Fresh plots for sale

On July 5, 2013, Athira Abraham wrote, How can I come up with original plots? I’ve searched up on the Internet, and I know that you should write the story you want to read, but I’m sick and tired of reading books on quests, rescuing, riddles, forbidden love, escaping, or revenge, though it seems like all books and stories and plots fall under these categories and more. But I want my plot to be more enticing to the readers that read it and to myself. I want it to be new, original, and unique. 

I do like quests and escaping an evil enchanter etc., but its so common. How can I accomplish this?

This reassuring response came from Michelle: I think that perhaps the reason that these topics are used so much is because they’re popular. For many people, these adventures are so exciting and suspenseful that they never get boring. Of course, the success of a book depends on its author. If you feel bored with these topics, don’t use them. There’s a good chance that readers won’t be interested if you’re not.

Write about what you think is interesting. As for the uniqueness, I don’t think there is any advice to give. It’s a hard question. But, I do think that every plot, even original plots, have piggybacked off others at one point or another. If you like quests and an escaping evil enchanter, ponder those topics. And eventually, ideas will come. Good or bad, they always do. By the way, if you’ve done research on the internet, this means you’re a serious writer. You have an imagination. And if you have an imagination, there’s nothing to worry about.

On my bookshelves are two books about plot, bought a long time ago, probably out of desperation. Interestingly, I just looked on Amazon and discovered that neither author seems to ever have published any fiction!

The point of one of the books, which is similar to Michelle’s comment, is that there are only a few possible plots. I agree with Michelle and the book on this: a limited number of plot types. But character possibilities, situations, settings, are limitless. Complete originality may be impossible, but uniqueness is inevitable. Except for plagiarizing, no one writes exactly the same story, comes up with the same dialogue or identical characters or identical anything.

We all, I think, have dreams for our stories; we hope that we’ll create a marvel, which we may actually achieve. But not by concentrating on wished-for greatness. Once I sit down to write and start spinning my tale, I need to put those hopes aside to concentrate on my words and my story. If I think about how stupendous I want my book to be, I freeze. Guaranteed.

Having said that, as an example of pretty significant originality, I’ll put forward The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong, which I just read, and which won the Newbery in the 1950’s and is, in my opinion, a tour de force in plotting. It’s too young, I’m pretty sure, for almost all of you who read the blog, and it may seem old-fashioned. But I recommend it highly, because it has a lot to teach us about plotting, and I’m sure I’m going to learn from it. There’s little at stake, only persuading two storks to nest in the Dutch village of Shora (so it’s a quest plot), but the tension stays high, and DeJong varies carrying out the quest with astonishing ingenuity. Repeatedly, when I thought the problem was solved, he came up with something new to keep me reading. Besides, it’s a charming book, and, here and there, throughout are marvelous brush-and-ink drawings by Maurice Sendak. If you do read it, or if you already have, I’d love to know what you think.

Athira Abraham, sounds like you may be tired of the kinds of books you usually read. Maybe your writing would be re-energized by reading outside your usual preferences. I don’t know how old you are, but when I was in high school I went through a phase when I read mostly nineteenth century Russian novels, and then I moved on to other kinds of novels. I also read a lot of plays, and several were by George Bernard Shaw. Mark Twain is another favorite, and he’s so unsentimental that he’s cleansing. I adore A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Or, in the world of young adult literature, I admire the work of Virginia Euwer Wolfe boundlessly, and my favorite is The Mozart Season. Short story collections may be useful too, because you come across a lot of plots in a single book. A librarian or a knowledgeable bookseller may have more suggestions.

You may already know all these books and authors; you may read short stories regularly, but the point still is that stepping outside your usual preferences may give you new ideas and may suggest approaches to plot you haven’t tried before.

Another source of unpredictable plots is life, where the unpredictable meets the random meets the intentions of people. They combine and recombine, and we find meaning. We shape what happens to us into story. We can use family stories as the basis of our fiction. I’ve mentioned before that my book Dave at Night is an invented version of my father’s childhood in an orphanage. Tucked into the story are fragments of truth and the real-life personality of my dad. Soon I’m going to start reading another book about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, my ancestors among them. I’m hoping to find a true story I can fictionalize, because something that really happened often has a surprising shape. You may find something in history that you’d like to turn into a story. Or a piece in the news. Or something that’s going on in your community.

When I think about turning fairy tales into novels, I look for leaps of logic, anything that doesn’t make complete sense, which usually leads me to exploring my characters’ motivations. Why does the prince fall in love with the maiden in “Toads and Diamonds”? What’s up with the cat in “Puss ‘N’ Boots”? Why is he so willing to help a master who was about to eat him? The answers usually take my plots in surprising directions.

In The Wheel on the School, author DeJong uses not only his characters, but also the weather, the dike (since this is Holland), and a bell tower to twist his story.  Oh, I hope you read it! As we write, we can think, What else can I bring in? What’s handy in my story that I haven’t exploited yet?

Here are two prompts:

• Begin your story with the achievement of a quest. The magic statue has been found at great cost. The heroes and heroines are celebrating, and it all falls apart. The statue doesn’t do what it was supposed to, or someone drops it, and it shatters.

• Here’s a little germ of an incident from my girlhood, which you can use as a story seed. A friend and I read a book in which the heroine’s name was a variant of the name of another one of our friends. We announced to her that she had to go by that nickname from then on. I won’t say what followed. That’s your story. Think conflict. You can go small and keep the tale to the confines of the friendship. Or you can widen it. You can imagine that the three are members of powerful families (as we definitely were not!), and more people get involved. Whichever route you take, the point is that, since it derives from reality, the story is unlikely to follow a predictable path.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. You might also try listing 100 variations on the escape-from-the-evil-sorcerer theme as quickly as you can. You'll probably go through the usual suspects first, then find that your examples are getting stranger and stranger. I don't always get usable ideas this way, but it can be fun when you're stuck.

    Another exercise is to choose random words or sentences from a book and incorporate them into a familiar plot (say, "mango" and "escape from an evil sorcerer"). The results may be more crazy than useful, but they will probably get you thinking.

    • I was doing the same thing the other day…only with pictionary cards. (The ones with words, not the pictures, but I guess it could work either way.)

    • Olga T. Howard says:


      It is about 3:30AM . All is quiet as the birds of the night churp melodiosly for all who wish to hear and listen as I mentally become creative in thought.

      I think of the many people throughout my past who with much interest would tell me to write.

      Lee Baker a very intelegent carrying person took much time trying to convince me to write. She crossed over many years ago. Perhaps some day I will dedicate the first plot and many others to her that I may sell.

      Thank you for your availability to listen through email right now, as I try to go get a few hours of sleep before the morning garden birds awaiken me wiith their love sharrying in song as birds … .


      PS Thank God for editors

  2. I love the Wheel on the School!!!! It really is a very sweet book. Now I have to hunt up my copy and re-read it.

    Another author that is really cleansing is Dickens. I'm reading Bleak House right now, and the plot is so original and suspenseful that I can't WAIT to finish it!!!!! If you feel adventurous, I would also recommend Little Dorrit and Nicholas Nickelby. Dorrit is a little slow, but NN is a very (for Dickens) quick read.

  3. I remember reading The Wheel on the School as a kid and loving it. Thanks for the reminder; I must look it up again.

    Great ideas for plot generation, in your post and in the comments. How fun!

  4. Good advice Mrs. Levine! I think my more recent plots are fairly unique. Yeah, I use royalty, or revolutions or wars (Lots of wars = spies, lots of generals and fancy battle maneuvers, weaponry. Bravery, Courage. Backstabbing. Sigh.) but my stories, though they are shaped by these things, their pretty original. Think, how interesting would most people find boring everyday life? That's why things are often set in times that fascinate people, because what is happening now, we are living in, what happened back then is MUCH cooler. Plus, going on a quest is symbolic, escapes are thrilling, magic is fascinating. That's why people read it. Your job is to manipulate it into something completely new. Give your characters a uniqueness that only YOU could come up with. When your plots get boring look over your story, think of what other people have done with fairly similar plot junctures, and come up with another alternative. (Even if it's not completely logical. MAKE IT LOGICAL!!!) I do this all the time. Recently, my Twelve Dancing Princesses tale was sounding SERRIOUSLY clichéd. Trust me, it was almost slap-bang the same as Jessica Day George's retelling. Now I switched it around DRAMATICALLY. Such as: You know that old lady? It's actually Michael's magician sister, Althea, in disguise. And the cloak? It's made out of Althea's hair. (I came up with this one because there are lots of tales out there with human hair being magical. Like the one myth where a net of a virgins hair captured the sun.) Saphira's old beau is forcing them to dance after defecting to the bad guys. See? Not super hard, just think: "If this is not logical, what will make it BELIVABLE. It doesn't have to be logical if the reader will be able to believe it. Easy! (Pretty much, just persevere, it takes me several days of thinking of my story every spare second to work out some snarls, but when I do, it pulls off beautifully. Also, your characters have a lot to do with your plots. I cannot tell you how many times one of my characters saved my stories. I'm on the verge of throwing out the whole thing, when I realized that my characters weren't speaking enough, If you need to tweak your story a bit to let their personalities speak, do it. You will find it will help you so much more than you would ever have imagined. Hope I was able to help a little.

    • Thanks for the advice Elisa! You had some pretty cool ideas! And I agree when you say "If this is not logical, what will make it BELIEVABLE?". I never thought about plots in that way.

      And I guess your right. When I was really young, I read some book (I don't remember what it was called, but it was "…And Fireworks". Anyways, when I read that book, that was when I decided to be an author. I started writing a story but it was 97 percent of the same as the story I had read. Same plot. But different character name and setting. I decided to stop that story, knowing that I had to come up with something unique. Then I wrote tons of stories (that I never finished), but they were all unique. And now looking back at it, I now realize when we feel we are copying someone else's story, we come up with an original.

  5. Thank you soooo much for this post Gail! Very helpful to me! Now please excuse me as I go to search for THE WHEEL ON THE SCHOOL and read books of a different genre that I don't normally read…..

  6. This was super helpful! Also, I remember reading The Wheel On the School in grade school and loving it. I'm not sure what happened to our copy….
    Anyway, I know Mrs. Levine just said she looks for the illogical parts of fairytales that help lead into her story. But I was really just wondering if anyone had any other suggestions on how they turn fairytales into fiction. There is a fairy tale I have been wanting to try my hand at making into a story/novel, but I'm not sure where to get started. It's not a particularly well-known story either-especially if you didn't read Grimm's Fairy Tales when you were younger like I did. 😉
    I have done an adaption on Red Riding Hood, but I just can't seem to find the starting point of this one.

    • Which one is it? It's been my experience that Grimm's lack in the love department (logically). The noble/king/prince sees a girl (normally stranded in the woods) and BOOM! He marries her. I guess that's more of a character thing though. It would really help me (and other people) if you would tell us which one it is… Even if we've never read it, it's probably online somewhere. So it would be AWESOME if you could post a link to it or something like a general sketch of it. I hope this helps!!! I LOVE fairytales so I'm really glad you asked about turning one into a novel.

    • Unfortunately, no, the RRH story isn't published. I'm still working out details and modifying plot and finishing up some stuff.
      But the story-It's the one where a selkie is captured by a fisherman and becomes his wife. The fisherman hides her 'seal skin' and they are happily married. They have kids, but one of the kids finds the seal skin, tells the selkie/mom where it is and she-the selkie then goes back into the ocean never to return. I'm not sure what it's called…
      Here's a link to a version of it.
      They called it the Selkie Bride

    • I love that fairy tale! Illogic and mysteries get me going. In this story it would be mysteries. The selkie's character isn't fleshed out. I wonder what she feels about her life on land, her husband, her children. The children are interesting, too. What's it like to be half selkie? These questions might help me find my way into the tale.

    • yeah, it's one of my favourites! I like it because it's not as well-known as others, and the plot has always interested me. Those are really interesting prompts! I think I'm getting enough ideas to start a tale…I was also thinking I might figure out where the selkie goes after she disappears into the ocean. And with the ideas you just gave me, I think I will finally be able to start! Thank you 🙂

  7. I think wanting an original plot is like wanting an original car. No matter what kind you get, it will still have four wheels and an engine, just like everyone else's. So it's not all that special. But if you try to build your own car without four wheels and an engine, you're going nowhere.
    Don't be afraid if your plot shares the same pieces as every other one out there. You can make it your own in other ways.
    "Complete originality may be impossible, but uniqueness is inevitable. " Ooh, look. I have a new favorite quote.

  8. I'd strongly suggest reading the works of China Mieville (in particular, 'Perdito Street Station', 'The City and the City', 'Kraken'), and then looking on Youtube for video of his interviews, conference talks etc.

    He's a genius at coming up with unique and fascinating plots and/or such strange circumstances that they SEEM unique (for example, a murder mystery set in two politically distinct cities occupying the same physical space – with nothing supernatural involved), and he talks alot about how he comes up with such things. May give you some concrete tips you'd like to follow, and/or send you off on a tangent of creation of your own.

    Also, like in the murder-mystery scenario I described above, try combining two or more things that interest you (not necessarily plots, but two ANYTHINGS) and building a plot around them. Think "If the philosophy 'I think, therefore I am' interacts with asiago cheese, what is the result? Who is pulled in and what happens to them all? How do my two elements morph by their interaction, and what chaos results?"

    • Those are strange ideas-but in a good way. Interesting, but a little odd. I think it's a unique way of finding as original a tale as you can. And sometimes a little odd is a great thing.

  9. I am writing a twelve dancing princess story, and I want to include names of actual dances. This is fantasy, and I am not sure exactly 'when' my characters are. Should I focus on one category of dancing? Or is it okay to have all sorts? Both a tarantella and a gavotte? Did my question make sense? I'm not sure if it does.

    • Since its a fantasy story, go ahead! By all means, take dances from different periods. It'll be a cool mix. And believe me, not every reader will read your story and instantly Google the names of the dances your character danced in the story to see if they were from the same year, 😉

  10. Oo, that could be fun! The princesses could be famous because, when they dance in the daytime, they come up with "new" dances that no one's ever seen before, which they've learned from their timeless underground partners…

  11. Mrs. Levine I loved how in 'The two princesses of Bamarre' you incorporated an epic poem. I love novels and poetry and reading this made me think, I can write a poem novel! Do you have any advice on writing epic poems?

    • It was a long time ago, but I remember looking at old English ballads, and I think I looked at BEOWULF (in translation). It can never hurt to look at epic poems, could be BEOWULF, could be a portion of a classic Greek epic poem (or the whole thing), like THE ILIAD. Pay attention to the rhythms and the sounds, even though these will be in translation, unless you read classical Greek.

    • Hello, Ms Levine, I love your books, I would love to read the full version of the epic poem you incorporated, could you tell me from where I might find such a reading?

  12. I love A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court! I read it to my family when I was young and voiced all the different characters differently and they enjoyed it as well. I have a question about plot simplicity. I have a novel I have spent several years on editing and re-editing until it was about where I wanted it, but then I realized how simplistic the story way. There isn't a whole lot of sub-plots going on all at the same time. Is this a bad thing? Should I focus more on plots combined with sub-plots in my next novel? (I honestly am tired of re-editing the same material, and when I tried to make it more complex the whole thing just came out wrong. So I won't be doing anything more to this one.) Anyway, thanks for being so faithful in writing these blog posts. This is the only writing blog that I actually still read more than once a year. 🙂 And coming up with this many writing prompts all the time? Wow!

  13. Can you believe that after five years of working on a story, I'm only delving deeply into my villain's motives NOW?? Sad, but true.
    I'm having some difficulty pinpointing his core motives, so I read your older posts on villains. In the most recent ("Villainy"), you listed four common motivations: power, indifference, prejudice, and lack of empathy. So far, it seems that my villain's motive is power… but is that too clichéd or common? Does it need to be deeper than that? Do I need to figure out why exactly he wants more power?

  14. When I read a story with a villain whose motive is power, I don't typically go, "Oh my goodness, this is way overdone." A lot of people do want power, and it's a believable motive. That's my opinion.

    • Everybody wants power over something. For most of us, its power over our lives or relationships. I would say no, it isn't cliche, but it WOULD be if he wanted power over, like, the whole world or kingdom or whatever it is. Just keep the range of the power desire believable.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Bug and Bibliophile!
      Bibliophile: Heh heh… My villain is one of those overambitious types. In the current version of my manuscript, he rules two countries already and wants to rule a third (neighboring) nation in order to reach Earth. (Those first three countries are in another world.) So yeah, it is a pretty huge range of power. Would you consider that unbelievable/clichéd?

    • Whew. Thank you! Sometimes it's hard to be a judge of one's own originality. I'm grateful for a blog like yours where I can ask questions and find both answers and affirmation. Thanks again!

  15. I'm having trouble with blogging–I realize you have done a post on blogging, but I still have questions. I don't know how interesting my posts are, because most of the time I have nothing to write about; my life isn't super interesting. Stuff about high school doesn't fill many posts. How do you make your posts not boring? And what if I decided I wanted to do a post about writing? Would that be weird because it hasn't been about writing so far? Thank you for any suggestions at all!

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