How to Develop Your Story Idea into a Plot


Here are some insights into the process of turning a basic story idea into a structured plot. The brief discussion is tailored for the writer of plot-dominated stories or genre fiction.

Tarot card showing a knight on horseback

The hero of your story faces change and must struggle against a villain to reach a clearly stated goal.

Start with a Critical Moment of Change

All stories start with an idea, but an idea is only the kernel, the seed. The way to transform an idea into a story is to generate a plot. Within the context of your idea, begin with a moment of change for the main character. This has power because change of any kind is threatening. Right away, the reader wants to know how your character will deal with the threat. Therefore, the realization of change is the point where your story begins. To work well, the change must be of sufficient depth and seriousness; it must matter to the character; it must be something the reader can relate to and identify with.

In essence then, a situation exists, but something important has changed. The main character is threatened. Their position is no longer secure. They vow to struggle. They choose a goal and take action towards achieving it. Bingo! The story is underway. Once things are moving, the main character must encounter a variety of difficulties, complications, and opposition. Make sure there are many fights (these can be merely verbal). The main character, or “hero,” needs a rival, the “villain,” with goals that oppose and conflict with the goal chosen by the hero at the beginning of the story.

Keep Your Story Moving

Remember that fiction is all about movement: the story must advance, develop, evolve; the hero and villain must clash and struggle. The hero must triumph – but only after numerous setbacks. If things go too well, the reader will become bored.

To keep your story on track, write and keep handy a brief statement, as precise as possible, about the essential nature of the story – what it is about. Then, when writing (or even when outlining) always follow the line of conflict issuing from the main character’s struggle to reach the chosen goal. This line is the backbone of your story.

Example of a Story Statement

Here is what goes into one of these story statements:

  • The simple plot situation within which the story plays out
  • The name and identity of the “hero,” the primary viewpoint character
  • The hero’s chosen goal, which is also the story goal. Keep in mind that subplots too must have a specified main character with a story goal; that is, unless the subplot also is of primary concern to the story’s main character.
  • The name and identity of the “antagonist,” the primary opposition character
  • The antagonist’s story goal and how he opposes the main character

Avoid subtlety when advancing the plot: be obvious and clear. Readers are primarily interested in the plot. They read on to see how things turn out.

A Few More Pointers

Reuse plot or story elements to keep things simple, and to tie the story more tightly together. These elements may be minor characters, incidents, places, or objects.

Avoid overly ornate writing in plot-dominated stories. Flowery (purple) prose slows things down and a sluggish plot-driven story is usually boring. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s infamous opening line illustrates the point: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

The story’s ending (the plot wrap-up) must make it clear whether the main character has achieved their chosen story goal.

All characters must be strongly motivated from start to finish. The story and the main character’s behaviour must be logical. If they are not, the story will seem vague and confusing. Fiction must be more logical than real life; it also must be better than real life, more action-packed and colourful, less boring and mundane, with things working out more conclusively and favourably than is often the case in reality.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

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