Here’s the thing. Sometimes in fiction, we have no problem creating the setting. We imagine gigantic skyscrapers that formally watch over the metropolis. Or we create quaint homes that hide beneath the brush, allowing wandering vines to trickle up the banisters.

We also have our characters. The sassy, smooth talking heroine who is still just a sucker for love. And we have the hero who is far beyond dumb, but somehow he manages to ask the right questions so that the reader can remain informed. We have our side characters whose only purpose, no matter how much we fight against it, is to make our main characters look better. Even though our side characters are three-dimensional in every sense of the word.

But, how do we formulate a plot? This is something that I had to overcome in my latest novel. Some of us aren’t the Christopher Nolan types who can give up ten years of our lives and then BOOM — drop Inception on the world. Most of us, if not all of us, are far below Tolkien whose works I will not utter to you.

So what do you do? There are the writers who get premises all day while just driving past laundry mats. “Guy goes into a laundry mat, and sees his once wealthy ex-girlfriend, beaten and bloodied, shoving her soiled clothes into the machine.” Or you have the people who wake up in cold sweats wreaking of plot: “Woman diagnosed with stage 5 breast cancer tries one last thing to survive.” You get the idea (but still not quite the big idea).

Here’s what happened for me. I had created my characters. I knew their history, their back story, their likes, their dislikes, and I could even hear their voices whenever I wrote dialogue for them. My suggestion: let your characters write your story.

Use your villain as your catalyst. Whatever you want your main character to overcome, your villain will be your instrument of change. Think of Batman: The Dark Knight. All of the elements are there as far as setting and characters. But what do we need to do: introduce a little chaos. Bruce Wayne is trying to relinquish his role as the city’s savior figure, but why can’t he do this? He can’t do it because the Joker spawns Two-Face (the very guy, Harvey Dent) who Bruce wanted to turn the city over to. So Bruce has to use Harvey’s death to counter the Joker’s chaos. No Joker. No chaos. No chaos. No plot.

Here’s another example for those of you who are Adam Sandler fans. I’m not, but I do like Big Daddy, Fifty First Dates, and Click. In Click, the villain is represented as death or time. Adam Sandler finds a remote control, and he wants to skip the mundane parts of his life. This remote allows him to do it (great movie, by the way). The writer needs Adam Sandler, a well-to-do, promising architect, to realize that life is better appreciated one day at time. Stop living for tomorrow. So instead of saying: “Viewers. Living for tomorrow is bad,” the writer shows what happens when you skip through your life, hoping for things that are unattainable.

Now I use movies because most people can relate, but the principles transfer to novels. So if you are writing a romance, who is your villain? Is it time? Is it a best friend? Is it a mother or is it life in general? Whatever or whoever it is, use that villain to squeeze the juice out of your protagonist(s) until all that emerges is the point you are trying to make: Everyone deserves to be loved.

Are you writing a fantasy /sci-fi (my favorite genres)? Who is your villain? Is it evil? Is it evil incarnate? Is your villain an idea? Blast your protags with enough magic and lasers until the answer is clear: there’s only one right way to use magic, and you o’ villain, are in the wrong!

So you have your villain who spews out your premise. Now take that premise and manifest a plot. Let’s use one from above: “Woman diagnosed with stage 5 breast cancer tries one last thing to survive.” Who or what is the villain here? Well cancer is perhaps the thing that is against her. So let’s dig deeper. What is this cancer not allowing her to do? It’s obviously taking her life…. So what can she do to show her strength?

Let’s use the character to create the story. We’ll say that she is a twenty-five year old graduate from Duke University who grew up on a farm where reading was for idiots because there were cows to be milked and manure to be plowed. Her dad died when she was eight, leaving her to take care of her mother as she was the only child.

She and her mom rarely talked, and she always blamed her mother for the death of her dad. Her mom secretly wanted to learn to read, so what does our main character, Allyson, do? She teaches her mom to write while taking care of the farm. The cancer fights against her. The treatments make her sick. The chemotherapy only gets worse, but her goal to survive is to leave a legacy with her mother — one that can never be taken away.

At Allyson’s funeral, we find that the cancer has succeeded in killing her, but it failed in one regard. Her mother walks over to her casket, sobbing, and reads a poorly written but written nonetheless letter of how getting to know her daughter over the past few months will be something that she never forgets. What do we have? We have a villain whose evil plan was thwarted by Allyson’s courage. The cancer killed her, but her dream lives on.

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