, to forbidden love, and on and on. You get the picture.
Another similar book, which I have read, but is not in my library, is Georges Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations.
Now to these we can add in lists of genres such as romance, western, young adult, fantasy, and on and on (again on and on!). Infinite varieties of plot and plot ideas.
What’s the point here? The point is that there is a foundation, or a skeleton, of the novel that you are planning to write.
One Plot; Many Stories; All Dull
If a plot outline were given to a dozen novelists and if those writers were to write novels from those outlines – you’re getting ahead of me – none of them would be the same. (You knew what I was going to say, right?)
Actually, this was done in years past when an editor passed out a plot to several writers and asked each to write a short story from that one plot. This editor then went on to publish them in an anthology. While some of the stories were okay, most were quite dull. Why? What was missing? Passion. Passion was the missing ingredient.
Whatever its potential, a plot has no value unless it appeals to you, personally. It is absolutely the writer’s deep passion (or caring) for the story, for the characters, even perhaps for the setting, that breathes vibrant life into a novel.
This then is where the novelist’s imagination comes into play.
The Simple Accomplishment
Plots are public domain. You enjoy one every time you read a novel, watch a movie, or watch a television drama. The best approach is to use these plot ideas, but try not to abuse them. After all, artists of all types take their first baby steps by studying the masters, whether it’s painters, dancers, entertainers or what have you.
The plot then is a fairly simple accomplishment. The use of your imagination comes in the next stage – that stage following the determination of how the plot will be structured. This stage is when you choose how to arrange your viewpoint, your time scheme, your characters; which features will stand out and remain in the reader’s mind after the last page has been read.
It’s your imagination that constructs the story line, and in turn controls the story line. Can a writer deliberately harness that imagination? Imagination is certainly a faculty that all writers possess, but can it be invoked?
After the plot structure is determined (or fairly well determined), and the story is moving forward, what if all of a sudden it seems flat and uninspired, and clomps along rather heavy-footed?
It is now time for a critical assessment. Back up and reassess. Where was your imagination taking you? And why?
Often the fault can be traced to one particular ingredient, one episode, one character who is not pulling his/her weight. Perhaps your imagination went to sleep along the way, and you allowed everything to down-shift. This is oftentimes where discouragement sets in and the entire novel is pushed aside.
No Stopping Allowed
Don’t do it. Don’t stop. No matter what, don’t even think about stopping. It’s not the entire novel that’s at fault. Ask yourself:
- Can the problem character be replaced or omitted?
- Can the weak incident be replaced or omitted?
Try different approaches. Let your imagination play with different solutions to the problems your characters face.
While you will not stop, you can slow down. In this kind of revision, a leisurely pace is often the best. The imagination can be a balky faculty; it doesn’t really like to be hurried.
Look around you at other people – in the store, at the library, on the bus, at the civic meeting. What are they saying? How are they acting – or reacting?
Listen to sounds – music, bird songs, thunder, traffic, cacophony. How do the sounds affect you? How do they affect your character(s)?
Take a deep breath — what do you smell? What do the smells bring to mind? How does a smell affect your mood? How do certain smells affect your character(s)?
Your answer is there. Look for it. Expect it. Don’t allow your imagination to rest or get lazy. Keep it stimulated.
Harness the Work Horse
It’s almost like a trick or a deception (only a novelist would understand) that the plot idea came so easily. After all, as I pointed out, there are entire books that list them. But then the real work – the real struggle – begins. Now is when that imagination (the work horse) is harnessed, and trained, and used to the hilt.
NOTE: Here’s another blog from the archives that also talks about imagination. Check this out.