Lesson 7: Develop Your Idea – Plot

Once you know your problem (THOMR and main obstacles) you’re ready to sketch your plot. This doesn’t have to be a detailed, 50-page document. It doesn’t have to be 12. It can be half a page. And remember this: you don’t necessarily have to have every event slot filled in. The idea is to get an idea of where you’re going. I’ve found that when I have a general idea of where I’m going, it’s so much easier getting there.

If you hate sketching ideas for your plot beforehand, then simply identify the rough number of events you want, look at patterns for your specific type of THOMR (see below), then use the other techniques listed as you go.

1. Gather what you have

First, if you already see some of the plot of your story, capture what you have. If you don’t really have anything yet, don’t sweat it. When you’re done with the next few steps, you will.

2. Ask “what’s cool?” and “what could I twist?”

When you compare a number of stories in your genre, you’ll see that they have many types of scenes in common. For example, action stories contain lots of chases, fights, and escapes. There are showdowns, battles, and sneaking. There might be recon or undercover work.

Romances contain scenes where the couples meet, are forced into close proximity, declare their love, etc. Mysteries contain scenes where the character discovers the problem to be solved, interviews people, finds clues, follows up on leads, gathers evidence (legally or illegally), follows people, etc.

These scenes are often a huge part of why readers go to those genres in the first place.

I’ve found it productive to look at my setting and character and generate cool options for these types of scenes. I’ve also found it helpful when I’m generating those ideas to generate some that are a twist, that do something new.

For example, in Bad Penny, one of my thrillers, I wanted an awesome chase. I looked at the setting and generated a bunch of possibilities. The one that zinged me the most was a chase involving a snowmobile and a pickup, in the summer, on the fields and on a dirt road. It was a blast to write, and I would have never thought of it if I hadn’t asked myself to generate options of what would be cool and how I might do something I hadn’t seen before.

3. Estimate the number of events

Next, get a rough estimate of the events (scenes) you need to develop.

To do this, look at your genre and estimate the size of the novel in number of words. You might be writing 25-30k word novellas like Louis L’Amour, 50k romances, or 200k epic fantasies. It doesn’t have to be precise. Things will change. This is just to get a rough estimate.

Estimate how many words it takes you to write an event. For me and many other writers I know, it takes 2-4k. Sometimes an event will be written much shorter or longer, but that’s a general average. If you don’t know how long you write, then use 2.5k or 3k, whichever makes you happier.

Now plug your numbers into this formula: NUMBER OF EVENTS = NOVEL SIZE/AVERAGE EVENT SIZE

So if you’re thinking of writing a 30k novella and write an average of 3k words per event, you’ll need to come up with roughly 10 events (30/3). If you’re targeting to write a 90k’ish novel, you’ll need 30’ish events (90/3).

4. Identify the number of stories

The next question to ask is: how many stories you’ll be including in this novel? Will you have subplots? How many?

Estimate how many of the events these subplots will take to develop. Think about Spiderman 2. The main plot was focused on the threat of Doc Ock. But there was a subplot for the MJ romance and Spidey’s friend Harry.

Subtract the stage time you want to devote to those subplots. You should now have a rough number of events to develop for the main story.

What if you’re wrong? What if you estimate 12 and it actually takes 15?

Psst, it’s an estimate.

This means you already know it’s not going to be precise. So don’t worry about that. What you’re doing is getting a rough target. And even though it’s rough, I’ve found having a finite number of things to create makes development SO much easier. Now, instead of writing a novel (scary music), you’re simply developing 10, 20, 30 or so events.

5. Think about the 3 part pattern

Now think about the 3 general parts or phases of a story.

Trouble

  • Main character we can get behind
  • MOTHR (obstacle, underdog)
  • Reason can’t or won’t walk away
  • Concrete goal

Struggle

  • Plans and successes (so the reader can feel hope)
  • Failures, set backs, surprises, black moment (so the reader can fear and worry)
  • What locks the MC into final attempt

Resolution

  • Climax
  • Yes or no?
  • Aftermath

Do any events come to mind?

If so, write them down.

Hey, you’ve already filled up a few event slots! This isn’t as hard as it seems, is it.

Here are a couple more questions I want you to list answers to; they will help you sketch your trouble phase.

  • What event(s) leads to your character getting entangled with the THOMR?
  • What are you going to present to the readers to make them want to get behind your main character?
  • What’s your character’s first reaction to the THOMR?
  • What’s the reason he can’t or won’t walk away?

Let’s now supercharge this. The three parts are general. I find thinking about them very helpful. But I’ve also found it even more powerful to also think about the specific story I’m trying to tell. And that’s the next step.

6. Think about the THOMR type

Every THOMR works differently. I’ve found that when I look at story patterns for the specific THOMR I’m writing, it tends to spark ideas. Lots of ideas. When I say story patterns, I mean ways the main character gets involved with the THOMR, the steps he or she takes to solve it, and parts of the resolution. This happens at two levels.

The first is just with the THOMR type. Let’s just look at the pattern for a general romance story.

Romance Trouble

  • Main character we can get behind
  • Signal to reader romantic possibility (The R in THOMR)
  • Show the big obstacle to the romance growing
  • Reason can’t or won’t walk away
  • Concrete goal

Romance Struggle

  • Events that build and undercut emotional attraction
  • Events where physical attraction grows
  • Four big moments: admission (MC or love interest admits to self, sometimes others that they like the other person), admiration, decision (come hell or high water, I will win her love!), declaration
  • Black moment

Romance Resolution

  • Climax
  • Happily ever after ending (HEA)
  • Confirmation of HEA

As we drop down into specifics, even at this level, we see that general romance plot has differences from a general mystery plot.

Mystery Trouble

  • Main character we can get behind
  • Present the thing that the MC wants to explain and why the answer is puzzling
  • The reason the MC can’t or won’t walk away
  • Concrete goal

Mystery Struggle

  • The MC follows leads
  • We are given evidence that leads us to suspect one answer to the mystery (points towards certain suspects, for example)
  • We are given evidence that totally undercuts or casts doubt on those theories
  • Things get weirder and weirder (more puzzling)
  • Black moment (often when the theory we were sure was right is shown to be false, or at least seemingly impossible)

Mystery Resolution

  • Climax
  • Answer to the puzzle (who did it)
  • Explanation of the puzzle (why and how they did it)

There’s a reason why there are patterns for the different THOMR types; read this post on why stories follow patterns to understand why. So, if you don’t know the general pattern for your type of THOMR, take some time to define what happens in the trouble, struggle, and resolution for the general type of story you’re writing. Does the general pattern suggest any events? If so, write them down.

But we’re not done; we can get even more specific.

7. Think about patterns for this specific THOMR

Look at the various threat THOMRs below.

  • Virus pandemic
  • Meteor heading for earth
  • Assassin trying to kill president
  • Invading army
  • Kidnapping
  • Monster or animal terrorizing a community
  • Huge storm threatening people on ship

Each one has a different pattern for resolving that particular type of trouble. If you look at virus stories, you’ll see they all tend to follow a similar pattern. If you compare them to stories about assassins, you’ll see the patterns are different. Kidnapping stories have common elements. But they’re different from stories about monsters terrorizing the neighborhood (unless, of course, that involves kidnappings). All of these THOMRs require a character to do different things to solve them and, therefore, have different event patterns.

This applies to any type of story. Here are some different romance THOMRs.

  • Marriage of convenience like a Western mail order bride
  • Gothic recluse and spinster
  • Competitors or enemies, sometimes called gunslinger/lawman (You’ve Got Mail or Something to Talk About)
  • Bad boy/good girl (Twilight)
  • Mistaken identity (While You Were Sleeping)
  • Lovers are prejudiced against each other (Pride & Prejudice)

At a general level, relationship stories all share some similar elements, but how the relationship develops with the rich English gentleman in Pride and Prejudice who thinks our heroine is beneath him is much different than how it develops in Twilight where the hot vampire wants Bella, bad, bad, bad. So it helps not to stop at the general pattern.

Different THOMRs and obstacles lead to different plot patterns. And the awesome thing about this is that this means you don’t have to start from scratch–you can borrow, adapt, steal, and twist the patterns you see.

So look at your specific THOMR and try to identify other stories, real or fictional, that are similar. Look at the main parts of the structure with those other stories. Then identify any events or patterns in your exemplar stories you want to borrow, adapt, and twist to meet your needs.

What if you can’t think of any stories with a similar THOMR? Research. Ask around. If you still can’t find any, research how someone would go about solving your THOMR in real life.

Guess what? This isn’t the last technique. There are two more that I’ve found are very helpful in generating ideas about what happens.

8. Play both sides

The plot is about what the protagonist does to solve the problem. But she isn’t working in a vacuum. She’s usually facing an antagonist. That antagonist has a goal, brains, and huge motivation. She’s often more powerful and has more resources at her disposal than the protagonist. If you look at things from her perspective, the protagonist is getting in the way–the protagonist becomes a THOMR for the antagonist.

A story isn’t about one person. It’s about at least two struggling against each other.

How exciting would a football game be if there was only one team on the field that ever took any action? It’s the same with stories. This means it’s incredibly helpful to look at this as a game of one man chess. You’re the one man playing both sides.

The protagonist gets entangled with the THOMR, takes action. Then you move to the other side of the board, the antagonist’s side of the board, and ask yourself, what does the antagonist know about the protagonist’s involvement at this point? Do they know the protagonist is involved? If so, when and how did they learn about that? What do they do based on what they know about the situation now? Maybe they move henchman from e6 to b3.

Now you switch back to the protagonist’s side. Do they know about the move the antagonist just made? Maybe not. Maybe it’s a secret move. Maybe it’s going to come up and give them a whammo later. So what’s the protagonist’s next step given what they know about the situation at this point? You make that move, then switch sides. Back and forth you go.

The questions you’re answering as you move from side to side are:

  • What does this player know at this point?
  • How does that conflict with the player’s goal?
  • What’s his reaction?
  • What are some intelligent options he might take at this point?
  • What does he decide to do?

If you look at that, it’s the story cycle. Remember that diagram from the 27-part series in lesson 2? Use that cycle to help you, and remember two things. Usually, to create hope and fear, the antagonist is often a step or two ahead of the hero. Next, because this is a story, a guided experience that increases hope and fear as you go, you probably don’t want the antagonist to go to DEFCON 1 right off the bat. You want them to take strong, intelligent, and ruthless action. But antagonists are like the rest of us in that they first investigate, then send only that portion of their resources they think are necessary, then send more when that fails.

So I want you to start at the beginning of your story and play a game of one-man chess. See if that doesn’t help you fill more of the event slots.

9. Make it hard!

Here’s the last tool I want to share. Readers love the ride. They love feeling suspense or mystery for 90% of the novel, then have a resolution. In order to do that, the THOMR has to be hard.

Your hero does need to have some successes. Remember: the reader wants to hope and fear. So we need reasons to hope. However, I think it’s probably the failures that provide the drive behind the plot. If there’s no problem, there is not plot. So as you move from event to event (what will later become scenes) ask yourself what could go wrong. Ask yourself if this a good opportunity to throw the hero for a loop. These things increase the threat that the protagonist will fail. If the hero is trying to solve a mystery, what makes the whole thing weirder and more puzzling? If the hero is trying to deal with a threat, how can I muck up his plans? Etc.

I find it helpful to think about three types of things that make it hard.

  • Conflicts (with the bad guys, the good guys, bit characters, the setting, equipment, within the MC herself)
  • Throwing the MC for a loop (failures, setbacks, surprises)
  • Black moment

To start with, please do some creative Q&A with these questions.

  • What conflicts can the MC face with the antagonist (and his team), the other good guys, the setting, his equipment, and himself?
  • What can go wrong? What are some things that could throw the MC for a loop?

Now, let’s look at the black moment.

Let me ask you something. When is water the most satisfying?

Think about it.

It’s when you’re bone dry and dying of thirst.

When is a sports victory the most thrilling?

It’s when it’s been tuck and go the whole game against a higher ranked opponent, and your team snatches victory from the jaws of defeat in the last seconds of the game.

This is the same with your stories, and it leads to a common pattern of having a black moment just before the victory (or a high moment just before the failure, if you’re writing tragedy). This is when the worst fears have been realized. It’s when the main character’s ability or desire to win has been completely undermined. This is the moment when, in the reader’s mind, all hope seems lost–the odds of winning are just too overwhelming and long.

If it’s a relationship story, the relationship has been dealt a seemingly devastating blow. If it’s a threat, the hero finally, truly seems to have no way out. If it’s a mystery, all the theories were wrong. The black moment occurs towards the end of the book. In real life, it could occur at the beginning, but stories are a service. Your building towards a climax.

I want you to do is go back and look at three or four of your favorite stories and see if they have a black moment. If they do, where do it occur in each story? Halfway through? At the end of the struggle phase? During the resolution?

Now ask yourself: what are some options for a great black moment for my story? What turn, what event, could deliver this seemingly killing blow?

10. Ack! What if you have too much?

Sometimes during the sketching above, you’ll see you have too much story for the number of events you’ve been allotted. What do you do?

Eric James Stone, an award-winning short story writer has had to keep a lot of stories that could have been longer within very tight word counts. Here’s his advice as written in his post “Tips on Keeping Short Stories from Becoming Long Stories.”

  1. Enter scenes late and leave them early, particularly conversation scenes.
  2. Trust your readers to fill in details you don’t supply.
  3. Cut down the number of scenes.
  4. Cut down the number of characters.
  5. Cut down the number of subplots.
  6. Reduce the complexity of the main plot.
  7. Tell, don’t show, some of the story.
  8. Start the story closer to the end and just fill in the necessary back story.

Link to the post. You’ll see it exemplifies short.

When Tor asked me to reduce a 240k word novel to 170k, I needed to figure out what was causing so much wordage. I found that THE key drivers for the size of my novels is the number of stories I am trying to tell in them, which is affected by the size of the cast (my thought is why have them in there if they aren’t going to be interesting and have a good role?) AND the number of events I decided to use to tell each story.

It takes me about 70k words to tell a full, meaty story. 20’ish events around 3,000k words each. When I have three characters, each with an external and internal story, all braiding around the main story, that puts me around 230k. If I wanted a shorter story, I was going to have to focus and cut out some story lines. It was a good insight to learn.

And I used it with my thriller, Bad Penny. When I wrote that book, I purposely limited the cast and limited it to one main story line and a buddy relationship subplot that was not separate, but that was worked into the main plot. So I had 2 stories, whereas in that 240k honker I had at least 8. And it worked like a dream. It was a dream to write as well. A straight arrow that zipped along. I felt I was cheating.

I think the first draft was 90-100k words. It grew a bit in revision, but that’s just because I wanted to add a few more events in it, and the genre accommodates that. I used that same insight when sketching Awful Intent.  It has a main external plot and a relationship subplot that’s worked into it. The sketch pegged it around 70-80k words.

I was once talking to Brandon Sanderson, the king of big, about novel size and story lines and narrative velocity, and he said something that was a light bulb for me. He said it isn’t so much the number of points of view that drove the size of his stories. It was the number of separate story lines that drove the size.

If all the points of view are about the one story line, then the narrative velocity stays high. It’s like the traditional thriller where we see the hero, then we see the villain who takes some action against the hero, then we have the pov of the hero again. They all move the one story forward. It’s when we jump to whole other story lines, that things start to slow down and get larger. This is why thinking about the number of stories you want to tell and how related they are to each other is very helpful when sketching your plot.

Later, we’ll get into editing, and techniques for cutting what you have. But at this stage, think about the number of stories you have, all of which should have a setup statement, and the number of events they have available to them.

As a final note, I don’t think setting a size limit is a bad thing. Have you ever noticed how TV episodes wrap things up so quickly? Well, they only have so many minutes in a program, which means they only have so many events to play with. You just can’t do everything you might if the program were longer. Yet, we still get lots of awesome TV within those firm limits.

Debrief what you’ve learned

At this point you should be humming with the electricity of all your zing ideas and chomping at the bit to just write. Hey, that’s the topic of the next lesson where I will share some techniques and principles that should help you finish.

But before you go, I want you to summarize what you’ve learned about getting and developing ideas. Here’s my big summary: Generating Story 6: The Story Development Framework. It’s a framework of the main development objectives and the tools that help me complete those tasks. You don’t have to use my framework or my format, but you will benefit from taking just a few minutes to summarize the tasks you feel you need to accomplish before drafting and the techniques you’ve found helpful in getting those things done.

Don’t lose the learning you’ve just won. You’re going to want to build on it with the next novel you write. Summarize what you’ve learned. Then go to the next lesson.

2 Responses to Lesson 7: Develop Your Idea – Plot

  1. Samuel Edwards says:

    I’m really enjoying these posts on writing, John. There’s so much goodness in such a short amount of space. Thanks for taking the time to provide advice for those who need it.

    • John Brown says:

      Glad to hear you’re finding them helpful, Samuel. If you decide to use some of these and have questions about them when plotting your novel, let me know 🙂

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