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My Plot Development Process

Part 3: Other Sources of Plot Conception

In Parts 1 and 2 I discussed points of inspiration, and their subsequent decompression into workable story pieces, but points of inspiration aren't the only source of plot material for me. And for that matter, a point of inspiration often isn't enough by itself to create a plot.

Fortunately there are two other major plot sources as well: cold design and plot-stealing. Which is good, because if you're reading this to get ideas for your own plot development process, "have an inspiration" isn't particularly useful advice. =P

I should be clear that here I'm talking about plot premise creation, not the nitty-gritty process of continuing to develop a plot that has already been conceived. That discussion comes later in this miniseries.

Cold Design

Cold design is when I sit down and create a plot out of thin air. It's not quite as desolate as it may sound, because often I'll have preexisting supporting elements to draw upon such as characters or a thematic premise, but as far as the plot itself goes I'll be starting from stone-cold nothing. And sometimes I don't even have these other supporting elements, and find myself staring at a truly blank canvas.

I think cold design is what non-writers tend to imagine when they think of writers creating plots, but in my experience the question of "How do you come up with it?!" is usually a question about the writer's plot development process, not the act of coming up with the plot premise itself. Sometimes it does happen that a writer will have to come up with something from virtually nothing, but in my experience this is rare.

One of the easiest ways to design a plot from scratch is to use a seed. This concept exists throughout the creative arts: Basically you give yourself a starting point of some kind and proceed from there.

My favorite type of seed is to present myself with some kind of brainstorming exercise. The most fruitful seeded plot conception work I've ever had the privilege of enjoying was in the context of tarot readings from my former girlfriend. She's a nontraditional tarot aficionado: Tarot, when separated from its traditional mystical and religious context, is a powerful tool for brainstorming and connecting ideas.

There is a character in Silence's Handsel Band whose entire backstory I came up with on the basis of a spread of tarot cards, as expertly interpreted by my friend. This plot was developed from nothing; the character herself was a blank slate except for a handful of details that I already had (based on an unrelated point of inspiration), yet she evolved into this wonderful, interesting person, complete with a love story and a dramatic chariot ride. It all came from the seed of the cards, with the rest springing from our imaginations.

Another type of seed that I've found to be fruitful is a prompt or question. During another tarot reading one of the questions that I was asked was "Is this character [the sandship captain Pyail] having nightmares?" It was a great question, and from it I was later able to get quite a bit of mileage in developing his subplot.

A third type of seed is to present myself with a scenario or situation. It's like saying "Okay, the audience has been dropped into a story. What's happening?" By this, I'm not talking about cold scene-writing. The purpose isn't to develop a scene and, from that, infer a plot—though this actually is a plot development technique that I'll discuss later in the series—but to conduct a survey. No output is necessarily generated; instead I'm just filling my head with the background of the world in which the story will be set.

For example, outside of The Curious Tale, two franchises that I greatly enjoy are Metroid and Star Trek, and every once in a while, when I'm not feeling the Relance vibe, I'll work on stories set in my "Star Trek Ripoff" universe.

In one particular case, I knew I wanted to tell a story that felt very much like a Metroid game—creepy and desolate. But I had no specific plot in mind. So I sat down and took stock of the elements of the Metroid universe that cause me to enjoy those games.

From this I came up with not only a main character, but a plot too. It was just a rough outline, but I had done it from nothing, essentially using only my analysis of the Metroid series as a reference point.

The story never got written beyond a couple of exploratory scenes, but the general premise was good and several years later I revisited it thanks to a point of inspiration that I'd gotten from playing Analgoue: A Hate Story. By this point my Star Trek Ripoff universe was much better developed, and I had characters and a setting ready to go.

The point of inspiration from Analogue didn't get me very far in developing the plot. Instead, I came up with the plot much as I had done before, by exploring my imagination on the general topic and constructing a plot from scratch based on what I found. This led to a complete and fairly detailed plot that I could now write a story from at any time.

These various types of "seeds" are different from points of inspiration in that the latter are unbidden and come as-is, with no warranty or prior intent. They are experiences in themselves. By contrast, a plot seed is deliberately intended to try and engineer a plot premise. They are tools in the writer's kit, not happy accidents of creativity.

Of course, it's also possible to use no starter seed at all. For me, to create a plot premise from scratch, without any kind of aid, isn't usually as original a process as it sounds, because I typically end up falling back on my favorite themes, tropes, and moods. But it is possible.

I think the key takeaway from cold design is that you can often come up with the idea for a plot by exposing yourself to creatively-triggering stimuli. As general advice this isn't very useful, but if you start thinking about specific ways that you might be able to creatively trigger yourself, I think you'll soon end up with more ideas than you know what do with. Like I said, in my experience the hard part of developing a plot isn't coming up with the premise of it.


Plot-stealing does what it says on the tin: I take a preexisting plot from any other source, and adapt it into a plot premise of my own. The original plot really can come from anywhere, including real-life events and even my own dreams (i.e., situations where there's no deliberate plot, but where it is nevertheless possible to perceive one). And of course books, games, movies, and other deliberate creative works are a rich source of plot as well.

I use the word "stealing" somewhat cheekily. I don't consider "plot-stealing" to be actual theft—that is, to be something unethical. That's because I'm not talking about plagiarism. Anyone who outright copies and pastes portions of somebody else's hard work and calls it their own thing is being both lazy and a dick, not to mention likely a lawbreaker.

When I talk about "plot-stealing," I'm talking about a (re)interpretation of the original source. This is the difference between looking at somebody else's painting and trying to literally copy it, and looking at somebody else's painting and wanting to do "your own take" on the same premise. Maybe you really like the overall theme. Maybe you really like a specific color tone effect, or a particular interaction of subject matter. The point is that you want to do your own version of it. That's plot-stealing. When the similarities are highly prominent, this is often called a spiritual successor, but it isn't necessary for your work to bear any resemblance at all to the original, because "plot-stealing" concerns your plot premise and not the developed work itself that will follow.

(Plot-stealing is one member of a larger *-stealing category: theme-stealing, trope-stealing, character-stealing, style-stealing, etc.)

Reinterpretation is a time-honored tradition that every culture has always practiced. Indeed, it is logically unavoidable. "Plot" as a story element consists of a finite palette of possibilities, constrained mainly by our own human points of reference. You've probably heard that there are only so many fundamental types of story. And you can probably deduce that there are only so many categories of plot device. These limited possibilities are even fewer in practice, because in practice most storytellers stick with well-established cultural folkways and professional standards, and avoid straying too far away from the common practices of their day. Most stories, for instance, have a romantic subplot (or main plot). What it all comes down to is that most plots fit into one of a small number of archetypes, and even the details of a given plot, once you know its archetype, are usually going to be highly predictable.

It's just as well that plot-stealing is so hard to avoid, because I think it's culturally healthy when creative elements flow freely between artists. The modern system of harsh and wide-reaching copyright laws mainly helps big companies to profit at the cost of broader artistic innovation. Consider the hypocrisy of Disney, which got the idea for The Little Mermaid from the public domain but would sue the pants off anybody who tried to do something similar with the Disney version of that story. (Look at the pains the makers of the new, non-Disney Mermaid film are taking to avoid crossing Disney's army of salivating lawyers.)

In contrast to that, folk music is one of the richest areas of all music because so many of the songs have that beautiful attribution "Trad." at the top, meaning anyone can perform it—any way they like. Try that with a song copyrighted by a big label, and you'll be paying top-dollar to get a license to cover the thing. I'm not trying to make the argument that copyright is a bad thing. It's not. But I consider its present implementation excessively stifling to the state of our arts as a society. In my view it really is a healthy thing to draw from other people's work. I just want to make that clear.

In my own work, plot-stealing is one of my favorite and most fruitful sources of plot ideas. In my mental notes for Jemis Finick's eventual Interlude is the simple instruction "retell The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past." In particular I was captivated by the image of Link and Agahnim dueling atop the tower of Hyrule Castle. Another example on a much broader scale is that some key plot ideas in After The Hero itself, at least in its original RPG form, are a reinterpretation of plot points from games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Secret of Mana.

Don't be afraid to steal a plot. It's perfectly healthy and exceedingly common—I would hazard a guess that more plots are "stolen" than not. Just be sure to interpret a source plot according to your own desires and convictions. Give it your own "stamp," as it were. If you're using a copyrighted work as the source material, don't steal the original artist's actual implementation—their final work. That's when you get into trouble. Go abstract; identify the elements you want to use, and take those.

Tune in Next Week!

I make use of other sources of plot premise conception as well, but, to the best of my knowledge, points of inspiration, cold design, and plot-stealing are the big three. I hope these three articles have been useful for you. We've only just begun to scratch the surface of plot development per se.

This miniseries will return in two weeks. Next Saturday my plot development miniseries will take the week off as I instead devote Curious Tale Saturdays to talking about people's feedback on the Prelude to After The Hero, and more. Tune in!

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!