Atsiko’s Plot Recipe for Stories

23 Apr

There are three ingredients you should have when writing a story: An idea, a plot, and a story question. You can come up with these in any order, but from a structural perspective, they usually go like this: idea leads to story question leads to plot.

When I start working on a story, sometimes I have a plot, sometimes I have an idea, and sometimes I have a story question. And sometimes I have a combination thereof.

An idea is a “what-if?” I generally look at it as defining the setting of the story. A story-question is what most people think of as an “idea”. Every idea can allow many story questions. A plot is a “then this happens”. Every story question allows for many plots.

You can start off with any of these, but you need to figure out all three somewhere within the writing process. Let’s look at an example.

Here’s a hypothetical idea: “What if a nation in a world equivalent to near-future Earth is in danger of being economically marginalized by a super-national economic/political unit similar to the UE, and it attempts to restructure its school system to produce valuable skills and professionals to help it compete?”

Now you need your story question. Let’s say: “How would this affect the students within such a system?”

A basic plot might be: “Smart students in a prestigious school do ‘bad’ things.”

This is from a story I am actually working on. I picked it because it demonstrates the loose order in which you need to come up with each element. I came up with the plot first. Then I came up with the story question. I wanted to know how current educational practices in various countries might affect the way children developed and behaved as students. How would the pressure to achieve affect various types of people, and what would they do to lessen that pressure?

I came up with the what-if last. Since I was looking at current systems of education, I needed a setting that could incorporate them. Since I was looking at the extremes of these systems, I needed slightly more overt pressure on the country to adhere to these trends.

But it’s completely possible to come up with the what-if idea first. A lot o sci-fi works on this model. A lot of epic fantasy or romance starts with a plot. A lot of serial UF and mystery begins with a story question.

It’s also important to keep in mind that you don’t have to begin with something in the plot continuum.  What we’re looking at here is mostly the plot angle of attack.  You could also start with a character, or a scene, or a setting, or whatever.


Posted by on April 23, 2010 in atsiko, How To, Ideas, Writing


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6 responses to “Atsiko’s Plot Recipe for Stories

  1. cbmcclough

    April 23, 2010 at 1:31 AM

    Can you describe your process for plotting? Do you write plot points on index cards and move them around, do you find your characters first and then build the plot around them, or is neither of these suggestions anywhere near the mark? This is something I struggle with, so I’d like to hear how someone else accomplishes it. Thanks!

  2. atsiko

    April 23, 2010 at 1:44 AM

    That’s a bit outside the scope of the post, but oh well.

    I’m a panster. I don’t do a lot of plotting beforehand. Sometimes I do a timeline or something if it’s a long story. But usually I start off with a story idea and a character or three. I know people who have found notecards useful, though. I’ve also done stories where I’ve started off with characters before, but again, I didn’t do a lot of explicit plotting for them. The truth is, even one author has lots of ways to write a story. It just depends on that particular story.

    You’ve asked a rather broad question. If you have some more specific questions, I can answer them from my own perspective–or if you want, I can give you some links where several other writers, all published, talk about parts of their own process.

  3. cbmcclough

    April 23, 2010 at 1:53 AM

    Please point the way–inquiring minds want to know. Pardon my ignorance, but what’s a panster?

    • atsiko

      April 23, 2010 at 2:22 AM

      Well, basically, there are two extremes in the way writers write a story. Plotters outline and diagram and plan everything out before they start writing. “Pansters” are the people who start writing with minimal planning. I’ve woken up froma really great dream and sat straight down to write a story about it. Now, this is a continuum, so there are people on the extremes, but most fall somewhere in between. This should help explain it.

      There are a lot of discussions out there about the various aspects of plotting. Gooogle should bring up quite a few blogs and articles. I don’t know of any places that deal specifically with that aspect of writing, but several of the blogs in my blogroll focus on the issues of writing. I encourage you to click through and give them a look. Most will have a tag cloud or a search function you can use to find exactly what you want. Here’s a list of posts on the creative process from one of my favorite blogs.

      Keep in mind that I’m an SFF writer, so most of the links you’d get from me are from authors in that genre. But there are plenty of blogs by mystery or romance or mainstream fiction out there. Google’s your friend.

  4. Arlee Bird

    April 23, 2010 at 7:54 PM

    What you say here is thought provoking. I’m seeing it as the story being like a house. There might be the conventional ways of getting inside of a front door or maybe even another door, but one might even climb through a window, or even climb down the chimney. It would be interesting to take your premise and create an entire collection of stories based basically on the same themes but approached from different perspectives. Perhaps it’s already been done, but I don’t guess I’ve read it yet if it has.

    Is the story you are working on more specific than the ideas you have presented in your post? I am having a difficult time conceptualizing what you are describing from the generalized summary you have given. I can derive my own idea of what you are saying– I am picturing education ala pre-break-up USSR–but you may be thinking in more futuristic terms that might be more Orwellian or like Brave New World.

    Interesting post.
    A to Z Challenge Reflections Mega Post

  5. atsiko

    April 23, 2010 at 8:26 PM

    Yeah, I’ve got a lot more worked out than this. It’s near-future, secondary-world SF (probably YA), so while I’ve based it on current trends in education on Earth, there are going to be some differences. There’s a heavy element of augmented reality beyond the educational speculation, for instance, and of course there’s a lot more going on in the background then is going to be seen in the story, which is focused more on the education and communication “advances”. I don’t think the story makes as much of a leap as BNW or Orwell, but it’s certainly been going in that direction.

    But I was only using it as an example of the various parts of a story. I could have picked one of my epic fantasy projects, or a UF story, or something interstitial. I would have preferred to use a published work, because then I would have been able to go into a little more detail. But since I don’t exactly have the connections to get a published author’s application of this recipe to their own work, I had to settle for a WIP of mine.

    Your house analogy is pretty good. I think you could use a slightly different idea of having the idea be the foundation, the plot be the door or window, and the story-question being the inner architecture, as well. At least, as far as the reader is concerned. For the writer, your simile better reflects the crative process going on.


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