It’s never fun to be stuck in quicksand. I know what it’s like when you have a great character idea or inciting event, but can’t move forward in a story. Fortunately, I’ve found a solution to get myself out of that deadly and, frankly itchy situation: experimenting with writing exercises.
This one came to me when two different ones collided together, sparking an idea that got me out of a rut. I call it a word tree. Not only can it generate plot ideas, it helps in travelling beyond the analytical mind to make us look at our stories in a different way.
It’s surprising how much it can invigorate our writing and it only takes ten minutes. That’s the same amount of time it would take to wait for a cup of coffee in your local chain, do the washing up or make an appointment for a toe wax. Sounds pretty good to me…
As trees traditionally grow from the root, we’ll begin there. Start by taking a piece of paper or your notebook and write down a word that is somehow significant to your story. This might be a character, a setting or anything else you can think of.
Then, at the very top of the page write a second word. This could also be relevant or completely random. If you can’t think of anything, choose a word from a newspaper or whatever else is lying around. Like a hotel Bible.
Ignore the word at the top for a moment and focus instead on the ‘root’ word. Now on your phone or egg timer set a countdown of 5-10 min. Start making free associations with this word by branching off and writing down a new word.
Your tree won’t look a classical shape; more like a spiderweb/mind map/ weird molecular structure. Continue doing this until you reach exactly halfway on the page. The more you let go the better.
This means if you started with the word ‘opal’ and the next word you branched off was ‘bad luck’ this is fine, but it’s also good to make it personal e.g. ‘Aunt Hildegard’ because you had an aunt who used to only wear opals. Allowing words to spill naturally and without judgement will create a more ‘organic’ and interesting tree.
Repeat the step as before but this time work down the page from the word at the top.
So there’s going to be a point where the words coming from two directions start to collide. This is the point where you can bring your freewriting to a natural conclusion. Now let’s prepare for the Big Bang.
Looking down at individual words on the page, start making interesting connections between them. You might want to choose a different colour pen so the page doesn’t get too complicated or use a fresh sheet of paper to jot down your ideas. It’s here that the plot generation machine begins to fire up.
There’ll be characters, themes and other random pieces of information that naturally pique your interest when considered together as a unit. It’s not our job to force this association but the ability to notice potential in our word tree.
You’ll know when a plot idea has been generated when you feel you’ve ‘caught the wave’ of something and can feel a kind of forward momentum.
So by this stage you’ve hopefully got a few ideas to play with and the story’s a little more ‘alive’ than the stagnant pond of a thing half an hour before. You may discover however that although you have a great idea in a general sense, you’re now stuck in the minutiae of it all.
Simply begin another tree or use another freewriting technique. They’re not just there for the grand scheme of things, but for scene ideas, the relationship between characters; basically however small you can get.
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I’d love to hear how you get on with this. Did it work for you or did you find it frustrating? If so do you have any recommended methods for generating plot ideas? Let me know all the ins and outs in the comments section below!
Until next time,