Practical Plotting Advice for Fiction Writers Everywhere

OMG! Can you believe it? A discussion of fiction writing first written over a decade ago and yet truer than anything we at TVWriter™ have read since? Teresa Nielsen Hayden, you are fucking awesome! (But you’re not from, um, that Nielsen family, are you?)

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The Evil Overlord Devises a Plot
by Teresa Nielsen Hayden

Start with some principles:

  • A plot doesn’t have to be new. It just has to be new to the reader.
  • In fact, it doesn’t even have to be new to the reader. It just has to get past him. (It helps if the story’s moving fast and there’s lots of other interesting stuff going on.)
  • A plot device that’s been used a thousand times may be a cliche, but it’s also a trick that works. That’s why it keeps getting used.
  • Several half-baked ideas can often be combined into one fully-cooked one.
  • If you have one plot presented three ways, you have three plots. If you have three plots presented one way, you have one plot. (I stole this principle from Jim Macdonald’s lecture on how to really generate plots, which is much better than my lecture on stupid plot tricks.)
  • Steal from the best.

Looked at from this angle, the Internet’s various lovingly-compiled cliche lists are a treasury of useful plot devices. The instructions that follow are one way to use them.

1. Below, you’ll find a comprehensive collection of the various Evil Overlord lists. Don’t go there yet. First, using whatever method pleases you, generate five random numbers that fall within the following ranges:

  1. 1-230
  2. 1-150
  3. 1-130
  4. 1-123
  5. 1-94

2. Now go to the Evil Overlord lists, which I’ve divided into five categories. Take your five random numbers and match them up to the appropriate entries in the lists:

  1. Lead Characters (Bad)
  2. Lead Characters (Good)
  3. Auxiliary Characters (Bad)
  4. Auxiliary Characters (Good)
  5. Further Evil

Alternately, you can go here and have them generated for you. You now have five juicy cliches.

You’re going to make a plot out of them. You’ll find it’s fairly easy to make a silly one, but it’s not all that much harder to turn them into a decent one. You’ve got a lot of potential story to work with.

3. You’re not done yet. Before you start writing, roll one die. Take whatever number comes up, and generate that many random numbers which fall between 1 and 141. Now go to Murphy’s Laws of Combat, which follow the Evil Overlord lists, and find the laws that match your numbers. These are plot twists. Use them as needed. If your story absolutely requires that Gareth go from point A to point B and drop off a package at the Post Office along the way, but you’re finding that part dreary, tossing in modifiers like “Every man has a scheme that will not work” or “If your attack is going really well, it’s an ambush” will suggest ways to liven it up.

Read it all

The rest is equally good reading. And we’re impressed by the fact that this article is actually is part of a site informing the world of the Viable Paradise Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop which will be held this hear in October on Martha’s Vineyard. The full scoop on the instructors et al is definitely worth looking at HERE. And munchman says he’s going to try and make it. (Undercover, he says. Ha! says we.)