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brainstorming the plot

As a reader, as a moviegoer, and as a writer, I love trying to predict what will happen next in a story.

I know some readers who are just the opposite. They want to be surprised, so they relax and enjoy themselves, letting the plot unfold at its own pace. It’s a wonderful way to approach the experience, letting the storyteller enchant them.

But readers like myself try to outsmart the writer. Once we find out what the set-up is – similar to the “opening scene” description in My September 10th blog entry directly below this one – we run all that information through our brains, looking for clues, plot holes, red herrings – anything to help us guess where the writer is headed.

Once we’ve formulated our guess, we do what the first group did – we sit back and enjoy the story. But there’s always that element hanging in the air. That fun question: did I guess right?

As a reader or moviegoer, both approaches are rewarding. But if you’re plotting a complicated story for yourself, you need to take a lesson from the second group and do some serious brainstorming.

Here’s how a brainstormer would react to the opening scene described in the Sept 10th blog entry:

First of all, this reader would wonder if that charred body was really Leah – probably not. Which means Leah is either kidnapped, or in hiding, or – oh no, don’t let Leah be the Slayer!! And what if Jessica isn’t Jessica at all? What if it’s Leah pretending to be Jessica? Maybe for some twisted reason, Leah was always jealous of and hated her twin, so she burned her to a crisp then took over her life. Or maybe Leah was the first to discover the charred body of Jessica, and was so overcome by denial that she became Jessica. Or maybe the cousin at the funeral is Leah – she cut her hair and dressed like a guy because – well, hmm, there could be dozens of reasons…. One way or the other, that cousin can’t possibly be legit. Maybe he’s the Slayer!

The brainstormer is all over those three men, theory-wise. Especially the detective. Sure, he’s grumpy and obnoxious, but doesn’t that make him some sort of sexy “Alpha hero”? And the old boyfriend must be slimey. Maybe he’s the Slayer, and he’s been killing twins because Jessica broke his heart. Or maybe he had a secret affair with Leah and she broke his heart.

Or maybe Leah doused herself with gasoline in imitation of the Slayer’s M.O. and committed suicide! She was tired of being ignored, and finally saw a way to get the attention of her family and the media.

Okay, that’s an extreme brainstormer, but take my word for it, we really exist. I do this at the beginning of every movie I watch, every book I read – sometimes even Hallmark commercials. But after the storm subsides, I can’t wait to do exactly what everyone else does – I turn myself over the story. I’m in the author’s hands now.

Of course, if I’m writing the book, not reading it, I can’t just sit back and relax. But the truth is, a lot of my work is done already if I’ve brainstormed properly. Even if I haven’t decided which of the many alternatives will really happen, I can now write the story, let it flow, and the elements will begin to fall into place.

So if I were teaching a plot workshop, my first advice would be to take your story’s set-up and brainstorm it to death, coming up with every silly possibility there is. Then you can really begin to plot.

Some of the elements from your brainstorming will appear in the story. But even the ones that don’t are useful, because those become your red herrings, your distractions.

Now you employ your other tricks – especially point of view and timing – to build the suspense. Because let’s face it – that charred body isn’t Leah. We all know that! The real suspense is – when will that fact be revealed? Who will discover it? Who faked Leah’s death, and why? When does Jessica find out? How does she react?

And of course, which one of those guys is our hero?

Thanks for playing along!



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