I often have ideas for a scene or a character but there is no plot. How can I expand these ideas into stories? I just don't know what to do with my ideas to get a story out of them. Most plotting tips require that I know at least the beginning and the end of my story. But I don't even have that.
I’ve heard of other writers having this same problem, so you are not alone! Here are some ideas that come to mind when I think about this.
Coming up with a Plot (from scratch)
First off, you have ideas for characters or scenes, and that’s a starting point, and you probably (I’m assuming, because it wasn’t that long ago) saw my post, What to Outline When Starting a Story, which can give some guidance on what to consider. However, if you have no idea where to even come up with a concept for your plot that post can only be so much help.
Conflict out of Story Elements
Since you have some ideas about character and scene, I’d try building off that. In some cases, you might need to flesh those out a bit more to continue (I don’t know, since I don’t know how much you have those figured out).New York Times best-selling author David Farland points out in his book Million Dollar Outlines that characters grow out of their setting. We are all influenced by our setting–where we live, where we spend our time, what century we’re part of, etc.
Setting –> Character
Farland goes on to say that out of character (and setting) comes conflict:
Setting + Character –> Conflict
Plot obviously comes from some sort of conflict, the character reacting to and trying to solve that conflict or conflicts. But let’s finish out the diagram/equation.
Setting –> Character –> Conflict –> Theme
How conflicts are dealt with in the story create the theme.
It should be noted though that this diagram may not be helpful to everyone, and it’s also possible to work backwards from it. For example, I personally don’t like the idea of starting with the setting–although, realistically, pretty much all stories start there, if only to the most basic degrees (time period, real world vs. fantasy world, Earth vs. space, etc.). I often like to start with character. But as you work on your character, at some point, you are going to be looking back at what kind of life he grew out of and where he came from, and where he is now. Other people may like to start with conflict, and work back into character and setting. So, it doesn’t have to be linear.
But let’s look at the conflict part. You need some form of conflict to have plot. As I mentioned a few weeks ago in my post Are Your Conflicts Significant? the conflict should either be broad (far-reaching) or personal to the character. If it’s not either, it’s probably not that significant. However, it should be noted that you can make almost any conflict broad, or personal.
But how do you even get to that point? If you like Farland’s diagram, what I would suggest would be looking at those characters and setting. Brainstorm conflicts by asking yourself questions.
- What conflict can come out of this setting?
For example, in some stories, major conflicts come straight out of the setting. Most if not all dystopians, like The Hunger Games fall into this category. You can even look at movies like Interstellar,
which deals largely with space travel. The major conflict came out of a
setting (Earth will soon be inhabitable). In a fantasy story, conflicts
can come out of the world and worldbuilding (setting), whether it’s the
magic system or the world itself. In Lord of the Rings, the
major conflicts often come from the setting (Frodo has to make it to
Mount Doom) and magic (the One Ring is a magical object that must be
destroyed). In historical fiction, it can come out of setting–what are
some of the conflicts the world was dealing with during WWII?
But what about something more small-scale than Panem, outer space, and Middle-earth? Setting can play a role there too. What kind of conflicts can come out of attending high school in 2017? What conflicts might be present there? What conflicts might come out of trying to start a career as a woman centuries ago? The story doesn’t have to be epic for this sort of brainstorming to work.
Les Miserableis a good example of how setting can play into conflicts, whether it’s being a struggling young mother, a convict, or participating in politics.
- What conflict can come out of this character?
Once you have your character, you can try brainstorming conflicts for her. Now, there are sort of two ways to approach this.
One, you look at your character–her personality, strengths, weaknesses–and ask yourself, what would this character want? Figuring out what your character wants is often vital to a good story. In some stories, it can be more simple, basic, or straightforward. Maybe your character just wants money. In other cases, it might be bigger. Maybe your character wants to defeat an evil ruler. It can be somewhat philosophical. Maybe your character dreams of ridding the universe of a false god, like in His Dark Materials.
When you know what your character wants, you can start brainstorming
conflicts by considering what could stop her from getting what she
wants. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo volunteers to destroy the
Ring, but there are literal obstacles in his way. Space, for one thing.
He has to travel for miles and miles and miles. Then there are other
people and creatures: orcs, Shelob, Sauron, even his own
companions–these people are in conflict with him. He has to deal with
getting hurt, wounded, and fatigued. All these things are keeping Frodo
from his goal. And of course, his ultimate want is to return to the
Shire, but he has to destroy the Ring first.
If your character wants to be in a relationship with someone, there are obstacles too. Maybe the love interest doesn’t know he exists. Maybe there is a family feud, like in Romeo and Juliet. Maybe there is a love triangle. Whatever your character wants, you start brainstorming what could keep him from getting it.
A second approach to brainstorming conflicts with character is to look at your character and consider what kind of situations would be difficult for them, what would make them grow. In some cases, they might be the reluctant hero. Love him or hate him, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, Edward Cullen is a good example of this sort of thing. He’s a “vegetarian” vampire living his life, and then out of nowhere, a girl shows up that is basically his personal brand of cocaine. How is he supposed to deal with this? Worse. He has feelings for her. Immediately, Edward is in conflict.
Now, you can combine both methods. And in reality, both those examples have both. Sure, Frodo volunteered to take the Ring, but he was basically the only person who could. But look at him. He’s just a humble hobbit. He doesn’t do magic, he doesn’t know warfare, and he knows very little about the world. But he’s thrown into a situation where those characteristics will be tested. Similarly, Edward is thrown into a situation, but he ends up having wants too. He wants to be in a relationship with Bella. But the fact he is a vampire and she has potent blood is a conflict that impedes that.
So you can brainstorm conflicts from setting and character.
Plot out of Conflict Types
Let’s look at this another way.
There are five types of conflict.