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.
1) PLOT SPRINTS
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?
2) MY BORING DAY
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.”
3) KILLER TOMATO
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.
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.
5) SEE THAT GUY?
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.