Category Archives: Workshops

Pumping Up the Plot (Part 2): Plot Sprints & Other Exercises

Yeah, we’ve all done plot exercises, either at workshops or by ourselves.  But what makes these exercises a little different is they’re meant to be done in your head, not on paper.  That’s where your ideas come from, after all, and the more you can work out a story in your head, the stronger your instincts will be when you sit down to write.

Do these exercises with at least one other person (or two, or three, or four, if you got ’em), and don’t spend a lot of time on the details.  Just try to come up with the essential elements.  If you tend towards a particular kind of plot, try to vary your ideas: realistic plots instead of sci-fi; a survival story or quest instead of a love triangle.


Start w/ 3 elements:  a character, an object, and a setting.  Come up with the best plot you can using all those elements.


Elements: Nun, toaster, airport security.

No plot: Nun going on a trip w/ her favorite toaster.

Okay plot: TSA agent, seeing nun clutching toaster, suspects she is going to blow up plane.

Better plot: Nun bringing toaster for sister’s wedding. In security line, she obsesses to off-duty cop about how awful groom is, how he hits sister, etc. Cop starts to suspect she’s going to kill the groom—with the toaster. But how?


Take the most boring moment of the day. Try to make it exciting or intriguing by adding 1 or 2 sentences.


Boring:    I got up, took a shower, clipped my toenails.

Plot 1: I got up, took a shower and was clipping my toenails when it finally hit me:  my daughter is never coming back.

Plot 2:      I got up, took a shower and clipped my toenails. I scooped up the last clumps of hair and my toenail clippings, and put them all in an envelope. “To: My Asshole Ex-Husband.  From: Your Dying Ex-Wife.”


One person names an animal, person, or object. The other has to figure out what that thing/person wants. The goal is to come up with a desire that suggests tension or action of some kind.


What: Tomato

Wants:     “I want to grow bite-sized human heads in a garden and put them in my salad.”

Who: Starbucks barista

Wants:     “I want the lady who orders the venti cappuccino every day to notice I always make a heart shape in the foam.”

4)  WHAT IF?

One of the oldest and best tools for finding a plot. Take an event from your own life or someone else’s (or the news), and ask “What if it had turned out differently?”


Event 1: Violent father tries to talk daughter into letting him in the house. Mother calls police. Father arrested.

What If: Daughter lets father in the house. Father kills the mother, but the daughter escapes.

Event 2: Nurses mix up babies in maternity ward. Mistake is discovered, babies returned to their mothers.

What If: Mistake is not discovered for 10 years. One child is living with average suburban family. Other is in abusive religious cult.


Pick out a stranger, and construct a plot around him/her.


On Ferry: Tall bearded man w/ glasses and bloodshot eyes, clutching heavy bag.

Plot: Has just murdered his landlady. Is going to drop bag w/ murder weapon overboard.

In Taxi: Talkative female cabbie driving like madwoman.

Plot: Escapee from local psychiatric hospital. Kidnaps passengers and drives them to abandoned school-building, where she relives her glory days as a high school teacher.

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Pumping Up the Plot (Part 1): 6 Vital Signs of A Healthy Plot

"Elementary, my dear Watson: We want to pump you up!"

So you’re good at coming up with interesting characters. Or maybe you can describe a freshly mowed lawn right down to the chopped up tennis balls and cut-grass-mixed-with-dog-poop smell. But if all your writing mojo turns to Jello as soon as someone mentions the word “plot,” here’s a little something that might help: the 6 most important vital signs for a healthy plot.

Use this list if you’re struggling to come up with a plot and don’t have a clue where to start. Or use it to double-check an idea for a plot, see if it’s likely to go the distance or leave you stranded.

6 Vital Signs of A Healthy Plot

1. WANT / DESIRE: This is the lifeblood of plot. If you can’t identify what your character wants, you have no plot. If you know intellectually what your character wants, but don’t necessarily feel it, then you might have a plot—but probably not the strongest one.

What you want is to feel in your gut the ache or hunger or desire your character has for a particular person, thing, or course of action. Then you’ve got the beginnings of a great plot.

2. OBSTACLES: Figure out who or what stands in the way of what your character wants. If she/he can get what they want easily, you have no plot. If he/she cannot get it easily, but you’re not quite sure what the obstacle is, then you have a plot, but it’s still too vague. Sharpen and refine until you know exactly what the “wall” is.

3. TENSION: Want + Obstacles = Tension. If you can’t feel the tension, then you haven’t fully identified what your characters want or what the obstacles are. Go back and work on Vital Signs 1 and 2.

4. OPPORTUNITY: Your characters have to believe they can get what they want (even if it’s impossible). Otherwise, they have no reason to act. Make sure you give them some chance (real or imagined) to succeed, even if you snatch it away from them in the end.

5. SURPRISES / CHANGES: Only two types of plots are allowed to unfold in a straight line: boring ones and new ones. Since there are no new plots, and you probably don’t want your story to be boring, you should always be looking for twists and turns, unexpected challenges and surprises as you write. These are the touches that differentiate a simple plot from a complex one, and turn an ordinary novel into a page-turner. (Plus, they can make a story or novel a lot more fun to write.)

6. RESOLUTION: You don’t have to know exactly how your story’s going to end before you write it. And you can have whatever resolution you think is best: positive, negative, neutral, ambiguous, etc. But if you don’t have some kind of feeling for where the character’s want is going to lead him/her, what kinds of futures are possible for that character given his/her desires and the obstacles presented, your plot is going to lose direction.  “Starts out strong, but loses steam”—that’s the epitaph for novels written with no resolution in mind.

NEXT WEEK:  Pumping Up the Plot (Part 2) — 5 Exercises to Boost Your Plot-Writing Mojo

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