Someone just asked me if any plots are really new. Probably not.
What is new is how you make the plots mean something, how you apply those plots to your own characters, who are different from any one else's, how the story you tell touches the minds, hearts, lives of the people who read it.
Plot is only part of what makes a story, and only one way to get started.
Stories can also start with characters, or ideas (take at least two different ideas and come up with some way they can both be part of the same story), or even settings.
If you start with characters, you ask yourself first of all, what does the character want? Why doesn't he/she have what he/she wants? What does the character do about getting it?
Or, you could ask yourself, if you have decided to start with a contented character, what would cause the most pain to this character? And what would the character do about it?
If you start with a situation or setting, ask yourself who is the character who suffers most from this situation, or who is unhappy in this setting?
If you put two or more ideas together, ask yourself about the characters who would be most interesting and most affecting in working out those ideas.
(It all, really, comes back to characters, you see?)
So pick one of the above places to start, and let's discuss your selection.
(Consider this a writing assignment for the Hatrack Writers Groups Writing Class.)
A very infectious virus infects earth, causing everyone affected to stop aging. This means that babies stay babies forevor, and that everyone lives until they either become ill and die or are fatally wounded. It's eternal life, but...
You dream prophetic dreams. Almost on a monthly basis you dream a dream that will become reality in approximately 1 year. This has been true for you for as long as you remember. But -- the dreams stop. You no longer dream. What do you do?
Oooh! Will and Waxwing could easily combine theirs: he has a dream every night about a person he's never met, but then, the next day, the person he dreamed about shows up and asks him to paint his portrait (sorry for the political incorrectness; it gets on my nerves). He, inadvertently, must paint the dream in order to do the person justice, in his mind. He doesn't realize what he's doing, because he never remembers his dreams until they are fulfilled.
So, when he stops dreaming, his backgrounds go white.
And scratch my first post; I can't think of any logical way to work it into this. However, I just got another idea of something which would make this really cool! I actually was trying to get this idea to work in another story, and it just didn't fit.
A misfit boy (he can't do anything right, basically) starts talking to aliens. They read his mind, and write messages to him on his computer screen. He becomes friends with them and about twenty years later, they tell him they are a dying race, and if they don't find a planet to land on soon, they will die. He offers them ours. They protest, saying they carry a bacteria which has been specially engineered to infect the brain of any intelligent species, which will deaden enough brain cells so as to make the infected as intelligent as a horse. It's a survival thing, but they like the guy and don't want to do it to his race. He says go ahead, he never liked us much anyway.
Here's the complication. There is evidence that the aliens are completely in his head. He made them up as a security thing. He's completely insane. But, then again, the painter has been painting white backgrounds for almost a year now...
[This message has been edited by Brinestone (edited January 22, 2001).]
Well, in my humble opinion, those are all great story starters.
They could be put together to make a story, and Brimstone shows that with Waxwing's and Will's.
But I think they are actually more than single ideas on their own. They could be stories all by themselves if you do one thing with them.
I'll get to that after this short explanation , though.
I just finished reading Stephen King's ON WRITING, and in it he explains that he hates the idea of pre-plotting a story. He starts from a situation and a character and lets the story grow from there. He calls it uncovering the story the way an paleontologist uncovers a fossil.
So, you've got some way cool situations here. Instead of trying to add another situation to the ones you've come up with, how about working on the character part?
Who is this artist? There is a post in the Open Discussions about Writing section that suggests a bunch of questions you can ask yourself about him.
The same goes for the person who has found the cure to the virus. Just think of all the chases you could write about (if you wanted to) as different groups try to steal the cure or stop it from being produced or just want to kill the person who discovered it, not to mention all the answers you need to come up with for the characterization of this person.
And who is the dreamer? What has this person done about the dreams, once he figured out that they were coming true? What kind of trouble has this person gotten into that would make the stopping of the dreams a life-threatening thing? Has he promised to dream who wins the Kentucky Derby or something?
So don't worry about a second idea. Take your situation and develop a character (if you can't think of anything else, figure out some way that your character is the one who will suffer the most from the situation).
Put character and situation together and let the story happen.
After thinking about my idea contribution, I thought, gee, this could also be a writing exercise for the originality post in the other thread. I can see handing it out to a classroom of 20 Writers of the Future, and each would handle it in a manner that would reflect their own mind state. It could be a great psychological test thing, maybe too revealing. Of couse, that could also make it quite interesting...
The root of another idea of mine actually started with a character (acutally, it's still in the process of starting). A priest in England is turned into a vampire. This would lead to a whole 'I'm unholy thing', because he's dead but he's living, and only Jesus Christ did that. He's aliving blasphemy! There would be a big thing about drinking the blood of others (Thou shalt not kill), and he'd be tortured every moment of his life. I figured I could increase this torture by having him discovered and run out of town, which would lead to all sorts of interesting things. Although I'm not sure when this would happen, I was leaning towards not long after the Battle of Normandy (1066), or towards a more modern time. Either way, it intrigues me. The questions in All About Character are ones that need asking, but for me, they're not a good way to start a character. I prefer to find a way of hurting someone, and then shape the character who would be most hurt by the hurt (that last bit made sense in my head...) I usually deal with niggles after that. JK
Posts: 503 | Registered: Sep 2000
I don't doubt that any approach to writing can be pigeon-holed. Doesn't bother me either. Sorry, but I also doubt that you can generate 1000 ideas in an hour. No-one can come up with (mental maths......) about 17 ideas a minute. Impossible... Your sentiments, Kathleen, are echoed by hundreds of writers all around the world, although I can't help thinking that that sentiment sounds a little defensive. Sort of, 'Well, just because it works for you, you multi-millionaire writer, doesn't mean it would work for me too. My way's just as good as yours...' But I still believe in it whole-heartedly. JK
Posts: 503 | Registered: Sep 2000
Well, if you have lots of people doing it, you could pull it off, I guess. Reassuring it is, but the words could be said in a defensive tone and still make sense. Anyway, it seems we're going off-topic. Like I said before, I've started with pain before and created a character around that. Is it possible to do it the other way around (i.e. create a character, presumably floating in a world-less ether, and then hurt him or her)? JK
Posts: 503 | Registered: Sep 2000
But too, the best pain is psychological. Physical pain can be gotten used to, but the other can be a real ripper. I'm sorta finding that out myself, with a teenager who is going the wrong way in life and a wife who thinks it's her fault.
Okay. So I have this portrait painter who, without realizing it, paints his subjects' futures in their portraits. Word gets around and people start asking the artist to paint their portraits as a kind of 'tarot reading' and he becomes a very popular portrait painter. He's very gifted. He loves his work.
Here comes the pain...
The artist's biggest dream is to receive a commission to do a portrait for a lord or a king or a head of the Church. He gets his commission. He paints the portrait. Then the lord/king/bishop notices something in the background of his new painting that he doesn't like-- and it is part of his future.
So now I ask myself, "What does this mean for the poor artist? Imprisonment? Accusation of treason? Execution?"
I have begun a story, and I find myself unsure of my solution to this first, elementary issue of character motivation.
I want to introduce a main character on the very first page, and I want my readers to like and identify with him quickly. But I also want this charcter to begin the story with some serious misconceptions about his own motivation. This is a critical part of the story. If the character understands himself at the beginning I cannot tell the story that I want to tell.
The problem is that the reader needs to identify with the character, yet I currently have this very deep character starting with a very shallow motivation. When I write him like this he seems flat and stereotypical.
I have tried to put this flat character into a vivid world using scenery, action, and dialogue. That has helped quite a bit, but I feel I can do better. How can I give him life without revealing to the reader that he misunderstands himself so badly in the beginning?
Add a second character that sees him for what he realy is ( a deep person) (and also sees the character's true motivation beyond the shallowness he is suffering from right now) The second character doesn't have to be blunt in his thoughts and actions but he can give subtle hints as to the main characters true motivations. This character can be comical or dead serious or annoying. It will give you an in to later letting the main character discover him/herself.
Doc, it sounds to me like you are trying to present what is often called an "unreliable narrator" except that you want this character to grow and change, and I don't think the usual "unreliable narrator" always does that.
I suspect that point of view is going to be important in how you manage to present this character successfully.
If you use first person, it may be very tricky to get the reader to both identify with this character and to understand that the character is in some form of denial about his motivations.
Readers who want to identify closely with a character may not like finding out that they are identifying with any kind of fool (and if the character isn't being honest with himself whether unconsciously or not, he is going to run the risk of appearing foolish at some point).
You can take the approach suggested by Shawn and use someone else as the point-of-view character. Consider the Sherlock Holmes stories. Doyle uses Watson to tell them in part so that the reader never really sees how Holmes is thinking. This increases the awe the reader feels for Holmes (because Watson feels that awe as well).
An outside character can be used in this way not just to inspire awe, but any time you don't want the reader to really know how the main character is thinking.
You could also do this with what is called "limited third person" where you do not go into anyone's head. Readers today are used to this kind of thing because that's how they watch movies and television (in fact, this kind of point of view is also called "camera eye").
Information about motivations is conveyed only through the characters' body language, words, and actions.
Your character could say his reasons for doing things are thus-and-so, and yet his actions and his body language may disagree with that. The reader will begin to see that this character is fooling himself and watch with interest as he learns better and grows, without feeling that they have identified so closely with a fool.
Anyway, these are some possibilities you may want to consider.
[This message has been edited by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (edited June 02, 2001).]
I am writing this story in third person, and I do plan to have another character discover him for what he really is. My plan right now is this:
Chapter 1 shows us the character in his misunderstanding mode. This phase of his life is important for developing certain traits and skills. We also meet the other peripheral characters who help to enable him to continue to misunderstand himself. At the end of the chapter he meets the person who will help him discover the truth about himself.
In chapter 2 (tentatively) the two of them go on a journey together. This has the dual purpose of showing us the world in which the characters live and helping the main character discover the truth about his own motivations. At the end of chapter 2 this main character is ready to begin his transformation into the character I need to tell the rest of the story.
His transformation *might* begin in chapter 3. I have a few other main characters to introduce first, and they will all meet after one or two undergo transformations of their own.
This first character is difficult, because he starts out so flat and stereotypical. He is easy to write, but when I read it back he is boring.
Still, I really want to show the circumstances around him that have created this situation (the enablers) before the transformation takes place. I need him to fit this stereotype.
Another reason for my problem is that, for the sake of realism, I am trying to introduce the character in the midst of a scene with very little dialogue.
I am going to try adding even more detail to the action (ala Tom Clancy) and some humor to help the reader get through the beginning of the story. But my instinct tells me that if I were doing a good job the beginning would be a joy to read without employing tricks like that.
I shall let you know how it goes.
[This message has been edited by Doc Brown (edited June 04, 2001).]
[This message has been edited by Doc Brown (edited June 05, 2001).]
How quickly should the reader find a character to about whom they care, or with whom they can identify?
Perhaps I have tried to take on too much here. I think I have a good idea, but it is proving difficult to bring it to life.
In order to set the stage for this character's transformation, I am starting with a scene in which his shallow personality is at its high point. It is an action scene, and it makes the character very stereotypically macho. I thought this would be a great way to grab readers, but so far I am disappointed.
Later I plan to give the character very charming dialogue, but not in the first scene.
As the story opens, all of the dialogue is in Chinese. This serves a couple of purposes. It allows the readers to get the impression that the character is not what he seems to be within the first few pages. It also adds a very important brick to the foundation of the world in which he lives.
Right now the scene has very little dialogue (long Chinese sentences would annoy the readers and destroy an important element of my story), and reveals very little of what the character is thinking (the character thinks in English, but I do not want the reader to realize this for the first few pages).
I tried writing the dialogue in italicized English, but this does not make the character seem Chinese enough. I want it to gradually dawn on the readers that the character's primary language is really English. Thus they will understand someting about the setting, and begin to suspect that there is a different character lurking inside the main character.
I also cannot describe much of what the character is feeling, because that would reveal that he does not understand his own motivations. So the only emotions he experiences are shallow and macho.
Right now, 95% of the first few pages describe what the character does, with about 2% devoted to thoughts & feelings and 3% to dialogue. The reader sees through his eyes and knows every move he makes with his body. Even though the scene is packed with action, it seems boring!
I have compared my first thirteen lines to the other thirteen line openings I see at this website. By comparison mine are awful. All the shallow action makes it seem like I am writing a comic book! This goes on for at least two pages.
I have considered describing the scene from the point of view of a minor character who is present. The problem is that this minor character is the one who discovers that the main character does not understand his own motivation, and this scene is where he makes that discovery. I do not want the readers to learn the truth until the main character does, so the readers cannot see the scene through the eyes of this character.
The only way I can see to write this, the way I had planned, is to see the opening scene through the eyes of a character about whom the reader cannot possibly care.
I do not believe that I can get away with that for very long, maybe 5-6 pages at the most. Does anybody agree or disagree with that?
(Ohh! I just had a thought! I might be able to make the reader hate my main character . . . that might get their attention!)
Doc, I'm grasping here, so this may be no help at all.
The first thought that popped into my head was to display the scene from the pov of a cat in a nearby window (or a dumpster, near the action). Yeah, call me crazy, but that's how my mind works. Anyway, then you'd need a reason to be inside the cat, a divice that you could use throughout if there was a plausable reason for it. Then I tossed the idea aside.
Second thought was to have the intro scene be from the pov of one of the minor bad guys, one of the guys he's fighting (or whatever). This person would be focused on his mission, and what he sees/reveals of the main character would be the basic, obvious motivations as they are conveyed by the main character's actions and dialogue. This person could then die (or something) at the end of the scene, necessitating a shift in pov, or you could carry him along, and have him grow in understanding as he continues to encounter the hero. Might also be a way into the motivations of the anti-hero?
Just some brainstorming thoughts, for what they're worth.
Doc, I think you're asking two things here, though they're related.
First you asked: "How quickly should the reader find a character to about whom they care, or with whom they can identify?"
You should try to get the reader to care as soon as possible. (This is what is called the hook, really.) Readers don't need to identify with a character, but they do need to care.
Second, you are asking about whose point of view to tell the story from.
If you pretend you are just filming the story, then you don't have to be inside of anyone's head. You are just the camera.
Show us by their body language, actions, words what the characters think and feel (both your main character and the character who recognizes that the main character doesn't understand his own motivations).
Don't get inside of anyone's head. Just show what a camera would see.
JP, it would be impossible to show this scene from the POV of a cat, or any non-human animal. It takes place in a airplane in flight, so no animals are in a position to observe anything. As I said above, using the minor character in the scene would reveal too much. There are bad guys in the scene, but would that not make a VERY difficult hook to set?
Kathleen, I plan on telling the story from the point of view of three or four main characters. Only one of them is in the first scene. In my current draft it takes about 2,000 words before the reader has a chance to care about this character.
That seems like a long time. Maybe I am mistaken? It seems to me that my favorite pieces of fiction hook me much sooner than that.
I have already written the beginning exactly as you suggest, as if the reader were watching a movie. It creates precisely the introduction to this character that I want. But I am wary of setting a 2,000 word hook.
Well, 2000 words can be about 5 or 6 published pages, maybe as many as 7.
In a novel, it's easier to get away with that long of a hook. (Consider that in some mysteries, the murder doesn't happen until the second or third chapter.)
I'd say to let it go for now and get on to the rest of the story. You can spend so much time perfecting the beginning that you never get anything else written.
None of it is carved in marble and you can always go back and work on it more later.
As you work on the rest of the story, you may get some ideas from your subconscious on how to change the beginning so that you're happier with it--subconsciouses tend to work that way--think about something else and they'll hand you the answer you couldn't have dragged from them.
After another round of fleshing out technical details, the beginning of my story is now tolerable. Doubtless I will be even happier after more technical research, but right now I am satisfied enough to move along into more of the story. Thank you all for your help.
Kathleen, it is now obvious to me that this story is destined to be a novel. I believe that I can get by with a 2,000 word hook, although it is now a 100-200 words shorter. I start with a "camera eye" view of the scene to get the reader oriented to the action. Over the course of 1,800 words (or so) I move closer and closer to the character . The camera eye shows the setting clearly, but keeps the character a mystery. Readers who believe the camera eye showed them the real character will be in for a surprise.
I hope this hopping of the age barrier isn't too inappropriate.
I find that my most original and compelling ideas come to me in dreams. When I am awake and thinking in the ordered, analytical way that most of us do, I tend to 're-invent' stories that have been done hundreds of times. When I'm asleep, my brain plays fascinating games of random association. I always write down my clear dreams, and base many stories off of them.
My point then, is that to get away from repetition (though, as many people have said, no stories are truly original), it can be very helpful to let your conscious mind out the back door: think of wild and crazy things, or read interesting things just before you go to sleep. Don't think about whether anything makes sense, just let it go. Later on, you can connect ideas and fix up things that are pointless and stupid. This is the best way I've seen for getting out of the shadow of Shakespeare and Shelly etc. Characters, scenes and sometimes full stories can spring from our minds, if we let them.
If I'm out of place here, I apologize, but I hope my suggestions can help you.
[This message has been edited by Bellafontaine Torrez (edited June 18, 2001).]
Rust Hills, author of WRITING IN GENERAL AND THE SHORT STORY IN PARTICULAR compares the kinds of stories that come from "night dreams" to those that come from daydreams, and the "night dreams" stories are much preferred.
If you believe in the "collective unconscious," then you can understand why dreams which are products of the subconscious might be more powerful than daydreams which are just wishful thinking. Such dreams would give stories more resonance with readers.
If at all possible, take a minute before you get up each morning to think about any dreams you may recall so you can solidify them in your mind. Then write down what you remember as soon as possible after you get up. Keep these dreams in a journal and review them every so often.
You never know what your subconscious might offer you that might turn out to be exactly the thing you've been looking for in a story.
I read somewhere (can't remember where now) that there's only about 30 bare-bones plots, and that all stories are children of one of those plots. Is that right or are my memories playing tricks on me?
And on teh subject of dreams I keep a notepad beside my bed just in case i can remember one when I wake up.
It is my opinion that all "new" story ideas, are instead new patterns and regurgitations(sp?) of past ideas. So, assuming this is true, what is the best way to generate a "new" story? Or rather when one has created a "new" idea, what way is the best in presenting it, without seeming like a "copycat?"
Posts: 295 | Registered: May 2003
I'm not sure I would say there are no new story ideas. I would say, however, that there are no new ideas. And certainly, there are no new basic plot lines, such as the quest plot line, or the revenge plot line, or the boy meets girl plot line.
That said, I think two aspects are new in each story. First, the juxtaposition of ideas is new. This is what made the original Star Wars movie so popular. In that movie, you have fantasy, magic, space travel, guns, aliens, boy meets girl, boy finds meaning, redemption (of Han Solo), etc.
Second, you, the storyteller, if you can dig deep within, bring an inimitable perspective to each story you write. This is really whatís new, and I would suggest this is what separates great story tellers from good ones.
Take Enderís Game, for example. The entire backstory to that novel has been done several times -- Starship Troopers and The Forever War are two that spring to mind. And certainly rivialry between kids is nothing new; Stephen King novels are filled with (younger) kids vs. (older) kids. When you combine those two, you get something . . . well, perhaps not new but seldom done. But I would suggest what is new about that novel is OSCís presentation of Ender. And in the final analysis, thatís what makes that novel so special.
[This message has been edited by Balthasar (edited May 22, 2003).]
One thing to remember is that they don't both have to be speculative ideas...Think about Ender's Game. All the strange technology and the war and everything comes from one speculative concept, the alien race called Buggers. But the other driving concept of the story--the use of children as weapons--isn't speculative at all. But it is an idea.
Posts: 8322 | Registered: Aug 1999
Perhaps a good exercise to do would be to take two or three of your favorite novels and list their individual ideas, themes, and plot lines as bare-bone ideas. Then you'll begin to see that there's nothing really new excpet for the treatment of these bare-bone ideas.
I've never done this, but the only foreseeable danger might be that you destory your love for your favorite novels. Then again, you might come to appreciate the ability of the author even more when you see that your tools are the same as his or her tools.
I once read something Louis L'Amour wrote in which he mentioned some writer who made a list of (I think it was) thirty-two basic story plots. L'Amour said that that list has never been added to.
Posts: 24 | Registered: Oct 2003
There was a thread on that subject a while back in the general discussions board. I think it must have been about July or so? You might want to have a look through there if this interests you.
Posts: 626 | Registered: Jun 2003
Georges Polti wrote a book entitled THE THIRTY-SIX DRAMATIC SITUATIONS and Ronald B. Tobias wrote a book discussing those situations for Writer's Digest Books entitled THEME AND STRATEGY.
Posts: 7570 | Registered: A Long Time Ago!
How about you write a story about a guy who does absolutely nothing except regulate his breathing, eats goes to the bathroom and thatís it. You could start when heís 25 and as a trust fund baby he buys himself an outhouse so he doesnít have to move at all. He has food delivered to him in his small outhouse. He doesnít think or anything. You could write page after page: Harry laid a turd. Then nothing happened for the next 10 hours. a fly landed on harry's nose. Harry didnít even blink. Just the shallow breathing over and over and over for hours and hours... That would be cool
I have started something that first introduces you to the character ( Toriyn )and I mention that he lives in the time of Ancient Greece and worships the gods. I have already introduced the plotline (?) as told to him by a stranger ( Ares ) that he will rise up from defeat to lead a rebellion against Mt. Olympus. Is this the sort of thing that you were looking for?