(The following article is taken from one of my Novel Writing courses. No borrowing without permission!)
The What-If Game
This is one of the most creative games a novelist can play. Originality is nothing more than connecting familiar elements in unfamiliar ways. The what-if question gets our minds thinking in such a way as to make those connections.
The what-if game can be used before you begin your novel, but it can also come in handy when you need a plot twist or if your plot seems to drag. Get away from your computer and let your mind run wild. What if Emily got upset with John, ran into the woods, and got lost? Or What if John was suddenly attacked by a group of Amish vampires? Nothing is too silly. Sometimes the silliest things can hatch an idea.
Train your mind to think about what if as much as possible. Some good resources to encourage the what-if game:
· Read the newspaper and ask “What if…” when reading the articles.
· When you watch TV, ask “What if…” while watching shows and commercials.
· Let your mind roam free.
· Watch people when you’re in public. (This is good for creating interesting characters too.) For example, you’re sitting in your favorite restaurant and your waiter starts acting suspiciously. What if when he brings you your drink, and he slips a piece of paper into your hand. You unfold it and read, “There are men in the kitchen with guns. They are watching all of us. Please get help, but don’t let them know I told you.” Or, you see an older lady sitting at the next table. What if you noticed her companion slip something into her drink when she’s not looking? The old woman takes a sip, gasps, grabs her throat and keels over. Her companion, a rather frightening looking man, sees you watching them. Are you in danger? What should you do?
Perhaps you’re writing a suspense or mystery novel. See yourself walking into a bookstore. What kind of title would jump out at you, making you want to buy the book? Write a similar title, one that would grab you and others when they see the book on the shelf. This idea sounds simplistic, but it works. A cool title can start you down the road to the rest of your story.
Write One Sentence
Award winning author, Randy Ingermanson, teaches The Snowflake Method, a unique and very successful way to plot and write a novel. It begins with one sentence and builds from that. He offers this example: "A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul." From this sentence, he wrote his first novel. With Randy’s method, from the first sentence comes the first paragraph. From the first paragraph comes the first chapter, etc. The small center of your idea connects to another part of your plot, building outward, like a snowflake. Many authors swear by this method. If you’re interested in learning more about The Snowflake Method, visit Randy’s Web site at: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php.
Start a list of memories from your past. Even seemingly unimportant events can trigger a story. Let your mind roam through your childhood and see what mental pictures occur. Then write down short descriptions.
· The playhouse (When our home was being remodeled, my father had the contractor use the extra materials to build me a playhouse. I loved spending time inside it. If my parents argued, I’d go to my playhouse. When it rained, I loved to sit inside. I felt so safe and sheltered.)
· Holiday dinners (Remembering when my grandparents were alive and we’d all gather together.)
· The hole (My brother and I drilled a small hole in our closet walls so we could whisper through it. My mother never knew.)
· The hill (My friend and I used to sit on a hill near our house and share our deepest secrets.)
A list like this can spark all kind of ideas for novels. Start with a memory that holds some meaning for you and build from it. The more of yourself you put into your novel, the more passion and emotion you’ll be able to put into it. It’s a great way to connect to readers!
What issues push your buttons? Robert Ludlum once said, “I think arresting fiction is written out of a sense of outrage.” Outrage is a great emotion for a writer. Start building an issues list. Your list might include:
· The environment
· Gun control
· People who talk during movies
Although my book, Simple Choices is not about Alzheimer’s, I created a character that had the disease. I watched my wonderful father-in-law suffer through it. My passion about the destruction of Alzheimer’s gave my story depth. Remember, however, that your issue shouldn’t take over your novel. It must help to drive your story forward. Perhaps you’re passionate about the environment. Don’t create an information dump about the evils of plastic bottles. Instead, create a character who shares your views. Maybe this character, let’s call him Joe, is kidnapped and the kidnapper reveals himself by telling your main character that the last time he saw Joe was at QuikTrip where he stopped to buy a bottle of water. (A plastic bottle.) You know the guy’s lying and has to be the kidnapper. You’ve gotten your point of view about plastic water bottles into your plot without beating your readers over the head with it!
Writing inspirational fiction is a great example of passion and story. One of the greatest complaints inspirational authors get is that we are too “preachy” or that we shove “religion” in our readers’ faces. A lot of these comments are unfair because most people should be able to figure out that “inspirational fiction” is going to mention God, but there is still a very important and valid point to be taken from this criticism. Is the religious aspect natural? Or are we injecting religion into the story just for the sake of religion? It’s a fine line we have to walk. The same is true with you and your passion. You can bash your readers over the head with your passion, or you can use it to make people think and relate to your view. How you handle it will determine your success.
Passion and emotion are great building blocks upon which to build your story, but don’t forget to look at both sides of your issue. One sided arguments are like one hand clapping. There’s no sound, no impact. In one of my upcoming novels I look closely at the Mennonite belief of nonviolence. I put my characters in situations where they have to decide how far they’re willing to go with this practice. Are they willing to let someone they love come to harm so they can stand on their principles? Are they willing to lose their own lives over their belief? The issue of nonviolence worked right into my plot and added depth and meaning to my story, but I kept the plot centered on the main storyline, which was about a group of men targeting people of faith in the county where my characters live.
Take the germ of an idea, find a quiet place, close your eyes, and let a story play in front of you just like you’re watching a movie. After you can “see it,” just start writing it down. Don’t worry about plot, structure, characters or anything else. Just get it down. When you’re done, read through it. Is there anything there that gives you the seed of an idea? Even one little sentence can spark an exciting plot. This also works with dreams. If you have a dream that evokes some emotion from you, write it down. No matter how weird it seems. What was it about the dream that made your heart beat faster? Pull it out of the dream and think about it. See if there’s something there that will ignite an idea for a novel.
Music that moves you can also give you ideas for novels. I wrote one novel listening to the music from The Hunt for Red October. It perfectly matched the tone I wanted for that story. As the music grew in intensity, my excitement grew with it, helping me to keep moving the plot forward. Romantic music can stir emotions you can use. Even remembering a romantic situation from your past while listening to music can awake emotions that will give you inspiration. If you’re writing Sci-fi, listen to the soundtrack from Star Wars. As you recall the movie, you can also pull in the what if technique. For example, what if Darth Vader had pulled Luke to the dark side? What if Luke killed Darth and took his place? What if Princess Leia found out Luke was her brother and set out to rescue him from the dark side? What if she was the “hero” of the story instead of Luke? As you can see, music can start you thinking. Combining what if with it can lead you to an exciting plot.
Okay, I’m kind of kidding here. Never steal a plot! Let’s say instead: Borrow it. I do this all the time. Go to Amazon (or any online book selling site) and pull up books written in your genre. What did these writers write about? For example, I was writing a novel that needed another plot twist, and I was having a tough time finding it. Then I remembered a book I’d read where the main character was accused of stealing something. Even though she didn’t do it, she was ostracized by her small community. The idea was exactly what I needed. I didn’t borrow her plot line – I just borrowed the idea. Authors do this all the time. Remember that ideas are public property. However, you must use the idea in your own way and make it part of your story.
One of the best ways to get your plot going is to first create your character. Develop him and see where he leads you. Although we will talk more about characters later, beginning with an interesting, dynamic character can lead you right to your plot. There are several ways to come up with an original character.
· Visualizing. Close your eyes and “see” the first person who pops into your mind. Describe him. Write down what you see. Then put him into a situation or setting and see what develops. Ask yourself why your character reacts the way he does. What patterns is he developing?
· Re-creating who you know. Think of someone you know or have known. Someone you think is interesting. Now recreate them! Give him a different occupation. Change his sex! What if Uncle Benny became Aunt Bonnie! (I’m not talking about special operations here. This is just imaginary!) You can do this with fictional characters too. In my latest novel, I used a character from Doctor Who that I had a strong emotional attachment to. I turned the tenth doctor into a Mennonite elder! Sounds wacky, but I think it worked. This character was very real to me, and it helped me to see him much more clearly. It also helped me to develop my plot because I already “knew” him and how he would react in certain situations.
· Obituaries. You can come up with characters and plot ideas from obituaries. What was the person’s job? Did they die too young? Who did they leave behind? Have you ever read an obituary and done an online search because you wanted to know more about the person’s life? Instead of doing that, make it up yourself. In the newspaper and on most funeral home sites, people are allowed to leave comments about the deceased. Read them. What do they tell you about the person? What if there are no comments and the obituary is just a few lines without any information that wasn’t absolutely necessary? What does that tell you? Can you begin to see a story connected to this person? Remember, you can use the seed of an idea but change details about the person so they will fit your novel
· The worst thing. This is a great way to begin a novel. If you already have your character, what’s the worst thing that could happen to him? This simple question can propel you right into suspense, intrigue or pathos.
Flipping a genre
Have a favorite movie or TV show? Try moving it to a different genre. Star Wars could be a Western. The Wild, Wild West was simply James Bond in the Old West. Think about the plots you enjoy and experiment with them in all kinds of different genres. You could come up with something really interesting. In truth, there are very few new plots out there. Instead, most of what we see and read are actually familiar plots with unique twists!
Reading the newspaper
I have a file full of ideas clipped from newspapers and magazines. Truth is usually stranger than fiction. Keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for real life stories that will give you great fodder for your novel.
What are you interested in? The Civil War? Serial killers? Kitties? Civil War serial killers who love kitties? RESEARCH! There could be a novel in there somewhere. Adding research can add depth and interest to your novel. Just be sure you don’t weigh down your story with facts your readers don’t care about. Research can be done through the Internet, books, and interviews with real people. Delve into a subject that fascinates you and see if you can find a plot to jumpstart an idea for your novel!
“What I Really Want to Write About Is…”
Try this exercise first thing in the morning. Your subconscious has been churning all night. It has something to tell you. Let it speak before you have a chance to talk yourself out of it. Once you verbalize your idea, write it down and add to it for at least ten to fifteen minutes.
Dean Koontz wrote The Voice of the Night based on an opening line he wrote while just “playing around”: “You ever killed anything?” Roy asked. After writing that line, Koontz decided Roy was a fourteen-year-old boy. Two pages of dialogue opened up the rest of his plot.
Joseph Heller was famous for using first lines to suggest novels. In desperation one day, needing to start a novel but having no ideas, these opening lines came to him: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” These two lines immediately suggested what Heller calls “a whole explosion of possibilities and choices.” The result was his novel Something Happened. His bestselling novel, Catch-22 was started the same way, with two sentences.
Again, Randy Ingermanson touts the same idea using his Snowflake Method.
No, I don’t mean you write all your words in reverse order. Writing is hard enough. This could push you over the edge! What I’m suggesting is that you actually visualize the end of your story. How will it conclude? First, envision a really dynamic, emotional and dramatic last scene. Now…what comes before it? This concept is also a good way to keep from writing yourself into a corner. Believe it or not, this happens more frequently than you might imagine. Uninspired endings can kill your story and disappoint your readers.
What jobs have you had? Do you realize that you already have a wealth of knowledge most people don’t? Even though you might think your job or past jobs were boring, to people who have never done them, learning about your occupation can be interesting. You have a lot of insight into a field that most of your readers will never experience. For example: A mail carrier might wonder what would happen if saw a dead body through the window of a house he delivers to. A bus driver watches the same strange man get on the bus at the same time every day and get off at a deserted parking lot. Who is he, and what is he doing? A waitress sees a customer drop something on the floor. When she picks it up and hands it to him, she realizes it’s a letter addressed to a well-known local politician who was murdered a few days earlier. What is the connection to her customer, and what should she do?
Your expertise from a job or past job will add layers, depth and interest to your story. This kind of experience can frame your story and make it unique.
YOU’VE FINALLY GOT AN IDEA. NOW WHAT?
Once you capture your idea, ask yourself these questions.
· Has this type of story been done before? If so (and it’s okay if it has) how can I make it unique?
· Is my setting ordinary? How can I make it interesting?
· Is my story “big enough” to grab enough readers? In other words, is the premise exciting and compelling?
· What are some twists that will make this story fascinating?
If your answers to these questions only prove to confirm your idea, you’re ready to begin plotting!
Nancy Mehl lives in Festus, Missouri, with her husband, Norman, and her very active puggle, Watson. She’s authored twenty-two books and just finished a new series for Bethany House Publishing. The first book in her Finding Sanctuary series, “Gathering Shadows” was released in May of 2014. The second book, “Deadly Echoes” became available in February. The third book, “Rising Darkness released in November. Now she’s writing a new series based on the U.S. Marshals. The first book will release in November of 2016. She is also working on an Amish cozy mystery series for Guideposts. The first book, “Blessings in Disguise” was published in June, 2015. She will write at least three more in this series.
Readers can learn more about Nancy through her Web site: www.nancymehl.com. She is part of The Suspense Sisters: www.suspensesisters.blogspot.com, along with several other popular suspense authors. She is also very active on Facebook.
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