On July 19, 2021, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, Does anyone have any advice about how to nail down what you want the plot of your story to be? I’ve been wanting to write a Spy Thriller for a really long time, (since about November 2019). I started the first draft for NaNoWriMo, but gave up and moved onto different projects (as evidence in this post). Recently, I had another idea for one, which would take place in the same world and country but involve a different main character and take place a few years before the one I started in 2019. However, I’m having a lot of issues deciding what I actually want to happen. I really like espionage, fun action scenes, secrets, dark pasts, many things that are staples of the genre. But every time I try to say “This is who my main character is, this is her main motivation…” It all feels wrong. I’ve tried making lists but I feel overwhelmed by the possibilities.
Christie V Powell wrote back, You might try Brandon Sanderson’s method. He starts by writing down a couple of the goals for the plots and subplots that he wants (character A learns to trust, the villain is defeated, this element of the magic world is discovered…). Then he writes down what steps would be needed to reach each one (so, for “learns to trust,” he might list character A mistrusted someone but was wrong, A is taught a lesson by someone, A likes someone but is held back by her mistrust…). Then, as he writes, he looks at his lists and tries out what comes next. You might try that with your list (espionage can be what secret your character has to discover, the action scenes can be how to bring down the villain, etc.).
I actually don’t do lists right. I usually only get to item three or four, and then my brain latches on to one and decides that This Is The Way. Sometimes I can get a few more on the list by building off of the previous ideas instead of coming up with new ones–for example, if idea #3 is “Perrin meets two mages,” then idea #4 might be “Perrin meets two mages who help heal his friend” or “the two mages have ulterior motives.” I think I would get overwhelmed by possibilities too if I forced myself to keep listing all brand new things. Maybe you could try out building on old ideas instead of coming up with new ones?
When I’m coming up with a new story idea, I start by scribbling down some of the things that I’d like to include. Then I use those ideas to fill out a “beat sheet”, moving them around from spot to spot and filling in new things until it feels right. I wrote a blog post about the story structure/beat sheet I use, if you’re interested: http://atypicallyordinary.blogspot.com/2021/06/story-structure-for-kids-and-other.html.
I’ve made no secret about having a hard time with plotting, even though plot interests me more than anything else. My plot handicap is why I lean so hard on fairytales and myths and, lately, history, which help me not only with my story shape but also with unexpected tidbits that suggest plot directions. Providentially, I’m right now figuring out the plot of my murder mystery that takes place in thirteenth century England and I can give you an example from recent reading:
Fact #1: The murdered woman, who is historical, had a powerful and influential son.
Fact #2: The son lived in a different city from hers.
Fact #3: Little was done to find her killer.
Fact #4: It was easy to escape from jail and hide out in dense forest.
Fact #5: The prime suspect did escape and fled.
Fact #6: Travel, unsurprisingly, was dangerous. (Think bands of evil Robin Hoods.)
I haven’t written anything yet, but my plot as I had imagined it before my most recent research was a bit too straightforward. Now, though I’ll have to find out more, I hope to make my two MCs travel through this scary countryside to reach the powerful and influential son. Without research, I wouldn’t have thought of this promising plot twist.
Out of curiosity, I googled “real-life spies” and found lots of entries. One of them was this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_American_spies, though it may not be the most useful. We can click on a few and noodle around the websites, jotting down discoveries that interest us. In the Wikipedia list, we can click on some spies and read about them. We can sample spies in different eras and see what changes.
In this stage, we can think of ourselves as tourists, lingering here, sampling this war or that crisis, this country or that one. It’s important not to worry. We’re picking flower buds of possibilities. If we’re relaxed about it, the flower buds will drift around. In the backs of our minds, some will make patterns, break apart, and reform. This sounds fanciful, but our creative selves need space where desperation is not allowed.
Later, when we arrange them in our story bouquet, we can figure out where they go. Some may reveal themselves as weeds. Some may bloom with surprising colors and vivid perfumes.
The process is likely to continue as we write. We’re stuck in Chapter Six until we remember a particular factoid we read about a spy in the Franco-Prussian War and a different one from the Cold War. (I’m assuming this will be a fantasy spy thriller since Kit Kat Kitty mentioned the “world” of her story. If we’re writing strictly historical fiction, we’ll have to be more rigorous, and we won’t be able to hop around in time much, but we’ll still need our relaxed tourist experience.)
As we do our time travel, we can speculate in a writerly way. What kind of person did this particular spy have to be to accomplish what she did? There may be several possibilities, which we can list. What might have stood in her way? What stood in the way of a different spy that we looked at that we can plug in? I’m thinking not only of personality but also of physicality. For example, did she have asthma before there were inhalers? Does she have any identifying features? For instance, I would have a hard time getting through a dragnet because of my height.
I love to look at online images, although, usually, after the first four or so, they tend to switch to other people. I don’t care much if I’m not writing real historical fiction. What kind of person would wear this expression? What might have happened to this one to cause those frown lines?
When we’re ready—we can even declare a set time period for our touring, say a month—we can write notes about what we’ve learned. Still in relaxed mode, we can speculate about how we can use it. Gradually, our story is likely to take shape.
I don’t mean it’s easy. This is the part I dislike most. But this is the best way I’ve found to get through it.
The great thing about historical research over spy novels and movies is that we don’t have to worry about infringing on anyone else’s creation. History happened. No one told President Truman, for instance, to make up his mind to drop the atomic bombs because the war’s historical moment was taking too long to conclude and the pacing was faltering.
We do, of course, have to be aware of copyright in nonfiction biographies and history books. The authors of these books shape their presentation of facts and people. If we discover something important to our story, we probably want to find more than one source for it. This is one reason I love Wikipedia, because it’s open source, and we can use whatever we like.
Here are three prompts:
- In medieval England, the punishment for most crimes—really!—was execution. Your MC has been falsely accused of theft and convicted, but she’s escaped from prison in the tower of the local lord’s castle. She’s following a narrow track through the woods on the outskirts of town when a large person drops down from a tree onto the path ahead of her. Write what happens. If you like, keep going and write the story.
- Your MC is an executive at a manufacturer of teakettles where the factory workers are trying to form a union and the owner is using aggressive tactics to stop them. Secretly, your MC sympathizes with the laborers and wants to help them even though the repercussions will be severe if he’s caught. Write the story.
- In this world, a small percentage of the population has the power to time travel. An even smaller bunch has formed a cabal to return to the past, where (when?) they plan to install their leader as prime minister. His policies will be disastrous for everyone except the members of his cabal. Your MC has infiltrated the group and is determined to make them fail. The problem is that she also shapeshifts. The shifts are set off by time travel, and she never knows what form she’ll have taken when she arrives. Write the story.
Have fun and save what you write!