Plots are limited, and that’s a fact. If you think you can make up a unique plot all by yourself, think again. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible – maybe you can do it — but it’s as difficult as climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen.
Why is this so? Because there have been writers for centuries and centuries, and every plot you think of has already been done, been written or been told in one form or another. The details may be different – the characters may be different, and the setting may be different. But the plot will be similar; the issue of plagiarization will rise.
It’s a big claim to make. Is your writing original? Maybe you struggle with plots. Maybe you can’t seem to find a suitable plot.
Maybe it doesn’t fit.
Maybe it seems like it’s been done before, and many times.
And this statement may be true. After all, there only some plots in the world. The human brain can’t make up plots. What are plots anyway? They are happenings. When you write them, it feels that they are fictional, that they haven’t been done before. But they have been. They were real once. Then stories were told of the real happenings. Facts were twisted a bit. Imagination was brought in to make them more dramatic, more story like.
The result? You had a plot. This went on for centuries. In fact, Christopher Brooker said that in the world, there are only seven different plots in fiction. All over the world, editors agree with him, saying there are only so-and-so plots, man against nature, man against man, man against himself etc. New stories may be unique and special, but the plot which acts as the foundation of them most certainly isn’t.
Now we worry about plots. We search and hunt for plots. We search out brains in vain. We look at the newspapers. We get a few, but then worry that they aren’t unique. We search again. We buy books. We watch TV. We listen to the radio, hoping to catch the One Plot which Evades Us. In vain. Nothing happens. No plot, only frustration.
That’s when we see that hunting for plots is futile, worthless, and useless.
Search for Ideas, Don’t Hunt for Plots
Roald Dahl once said that he wrote down ideas which appeared to him in a small notebook. He said that he did this because “plots themselves are very hard to come by. Each year they get harder and harder to find.”
I loved that last statement, because it is an acknowledgment that plots are limited and as new books are published, they get more and more so. An idea is better. There are so many ideas. Hunting for an Idea isn’t as futile as hunting for a plot, because ideas can be unique, and plots can’t (at least now).
Where can ideas be found? Everywhere. In your own previous writing. Your journal (if you happen to have one). Newspapers, novels, television, films, etc. Don’t try to steal plots; if you do, then your writing will not be original, and that’s a strong bad assessment. Only try to take an idea. If you can’t seem to find one, then make it up. Ideas are often only a sentence or two long. If you told me to find ideas, I would give you 500 in 15 minutes (not exaggeration). If I had to write a story for each of them, then I wouldn’t have time to hunt for anymore.
You can make up ideas just by reading and observing. It’s as simple as that, the same formula for trying to write an essay. If you really do observe, then naturally, ideas will occur to you. Take a good one.
Once you have an idea…
Create a Character
Yes. Create a three dimensional character. Create his flaws. Create his ambition. Create everything, his looks, his intellect, the things he excels at, and the things he fails at. He should be like a real life person.
If you do manage to create the character which meets the description above, congratulations. Then you don’t need to worry about a plot. Because there’s a well known expression out there, the one which says “Let your characters take the wheel.” Yes, you do need to plan beforehand (your idea comes in handy now), you do need to know what happens ahead, but when your character leads you to a different path, maybe you need to follow him/her. Maybe it’s better.
And then you realize that if you create an awesome character, there’s no pressure to hunt for a unique plot. Your character will make it up. No, it won’t be unique. But the story will certainly be, because your character is!
Don’t Rule Out Searching for Plots
Maybe you’re a different kind of person. Maybe you do need to hunt (yes, fancy word) for a plot. That’s okay, all fiction writers are different. No need to follow my advice if you love plot hunting, aren’t frustrated with it, and the results are good.
But for the rest of us… plot hunting is undesirable (at least, for me. Feel free to disagree on this).
Have Your Say
What do you think on plot searching? Do you agree that it is worthless and we should look for a better alternative? Or do you think that it serves its purpose and isn’t so bad as I make it out? Your comments, rants, discussions etc are welcome, so come leave a comment below.
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Melissa Donovan says
Thanks so much for referencing the articles from Writing Forward.
I’m a fan of character-driven fiction. In fact, I’ve found that by coming up with a situation and a setting, all I have to do is develop some characters, throw them into the situational setting and voila! The characters will indeed take the wheel.
Me too. For me, plots used to be a worry, but now I don’t let them frustrate me. Character driven fiction is fun to write. The hard part is to come up with a character that is three dimensional! 🙂 Once you’ve got a great character, the hard part is done.
If you’ve got a character that you don’t really care for, then there’s no story. I’m struggling with this right now… got any advice? The difficulty is that the character I don’t care for is one of the main ones in my novel.
As for linking to your site, that’s nothing! Your blog contains so many great articles, almost everything I write can be referenced to Writing Forward. In fact, I’m just heading over to your site to comment on the latest article…
Thanks for the comment,
Melissa Donovan says
I wish I did have some advice, but I’m struggling with the same thing and I’m trying to come up with a full ensemble. So far, I’m using some archetypal characters (like the dashing rogue). I also look for characters that I like in novels, real life, TV, and movies — but just as an idea starter. Another good trick is to base characters on people you already know in real life. Simply exaggerate their most dominant traits and they are fiction-ready. These can be based on people you know personally or on people you read about in the paper or see in the news. Good luck to you!
Bill Sallie says
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Thanks for the comment. As for sharing, oh, please do! Tweeting and stumbling it will be really helpful. Thanks again, and do look around the older posts, especially the Creative Writing 101 series.
Michale Nagano says
Hello.This article was extremely fascinating, especially since I was looking for thoughts on this subject last week.
I find this subject great as well, although I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because this is a topic that’s not been covered that well (unlike finding plots and creating characters). Glad you thought that this article was fascinating!
Thanks for the great comment,
Paul Delaware says
”Don’t try to steal plots; if you do, then your writing will not be original, and that’s a strong bad assessment. Only try to take an idea”. Idrees, Writers’ Treasure…… Good advice Idrees, but if there are only seven plots…… ”Christopher Brooker said that in the world, there are only seven different plots in fiction”……. then we don’t have much of an alternative but to steal one. I came up with an idea/plot for a story which is based on fact after I was doing some research on the philosopher Giordano Bruno. However after reading reading ‘The Da Vinci Code’ by Dan Brown, his idea/plot was the same as mine but wasn’t based on anything that could be proven. Mine can be. Where do I stand? Please don´t tell me ‘You stand to make a fortune if you know exactly where The Holy Grail is’. LOL
Hi Paul, this post is actually more than a year old, and some of my opinions have changed slightly over time…. So anyway, I know that plots are getting more limited day by day, and as long as your story isn’t that similar to a story that has already been written (read: not copied whole), then you have a pretty good chance of creating a story which will not be called plagiarized. There is a difference between copying outright or realizing that your work is similar to one that has already been done. In your particular case, if you even have differentiation on a little bit, some minor changes, different characters, different subplots, different background, then yes, even the idea/plot is the same as ‘The Da Vinci Code’ your plot can be your own. It depends obviously, but yeah, plots can be stole unconsciously or consciously if you can make it different. And that’s a pretty big ‘if’, but if you can do it (another ‘if’ right there!), then there’s no problem.
Keep writing, and thanks for the comment,
Syrai Linus says
OK, I get it. And, actually, I agree. If you have a great plot, but your character doesn’t really match up to it, it’s going to change. This was pretty helpful… 😉
An admirably succinct summary, thanks. Glad to hear it was helpful!
To the writer of the article:
Great article. You are spot on. Original plots are really hard to find. First question, are you really on 16? And did you write this article? Second question, you mentioned not searching for “plots”, but rather “ideas”. But you don’t explain the difference between an idea and a plot. What is the difference? “Ideas” can be a pretty broad category. Please explain. And thanks for articulating that which we all struggle with.
What are the best books on writing? All areas of writing. I have a few but I am curious what you think. I want to write fantasy fiction for adults and for teens. Also do you have tips on writer’s block?
Kevin Wemlinger says
I could never find an original storyline I want to write that’s unique. I like to write someday but I dont think its my talent. Ive been inspired by science fiction, action, dystopian, dragons (even military games, PMCs) but nothing comes up. I’m just stressed and don’t want to ripoff others and I know every plot is taken and we should write down ideas but I want to be creative. What do you have to say to that?
stop talking, stop teaching, and write.
Todd Hicks says
As a reader, I don’t search for plots; I just care about the book being interesting and stimulating. Though I try to create a solid plot for some of my fiction works, I don’t stress over it or otherwise try too hard. Finally, I’ll never copy others’ plots or other content; originality is my thing.