I tell my fiction students to look at their lives as databanks of plot ideas. All lives contain drama. Some dramatic moments are good, such as being named valedictorian. Others are bad, like being fired. The novelist can raise routine human dramas to levels of entertainment by:
● increasing their dramatic tension
● retelling them with humor
● having them teach some lesson
Novels depict life in an abridged format, emphasizing the emotional, not the factual, aspects of events.
To find plot ideas from your life:
● Look through family albums for how you’ve celebrated birthdays and holidays
● View home movies or videos
● Talk to your older relatives about their lives
● Read your grade school diaries and journals
● Search your attic’s treasury of toys, yearbooks, and outdated clothes
As these jog your memory, episodes become vivid, so take notes. Consider ways to enhance the real stories to make them more dramatic.
Remind yourself of the fear of bringing home that fifth-grade report card with the two Ds. Ask yourself how that scene could be made more intense. Maybe the Ds keep the main character off the basketball team or cheerleading squad. Or perhaps they mean no TV for six weeks—and no allowance. What else could those grades do to ruin a fifth-grader’s life?
Now put each scene in position amid your others. Go back and amplify each episode by adding more notes about:
● what led to the event
● what motivated you
● how you felt
● what were the long-range ramifications
Next, judge your material. If any episode doesn’t seem real, determine how you can give it credibility. Consider ways the event can become relevant. Eliminate the melodramatic. Create elements of suspense that make the reader want to keep turning pages.
No writer creates out of a void. Ideas come from what we’ve experienced, read, or heard. This creativity bank is limitless because it draws on all three methods. Start with an event from your own life, modify it by adding characters you’ve read about, then conclude with an anecdote someone told you.
When you finish, the novel may seem to have no relation to your personal life. Yet in a very real sense, it does. Only you, the novelist, will know just how much.
Dr. Dennis E. Hensley is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University. His 53 books include Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishers) and How to Write What You Love and Make a Living at It (Random House).
Image credit: gresei / 123RF Stock Photo