According to writing teachers, there are only 4, 7, 10, 37 (or the number of your choice) plots. This implies that it’s all been written before, so we might as well give up. We’re never going to write an original story.
That’s true if we stick to Big Ideas.
Big ideas are known as The First Things That Swim By. They swim by first because [popular culture] has cut such deep grooves in our consciousness that our imagination shoots down these grooves faster than dumped water down sluices. We must learn to not take the first thing that swims by. Piddle around with our passions and perceptions until we come up with a fresher idea. ~Claudia Hunter Johnson, Pulitzer nominee, playwright and writing teacher, Crafting Short Screenplays that Connect (Sorry, I could not find a website for her)
Here’s an alternative to Big Ideas: mix and twist hooks. A hook is a thing that catches our attention. It might be an author’s name. We spot a new book by [fill in the name of our favorite author] and our feet automatically carry us towards it. We’re hooked. A hook might also be a character — Navy SEALS, cowgirls, forensic experts, or Scottish lairds — or a plot — second chance at love, computer hacking, cold case mysteries, or paranormal romance. The mixing and twisting comes from throwing the things we love into a bowl, giving them a good stir, and picking out pairs (or more) to put together.
- Navy SEAL + paranormal romance (The Covert Wolf by Bonnie Vanak )
- Cowgirl + cold case mystery (Mariner’s Compass by Earlene Fowler)
- Forensic expert + second chance at love (CIS: the relationship between Gil Grissom and Sara Sidle)
- Scottish laird + computer hacking (Reamde by Neal Stephenson)
I have a 70-item list of hooks that I use all the time. It would be easier — but not nearly so much fun — if I could just spoon feed you that list. Fortunately, it’s copyrighted material from on-line classes taught by Suzanne McMinn and Patricia Kay , and I promised not to share.
So we’re just going to have to have the fun of starting from scratch. It’s possible to assemble a list by ourselves, but it’s a lot more fun to do it with a few friends, something good to drink, and a few nibbles.
How to Hook, Mix, and Twist
Decide how long a list we want. I recommend between 50 and 100 hooks, with about 1/3 being character groups and 2/3 plot situations. That’s only a suggestion.
Brainstorm a list of character groups. Character groups should encompass the widest number of characters possible. Deputy sheriff isn’t a group; people in uniform is because it can include beat cops, detectives, firefighters, arson investigators, sheriffs, deputies, EMTs, soldiers, Federal Marshals, FBI profilers, on and on and on. Single mother is not a group; parents is. Got the idea?
Brainstorm a list of plot situations. Again go for more inclusive plots. Illegal financial gain rather than bank robbery. Babies rather than father doesn’t know about his child.
Once we have our completed list, an easy way to mix them is to write each hook on a separate piece of paper, toss them in a bowl and pick between two and four at random. Anything above four gets too complicated.
If we’ve been a gamer, or know someone who games, an alternative is to use two D-10s. To make it easier, some D-10s are marked with 2-digit numbers (00, 10, 20, etc.) and some with 1-digit (0, 1, 2, etc.) I like to use one of each.
We can set our own rules. My rules are that a 00 throw is a wild card. I can pick anything I want from the list. Since my hook list is only 70 items long, I ignore any roll higher than 70 and roll again. If we’ve constructed a 100-item list we can use any dice roll.
Roll the dice
- 46 + 00 = pirate + item of my choice. I pick office romance. I know that doesn’t look like it goes together, but wait for the twist.
- 10 + 32 = burned out love + irresistible offer
- 29 + 42 = guardian angel + opposites attract
Two of these combinations have one character + one plot. The second one, burned out love + irresistible offer is two plots. That’s fine. Two plots can suggest characters. Two characters can suggest plots.
Add the twist
How about the pirate and the office romance? We don’t think of pirates as having offices, but what if, instead of the headscarf and cutlass kind of pirate she’s a corporate raider. He is the administrative assistant she’s guaranteed to lure away to her company? He wants to change jobs, but his goal is to work at the rival company for which she headhunts. He’ll do anything to get that job.
The twists: pirate as corporate raider and gender reversal — it’s often women who are administrative assistants. The First Thing That Swims By would be to make him content in his job, with no desire to leave. We twist that so that he’s desperate to change jobs, but only if he can work for her company’s competition.
All of this is a fun exercise with which to while away an afternoon or evening, but how do we translate this to the novels we have in progress? Chances are we can find our character and plot elements on our list of hooks. For Whiskeyjack, the novel I’m writing as I write this series of blogs, these are the hooks that seem to best describe my intended plot.
Beta male + fish out of water + adventurer heroine
If I can convert my hooks into a 100-word synopsis, chances are I’ve got a good understanding of my hook, mix, and twist. Bonus points if I work the book’s title into the synopsis.
Johnny Randall is no one’s hero. A recovering alcoholic, with an acne-scarred face, he spent his life doing the opposite of whatever his father wanted. Now that his parents have retired to Arizona, he’s in charge of running his family’s logging business and the town of Whiskeyjack, which amounts to the same thing. The company is the town. The first thing Johnny does is hire an American nurse, Meg Porter, to work at the nursing station. Meg knows nothing about Canada, northern Alberta, or working in a nursing station. Was hiring her Johnny’s first decision or his first mistake?
The twists: an American in Canada (fish out of water), Johnny being the least likely person to run the town well (fish out of water and he’s always been the beta male to his father), and pairing Johnny and Meg (the adventurer and the beta, which we usually see in alpha male and sidekick combinations, but Meg is no one’s sidekick).
I hope you’ll come back on Thursday for this week’s Level Thinking blog: The Convention Agenda. If you’ve never been to a writers’ convention, should you try one? If you’re an old convention hand, are you getting the best out of the experience?
Next Tuesday I start a four-part blog on character development, one of the most important steps in writing a novel.