Flowering in the Great Plot Dessert

On September 9, 2021, Brambles and Bees wrote, Does anyone have any recommendations on how to get ideas for plot and how to cultivate them until they grow into a fully formed story ready to write? I am currently struggling with re-planning because I didn’t find the plot I had given the story I’m working on interesting or detailed enough for my liking. The problem now is that I can’t seem to think of any ideas for the story. I have vague ideas for very random scenes in the story that I might not end up writing, but nothing is giving me inspiration.

A few of you had ideas.

Melissa Mead: That’s kinda how I work, actually. I just go ahead and write the random scenes, and they lead to more scenes. Usually. I hope.

Kit Kat Kitty: That’s something I struggle with too. In my current story, I’ve written two short chapters with the information about the characters and plot that I know. It’s helping me come up with things and understand them, so I can come up with a plot.

I also found something that helps is making lists, (something I actually started doing because of this blog) with the example I gave before, I have a list of about seventeen different ideas, and after writing the first few chapters (all of the ideas were rooted in the same concept more or less) there are probably fourteen ideas I can choose from, and a couple I’m leaning towards. This is helpful for me, knowing that I have options, and I feel like I have a sense of direction and what I’m writing isn’t pointless.

Christie V Powell: Resident plotter here!

The first thing I do is brainstorm a few ideas and get everything that came with the original idea written down. Then I write down a list of the major parts of the story (key event, first plot point, etc). There’s a graphic on this blog point that lists some different systems for naming those parts–mine is the “CVP method”.


Anyway, then I start breaking up the ideas from my brainstorm and figuring where they might go in the story. From there, it’s a little easier to figure out what goes in the gap.

For instance, the last story I outlined (a gender-flipped Sleeping Beauty) came with a list of conflicts (my princess vs. the villain, princess vs. her parents who don’t know about her forbidden abilities, and princess needing to find her best friend). So fitting them into the story structure framework helped me figure out what steps I needed to take to resolve each of those conflicts. For another story I’m working on, I had the beginning crystal clear in my mind and a vague idea of the rest of the story. So filling in the framework helped me figure out where the middle and end might go.

Kit Kat Kitty, I’m glad lists—which I push whenever I see the chance—have been helpful!

I think the only book I ever started that didn’t have some sort of borrowed structure was The Wish, and I wrote it over twenty years ago. (I started The Two Princesses of Bamarre with “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in mind, but the fairy tale disintegrated as I started writing.) For The Wish, all I knew was that I wanted to write a book about popularity—about an unpopular girl who wanted more than anything else to be popular. Alas, I no longer have my notes, so I can’t reconstruct my process. I know that, early on, I decided she would become popular by having her wish granted by a witch, who comes into the story only once or twice after the initial gift.

The granting comes with an expiration date. Wilma wishes to be the most popular in her middle school, without remembering that she’s going to graduate in three weeks.

So the granting of the wish brings problems with it that my story has to grapple with in the middle. Wilma doesn’t think of her impending graduation for a while. First, she has to handle her popularity and become the kind of popular girl she’s going to be. Is that mean, as some of the popular kids used to be to her? Will she take revenge?

Then, when she does realize, what does she do?

The thing is that what-I-think-is-called the initiating incident (becoming popular) is bundled with problems for our plot. When we think about them, we think about scenes we can create to make them better, as when Wilma has a great conversation with extremely popular Ardis, and to make them worse, as when she brings her dog to a sleepover (and he pees at a bad moment in a bad place–on a sculpture).

Also locked up in the initiating incident is a seed for our ending. Will Wilma be popular after graduation? We have to decide if we’re writing a tragedy: Wilma is not popular, is not reconciled to being unpopular, and regrets the loss for years. Or an adventure or comedy: Wilma remains popular, or she wins a sense of proportion about popularity and has gained a stronger sense of self-respect.

We create scenes to bring her to the ending we want to give her.

I find a borrowed structure easier because the template suggests scenes as well as the problem and, sometimes, even the ending.

Let’s take “Rumpelstiltskin” as an example, which I go to often because I’d like to figure out all the kinks and write it.

The inciting incident, I think, is the miller telling the king that his daughter can weave straw into gold when he has no reason to believe this is true. The incident suggests scenes: in the throne room with the father, the king, and the terrified girl; the girl in the barn, dwarfed by mounds of hay, standing next to a rickety spinning wheel; the appearance of Rumpelstiltskin; etc.

The problem, I think, is the girl’s survival, and, if she lives, can she thrive?

Here again, we decide what kind of ending we want. Sad is easily achieved. In the fairy tale, she lives and saves her baby too, but what kind of life does she have, married to a man who was willing to off her? For adventure or comedy, we have to figure out a way for her to thrive.

We need scenes for this too. What’s the miller’s daughter’s daily life like? How does she approach her future? What does she think? Feel? Does Rumpelstiltskin stay on the scene after she guesses his name? What’s the deal with him—why is he in the story at all? All of these suggest scenes.

Sometimes, when I’m floundering, I reframe my story as a quest. That was the way I managed to write The Two Princesses of Bamarre out of the sea of mud it was stuck in. In this case, the miller’s daughter, whether she knows it or not, may be on a quest for happiness or for a good life for her baby.

Another way to plot is with a timeline. We have the initial problem and a deadline. If the problem isn’t solved by then, we have a tragedy. We create subordinate deadlines along the way. We fill in with scenes to reach them or fail to reach them. When I wrote my historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, I used a timeline of actual events leading up to the expulsion of the Jews (in 1492) and, finally, the exodus from Spain.

But we don’t need historical events to do this. Story events will do. For example, our MC, Aggie, has to reach her widowed mother on the other side of the world, in time to prevent her from marrying Mr. Weaselham, whose villainy has been revealed to Aggie but not to her mother. We think of what can get in the way. We set up a timeline. We’re off!

So here you have a semi-pantser’s approach to plot. Brambles & Bees, how did it go for you?

Here are three prompts:

  • Write your own adaptation of “Rumpelstiltskin.” If it’s helpful, follow the method I suggest above.
  • Using a timeline, write the story of Aggie, Aggie’s deceived mother, and Mr. Weaselham.
  • In a world that’s something like the American West after the transcontinental railroad has just begun running, outlaws attack Aggie’s train and derail it in an inhospitable landscape. Write what happens. You can figure out a way for her to continue her journey, or you can turn it in a new direction.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. ReaderandWriter says:

    Thanks for that wonderful post Mrs. Levine!
    I know NaNoWriMo is a couple months away but I have a question concerning it. I have never entered NaNoWriMo before and I was wondering when I should start planning for it. (I’m planning to write a historical fiction novel.)

    • That’s entirely up to you and your writing style. Some people start with no planning at all, and some have a detailed five-page outline. I’m guessing that historical fiction would take more planning because of all the research involved. Personally, I keep a document with all my ideas for the story, and slowly flesh it out whenever more ideas come to me, until I have a detailed outline plus several pages of notes.

    • If you already have your NaNoWriMo account – I use their young writers’ program, so I don’t know if the adult one has this too – you can download the Nano workbooks in the ‘learning resources’ section under resources. It only took me a few weeks to plan my WIP, but I’m a die-hard fantasy girl. I couldn’t write a good historical fiction or contemporary to save my life.
      @Christie V. Powell: I just got The Seventh Clan and I’m so excited to read it! I do have at least one other book I have to finish first, though.

  2. I’ve been working on my WIP for five years, and even though its name has become completely unsuitable, it’s still a convenient shorthand so I don’t have to call it “MC’s Story” all the time. I’ve made lists of possible titles, and even come up with a couple I like, but I keep automatically calling it/thinking of it by the old name. How do you get rid of a story name that doesn’t fit anymore?

    • The answer for me is usually just time, after a month or so the new name will start sticking, and eventually it becomes just as embedded as the old one. Or, you can just keep calling it by the old name and rename it before publishing, and have the old name be your special name for it. (Of course, this causes difficulties when people say something about your work and you stare blankly at them for a moment before realizing what they mean)

    • ReaderandWriter says:

      I might have an idea. You could make a list of all the titles you can think of for you story. They don’t all have to be good titles, you should include the titles you don’t like too. Then you can go through the list and pick your favorite title. I hope this is helpful.

    • Do you need to change it in your head? You want to give it a good title, but you don’t have to think of it by that title if you don’t want to. I usually call my books by nicknames or initials around friends or to myself (DR 2 instead of Trails of Decision, for instance). If your old name works for you, why not think of it that way?

  3. I’m working on a Rumpelstiltskin/ Sleeping Beauty retelling, and I’m having trouble with plotting it because of the timeline. It spans over 16 years with two different protagonists, a mother and daughter.
    The Miller’s daughter marries the king, hoping to be able to help her people, who are oppressed by the king. However, it doesn’t work out that way and she ends up imprisoned in a tower, separated from her newborn baby girl. Eventually, the baby princess will grow up and unite the people to reject the king’s rule. My problem is this: How do I shape the plot so that it flows between the Miller’s daughter’s story and the princess’s story?

    • You could alternate chapters with the miller’s daughter and the princess. The princess brings us the present story, and the miller’s daughter fills in some of the backstory. It would be interesting and almost mystery-like as readers find out what happened to put the princess in this situation. Just an idea!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Do you mean the story to be for kids or adults, because I think the approach would vary from one to the other?

    • Ideas:
      You could tell the whole thing from the princess’s point of view, and have the mother’s story be a mystery that the princess has to unravel a bit at a time, until she finally figures out all the clues to find her mother’s tower. I think this one would work especially well for middle grade.

      You could have flashbacks appear between chapters. In my Spectra Crowns series, I insert a short scene between every other chapter from a different point of view than the rest of the story. You could do something like that with the mother’s story as flashbacks.

      You could have the mother escape and encounter the daughter at some point, and have them slowly reveal more of their identities and backstories to each other as they learn to trust one another.

      You could have some kind of magical means that would show you the previous story, such as how Snape’s memories reveal his backstory in the last Harry Potter book. Perhaps the princess starts the vision in one chapter, and then you get a whole chapter from the point of view from the mom as a girl, and the reader understands that now the princess is seeing/experiencing this memory.

      You could have some kind of frame story, which a couple chapters at the beginning and at the end from the princess, but most of the story in the middle about the miller’s daughter.

      I have read stories where there’s a 16-year-gap in between two books/sections, but for me, it threw me out of the story. The characters changed so much in a few months during the first section, yet didn’t change at all in the sixteen years in between? That’s just one opinion, though, maybe it worked for other readers.

  4. I’m leaning toward YA, though I’m not sure. I read more MG than YA, so I have a better feel for that, but with the storylines I want to do, I think YA is a better fit.

  5. Hi! I’ve been reading the blog for a while now, but this is my first question. I’ve been wondering lately about how to write romance realistically. I’m only a high schooler, and I have no experience with romance. Obviously I have friends and family, who I love in familial or friendly ways, but I’ve never felt romantic love towards anyone. I don’t just want to copy books and movies, because I’m afraid I’ll end up misrepresenting it. I’ve read a few of your posts about romance, Ms. Levine, but I think I just need to better understand how to describe the feeling, and the actual falling-in-love part. For example, how to show them falling for each other and what they’ll be feeling without just saying something like, “A suddenly realized they were falling in love with B.” Any help I can get would be great! Thank you.

    • I found the book “Writing the Christian Romance” by Gail Gaymer Martin at my local library. I don’t write Christian romance, but I figured this book would be clean, because I didn’t want to get graphic. The book breaks down a relationship into stages and describes the emotional and physical reactions from the characters at each stage: Awareness, interest, attraction, falling in love, and some kind of happily-ever-after. You might want to look into it.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’ve written three posts here on publishing, but my focus here is writing. Publishing is a huge subject. There must be better blogs for it, and there are many books.

  6. Does anyone have experience or advice for writing the ‘I hate you but I want you’ trope? I’m going to include it in my WIP but I don’t want their relationship to seem toxic.

    • Enemies-to-lovers is super popular right now, though I’ve never tried it myself. Pride and Prejudice is one, technically, and that relationship wasn’t toxic. Hawksong by Amelia At-water Rhodes is another great example. I think part of it is that both of the love interests went through serious character development, not just one, and both of them had to put aside their own pride and prejudice for the relationship to work. I think, though, that the more they’ve acted on their hate in the beginning, the harder it will be to pull off. If you have a lot of harsh words or especially physical fighting, it’ll be harder to overcome than classism and a couple of rude comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.