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The Plot Less Traveled: How to Write Unique Stories
Which Road Will Your Plot Take?
The Common Problem
As a freelance writer, I am constantly working to improve my writing style and flex my creative muscles. This means that I participate in a variety of online critique forums, writing challenges and contests. Over the past decade, I’ve noticed that many writers struggle with original plot lines. We (myself included) have a tendency to find the most obvious solution to a character’s dilemma and write it, assuming that others will enjoy the journey even if they can predict the story’s end by the third paragraph or end of the first chapter. For a few truly brilliant writers this may be the case; they may be able to keep readers even after telegraphing their endings. For the rest of us, however, careful attention to plot and the incorporation of unexpected twists will not only enrich our own writing experience but also improve the experience for our readers.
Avoid the Path of Least Resistance
Taking the most obvious plot path won't surprise your readers or provide the necessary intrigue to keep them reading.
Finding a Plot
Now that we’ve established that Occam’s Razor isn’t a successful means for creating a storyline, let’s examine two paths to a plot and their effectiveness. Since I often begin my writing process with a specific prompt, let’s take these two paths for some prompts that I’ve encountered in online writing groups. The first path is that of least resistance. It’s the proverbial wide and straight path and begins by creating a story based on the author’s first thought about a prompt. The second path is less traveled for a reason. It is narrow and more difficult to find. Stories created by authors navigating this path to a plot generally work harder at their craft, and they risk being misunderstood by readers when they write on an unpopular theme or uncomfortable topic. However, they rise above the pack by crafting unique stories that haven’t already been told.
Prompt 1: Dental Instruments
Fellow blogger and Friday Fictioneer Ted Strutz provided a great photo of a dental tray and a window looking out toward a body of water as a prompt for our group of flash fiction writers not long ago. At first glance, many authors saw only instruments of torture in an upstairs room. As a result, many of the participants that week wrote the exact same story—a story about kidnapping and torture. These authors took the first path to a plot.
Not every author responding to this photo prompt took the most obvious path to a plot, however. Looking more closely at the photo, some folks noticed the vans parked in front of the house across the street. Others noticed the wooded areas beyond the inlet in the background of the photo. Some who took the initial prompt of the dental tools chose plots with unique twists. Rochelle Wisoff-Fields, the facilitator of Friday Fictioneers, did some research on early American dentistry to come up with a unique piece of historical fiction. I chose to write a story about vampires and dental work based on the idea of a dental tray missing a dental mirror.
A Truly Lost Plot
Prompt 2: The Six-Word Story
I also regularly participate in a weekly contest on LinkedIn. Every week between five and 15 writers compose a short story based on a one-word prompt or a first sentence. Recently, I was filled with dismay when the announced first-sentence prompt was the commonly quoted six-word story that Hemingway definitely did not write: For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn. My dreams that night became nightmares of having to read 10 different dead-baby stories, each more emotionally manipulative than the last. Fortunately, I grossly underestimated the talent of this particular writers group. In fact, only three of the stories dealt overtly with the death of a baby, and all the stories had some merit. For this prompt, let’s take a look at fresh ways to tell the story of a baby’s death.
Allow me to caution you. Stories about the death of a child have been grossly overdone in the past half century. To tell the story about a baby’s death that grabs a reader’s attention, a narrative must include something truly unique about the characters and the plot. Even if the death is of a common sort—stillbirth, preemie death in the NICU, SIDS—something new must be incorporated into the plot to capture the reader’s attention, to make the reader care about the characters as though they are family, not strangers. This is not because your readers are uncaring and heartless. It’s because death is a part of life, and even if you are telling a true story, they need a reason to empathize beyond a nod or acknowledgement that sometimes life just isn’t fair. The cliché writing advice, “Make your reader cry, not your character.” holds true here. Grief will not be a new topic. Manner of death is unlikely to be interesting at all, much less fresh. Your job as a writer is to tell a story that brings something new to the table.
While I would generally advise against attempting to write about the death of a baby, especially if you are still grieving the loss of one of your own, there are some ways to make a plot like this fresh. One writer in my LinkedIn group surprised me with a tale about a massacre. She introduced the story with a survivor standing in the home, holding a new pair of baby shoes. Then she deftly flashed back to the cold-blooded murder of a family. In the end, the sale of a pair of designer baby shoes provided much-needed cash for the survivors. While this wasn’t my favorite story of the week for a variety of technical reasons, the plot worked. The author went to the most obvious place for the baby shoes, but then she incorporated a twist that made the story different from anything else on the board that week.
Which of the following plot lines would you prefer to read from the "baby shoes" prompt?
Fresh spins on old stories work beautifully at times and fall flat other times. When telling an old story once again, it’s important for the author to add a unique twist to the plot. Oftentimes this is accomplished by switching to a different point of view. Gregory Maguire has a true talent for this. His retelling of the Wizard of Oz in Wicked is only one of his skillfully spun retellings. He has also retold Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” in , and other books of his also tell old tales in new ways that draw an audience. Matchless: A Christmas Story
Some retellings, however, don’t work. A member of my LinkedIn group once did a retelling of Lolita that stuck so closely to the original script that it fell flat despite being technically sound as a story. I once had some fun rewriting “” The idea was to tell the story from the point of view of a village outcast—the one woman whose son didn’t go along with the other children that day. While I still like the idea of this particular plot, the story in its current rendition doesn’t work well because the point of view isn’t strong enough. In both of these instances, the retelling needed a strong, fresh perspective—a new take on the plot that would engage the reader and add insights the way George Maguire’s retellings consistently do. The Pied Piper.
Whether you, as an author, choose to weave a brand-new tale of your own or reweave a tale spun by others down through the ages, a unique plot is integral to your ability to capture an audience. Fresh plots aren’t easy to design, but the effort is worth it. Your readers will be more likely to come back for more, and you will enjoy the creative process more than ever as your plot and your characters begin to surprise you.