Thursday, August 6, 2009

Care and Feeding of Plots

The last few posts have sent me cycling back to thinking about plots (as opposed to plotting, which involves ultra-secret societies and if I told you I'd have to... Oh, sorry. Wrong kind of plot): where they come from, how they grow, and of course, the question that makes every writer cringe, "Where do you get your ideas?"

Me, I get ideas and plots everywhere. The problem is keeping the beggars from metastasizing, not finding them. It helps that I read widely, all over the spectrum. One of my recent idea-fodder scores is Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku - who is a theoretical physicist and one of the founders of string theory. In this book, a whole range of science fictional staples including force-fields, teleportation, FTL travel and the like get the "Okay, so how would we do this?" treatment.

It turns out that everything needed to make a force field has been manufactured in some form. Some of the components are still very much experimental manufacture, while others are mature, but they all exist. As such, it's feasible that somewhere within 100 years you could be able go to the store and buy yourself a force field.

Levitation (yes, I want my flying car, damn it!) is in the same range.

Now, watch those neurons fizz at the thought of flying cars equipped with force fields to prevent collisions. Add a hot guy, preferably partially clothed, and we're in... ahem.

Leaving aside fond lewd imaginings, I take a whole bunch of ideas like this, mix and match to get some idea what my world looks like and what it's like to live there, and figure out the overarching motivations of all the major players in that world as they relate to my setting. I don't usually go for complex, intertwining skullduggery for the simple reason that my plots have a tendency to do that to me anyway while I'm working out what's going on.

Often all these ideas (did you know that the founders of the USA wanted to set a fixed-value currency that could never inflate or deflate? Imagine a world where someone did that...) don't go anywhere (Oh, and did you know that relativity is implicit in Thomas Young's equations related to light - and if he hadn't died at 55 it's possible the Theory of Relativity could have been proposed before 1850? Nuclear steampunk!), at least not at first. So I keep reading all sorts of stuff, fiction and non-fiction, and strange and occasionally wonderful things emerge.

After all, the seed of a plot is an idea, and good plots usually have several ideas lurking in the background fraternizing and mixing things up - and breeding - strong characters to drive them (often the disguised spawn of yet another idea), and lots of fertilization to make them grow. Yes, this does mean I throw a whole lot of crap at it and hope something works.

How do you feed your plots? What are your idea seeds, how widely do you cross-breed and how much control do you try to exert over them as they grow?


Anonymous said...

Hi Kate,

I'm a firm believer in being an eclectic reader/viewer/observer. That's where the most interesting plots/stories originate.

And that's one of the things that makes a writer so unique. They can bring their own knowledge and backgrounds to stories. I always read the bio on authors just to see what they do in real life besides write. IMO, the best authors have a wide variety of interests to bring to the table.

Linda Davis

C Kelsey said...

I'm in full agreement with Linda. The best authors have many and varied experiences. Those experiences don't need to involve the actual topic they're writing about. They just need to have experienced/read/viewed/observed *stuff*. Stuff fuels the imagination. :)

As for what feeds the plot of what I write, I don't know. Experience. Certainly all of the stuff I've read (and I'll read almost anything that has words printed on it). Observation. And then all of that stuff just runs around in my imagination until I have this group of characters in a setting. The story flows from there.

Perhaps there's a new quote there: "Stories are made of *stuff*."

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I'm always on the lookout for obscure and interesting things. Especially when they reveal some insight into human nature.

The old fallback is New Scientist. I'm currently writing the Shallow Sea, a tropical paradise fantasy.

I found an article in New Scientist about small fish which crawl up into hollow mangrove tree limbs and hibernate when the tide goes out.

Then I saw film of dolphins herding fish almost onto a beach, then aquaplaning in the shallows to catch fish. How amazing is that? Both these behaviours seem alien, yet they're real and I can adapt them to my book!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate.

Usually for me its one single idea that starts it all off. One scalp-lifting 'Ahhh!' idea that drives a new storyline. It rarely starts in the same place -- and all the other ideas seem to branch off from that one like a minor tributaries of the first lightning strike, all racing to the same place.

I think my ideas often start with a character in one particular scene. For the SF stuff (which is usually short(er)) it will tend to be more a 'Aha!' idea connected with some sort of speculative tech or alternative lifeform - then the characters weave in from there.

I always have the strange feeling that the whole thing is there though - just under the surface of my mind. Having said that, I also feel as though I never really successfully bring it out in one piece without it morphing into something that's not quite the same. I try to make up for that by consciously improving it once it 'emerges'.

KylieQ said...

For what I'm working on at the moment, it was an interest in a particular period of history and a lack of non-political books set in that period. I spent about a year reading everything I could find about the 20 years I was interested in and slowly the characters and story drew out of that.

The idea I'm letting simmer for my next project just popped into my head one day and it had such a good feel that I instantly went, "yep, that's the next one".

Amanda Green said...

I have to agree with Linda. The more widely read/experienced and knowledgeable a writer is, the more interesting his work will be, imo. There is something about being able to read a passage set in Trafalgar Square or Ayers Rock and have that feel of authenticity that comes only from either the author having been there or being very good at research.

As for where my plots come from -- who knows. They tend to jump up and ambush me when I least expect them. Seriously, Russian Nights comes from my interest in the events leading up to the Russian Revolution. I've drawn on my memories of a my visit to St. Petersburg, Moscow and other areas of Russia. Hopefully, I'll not only be able to bring across the settings in a realistic manner but also the people.

My other WIP Jubilee Plot started with the desire to write a steampunk novel. From there, research into Victorian England led me to an article and then to a book that puts for the premise that the attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria during the Jubilee Celebration was not the brainchild of Irish revolutionaries but, instead, fell at the feet of the prime minister who was using the plot to draw out the revolutionaries and derail the Irish Home Rule movement. Again, I'm drawing on my trips to England and Ireland to help with setting the scene and the mood.

There's another story waiting in the wings that is spawned simply by the reaction of a man in Prague who reached for a knife he wasn't carrying -- thankfully -- when my professor asked him for directions in Russian instead of German or English. The story isn't about the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia. Instead, in its infancy right now, it seems to be about the sense of betrayal a people can hold for years when abandoned to monsters -- or at least to others who are, in their eyes, monsters.

Now it's time to tell the voices in my head to be quiet and leave me in peace -- at least for the next few minutes.

Kate said...

Hi Linda,

Absolutely - a wide variety of interests and often unusual life experiences make for a perspective that enriches the plot. Most of the authors I enjoy most have interesting lives, in the Chinese curse sense and in the good sense.

Kate said...

Chris K,

Stories are indeed made of stuff. Since I'm one of those people who collects weird stuff with the dedication of a cat in an aviary, I tend to get stuff breeding and mutating. Sometimes I think my stuff has stuff.

Kate said...


Obscure and interesting is very fertile ground for plotting. I'm always on the lookout for weird shit, neat stuff, cool new stuff... Apparently a recent experiment found blue food coloring helped rats recover from spinal cord injuries. How cool is that? Even cooler, the rats ended up dyed blue. There was a picture of a rat with white fur and blue paws and nose. (

"How are you doing after your spinal injury?"

"Oh, damn, am I still blue? Sorry, I haven't had access to a mirror."

(This ends the diversion into the weird and occasionally wonderful)

Kate said...

Chris M.

Ah the cascading effect. Yeah that can be fun. And yeah, I know what you mean about feeling like you already know the whole story and you've got to try to tease it out of a not always cooperative subconscious.

I get times when it feels like I'm pulling hen's teeth, and others when everything just flows - hitting the zone is a wonderful feeling. At its best, I stop being consciously aware of what I'm doing and I'm just letting it happen. Those sections are usually the best plotted, best written (if most heavily typoed) and ones I'm most paranoid about.

Kate said...

Kylie Q,

Some stories do seem to need that incubation time, don't they? Particularly when you're dealing with something that's complex or in the case of history, not that well covered.

Others do tend to metaphorically jump up and grab you by the neck. The really frustrating ones do both at once!

Kate said...

Hi Amanda,

Being able to feel like I'm there really helps me as a reader. I'll take a book that gives me over one that doesn't any time - and I don't care if the author actually has been to Lesser Outer Calathumpia or is just very good at faking it.

I'm inclined sometimes to subscribe to the PTerry theory of inspiration particles constantly sleeting through the air until they hit a receptive brain. I clearly have an inspiration attractor hidden somewhere I can't get at, because I also have the issue of getting the bloody things to shut up long enough to let me function.

Dave Freer said...

I buy my ideas in bulk, flash frozen from a supplier in Japan. I used go out and harpoon them myself, but this so much more convenient.

I then microwave them as I need them and pop them into my plots.

Seriously I have an anti-computer in my head with a myriad cross referenced pieces of miscellanious information picked up from a misspent life and far too much reading, and rely on the ever trustable human nature to say something dumb like "That's impossible":-) (red rag to a monkey)

Kate said...

Hi Dave,

"The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer." And just what is your Auntie's computer doing inside your head, anyway?

Those Japanese suppliers will sell you anything :-D


Dave Freer said...

The japanese ideas are made with great care and precision and are very reliable and cheap to run, if sometimes designed for someone my size. It's those cheap knock-off Chinese ideas that are sometimes a bit dubious, although in the natural progression of things in 20 years time they'll be reliable etc. and someone else will be making the ones with instructions like those on my brush-cutter. 'if you fell your leg in a hole, place blade in the Earth to stop revolutions.'

Kate said...

'if you fell your leg in a hole, place blade in the Earth to stop revolutions.'

They may be onto something here, Dave. Perhaps this was the purpose of Excalibur - the blade in the Earth to stop revolutions - but we silly buggers got the instructions all wrong.