Writing can be hard. Ask any writer you know. I guarantee they’ll say it can be hard. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun or rewarding. I doubt anyone would be a writer if there was no joy or reward in it.
But starting out can be one of the hardest things to do. You snatch a random idea from the air and begin to write it — and two chapters later you are winded out and pack away the story never to see it again. Or perhaps you meticulously plotted out multiple chapters, but when you sat down to write them, the idea just bored you. Or perhaps your problem is you can’t find an idea at all.
Whatever the issue, it all boils down to one question: What can I write about that will keep me interested for the entire book?
I’ll give you the simple answer: What you’re passionate about.
I said it was simple, not easy. Sometimes discovering what you’re passionate about is harder than you think. I have a few tips for that which seem to help me out when I am struggling for plot ideas, and I hope that some of them can help you too.
Always ask God what He would have for you to do. If He wants you to write a story, whether it is a short story, novella, novel, or epic, He will give you the ideas and the strength you need to do it. Just ask Him. Ask Him what He wants you to write, and to show you where to look for ideas. Ask Him to give you wisdom on how to do it. He gives liberally to all who ask (Jas 1:5).
2: Look at the Storyline in Other Books and Movies You Like
After you’ve prayed, another good way to see what you are passionate about is look at the storylines in books and movies that you like. List them out. What do they have in common?
I discovered early on that I liked books and movies with war in them. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe from the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S Lewis, for example, is one of my favorite movies (and books). Not only does it have war and battles in it, it has two of my favorite time periods in it: World War Two and the Dark Ages. (Okay, that can be argued since Narnia IS a fictional world, but the fact that there are knights and sword fights among other things is a strong implication that the setting at least is medieval).
Then I compared it to another book I read. This one was historical fiction, and though I didn’t care for the book too much itself, I loved the historical plot. It was In Freedom’s Cause, by G.A Henty. The setting was the First War of Scottish Independence, led by William Wallace and then Robert the Bruce. It too was set in the medieval times, and I loved the revolution aspect of it. (In fact, I love learning about all the historical revolutions, like the French Revolution and the American Revolution). So I knew then I liked both Medieval time periods and revolutions. But did I like writing historical fiction, or something else?
In my junior year of high school, I decided to try this course that was supposed to help you write a novel in a year. I decided on writing a historical fiction based on the French Revolution. It wasn’t set in medieval times, obviously, but at that time, the French Revolution was my favorite historical event, so I decided to write about it. Talk about grueling. After forcing myself not only to write the story but also edit it, I decided then I did not like writing historical fiction due to all the details I had to look up. I love reading and watching movies which are considered historical fiction, but as for writing, I decided I liked a little bit more freedom to use my imagination.
(Side note here: This doesn’t mean you CAN’T write something just because you don’t care for it as much as something else. I have since then gotten yet another idea for a story set in the same time period which I hope to develop someday, so you can always try again on a genre or idea you previously didn’t like if you want, and you may find yourself passionate about it. Just follow the Lord’s leading in whatever you do!)
I will use one more example in showing how I found plot ideas through books and movies I liked. In that high school course, they had you read a book called The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope. In it, they created a fictional country called Ruritania. The main character traveled from England to be there, showing that the fictional country was based in the real world. I discovered that I liked that part of the plot, as well as the political unrest and battle for the throne of the country of Ruritania.
Just with those three storylines, I discovered that I liked the medieval time period with kings, knights, and castles, as well as sword fights and battles. I also discovered that I liked revolutions, especially when the peasants rose against the nobles. And finally I found that I liked the setting of the genre that is known as Ruritanian romance, a fictional country set in the real world. These three things helped me figure out a what I wanted for the plot of a story that has now branched off into a series.
Yet there is another way to find plot ideas which I have also used.
3: Look at the Characters in Other Books and Movies You Like
Another way to get ideas is through characters. Sometimes when a character comes alive, they just seem to take over the story. In fact, there are some stories solely based on characters alone. Think of Tom Sawyer or Anne of Green Gables, for example.
But even if you’re not interested in writing character based stories like that, characters, especially your main one, can actually give a lot of plot ideas, based on who they are, what their personality is, what they do for a living, and so on and so forth.
For example, take the character type of “Street Kid”. What do you think of when you think of a street kid? Gutters, dirty clothes, pocket-pickers, the streets of London? Maybe your character isn’t in fact a street kid from London, but perhaps he is a street kid from Russia. Maybe he’s a kid who LOVES being a street kid. Maybe he actually has his own gang of kids, or maybe he works for his gangster uncle who also lives on the streets.
Once you figure out your character, his personality, what he does, and any other details that you may find important, you just might be able to figure out a plot. For example, using the example above with the street kid, you could do a comedy of the kid outsmarting the police. You could make it a thriller — maybe the kid realizes his gangster uncle is up to no good and decides to join forces with detectives to take him down. You could make it an adventure — maybe the street kid decides to try “civilized” life just to see if he’d like it, and then he runs away to travel the world. Or perhaps it’s a drama, where he is adopted by a family in America and must get used to everything changing in his life. All those plots, thought up just by the simple creation of a character.
Look at your favorite characters in books and movies, and list the traits, occupations, and things about them that you like. If you like hot tempered red-headed girls like Anne of Green Gables, try writing a hot tempered girl. Maybe don’t give her red hair and call her Anne, but try writing a hot tempered girl. Then think how you can be different. What about a red-haired girl who has hardly any temper at all? Write the types of characters you enjoy, and in everything, be led of the Lord!
4: Find a Plotting Worksheet.
This is my last suggestion, and it may be surprising since I am not, in fact, a plotter, but actually a pantser. However, there have been times where I have been stuck with trying to figure out a plot or where to go next in an existing plot, and without fail, if I use a certain plotting worksheet it takes me less than an hour to have a nice compact plot.
Sometimes, plotting worksheets can make you see things from a different direction. They ask things like, “What is the dark secret of a character going to be” or “What is the revelation revealed in this chapter” and sometimes they can snap ideas into you head and make you think about them.
For example, in an outline I was doing one day, one question was: What revelation, surprise, or twist can be revealed at the story’s end? I had two planned out which I wrote down, but as I was writing, another one came to my head, about making one character the other’s estranged son. It worked perfectly into my story and explained quite a few things I had been wondering how to fix.
So sometimes, even for a pantser, some plotting can be good.
I hope some of these tips will be able to help you with your writing journey, and may you all be led of the Lord as you write! God Bless! ~ C.G