Monday, October 25, 2010

From Idea to Plot by Nancy Kress

There is a story you would like to write. Only it isn’t a story yet – it’s an interesting character, an intriguing situation, a setting that suggests possibilities. How do you take it from those beginnings to a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end?
By going to war.
What I mean by that is that every story is a war. From the most literary short story of delicate emotional shifts to the 600-page family saga spanning three continents and four generations, all fiction is essentially a battlefield on which forces clash. These forces may be represented by different characters, a character against some aspect of his society, conflicting values or urges within a character, or all of the above. But what doesn’t vary is that stories are wars. They include fighters (protagonist, antagonist), something fought over (territory, love, identity, money, being right), and various battles (misunderstandings, fist fights, betrayals, thefts). Someone wins and someone loses (sometimes the same someone). And the war itself is seen as righteous, necessary, evil, futile, or boring, depending on the author’s attitude toward her characters.
Let me illustrate this with two disparate examples from current fiction, Suzanne Collins’ best-selling YA fantasy THE HUNGER GAMES and Philippa Gregory’s historical romance THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL. In Collins’ novel, protagonist Katniss Everdene has two antagonists: a constant struggle to keep her family fed and the despots who rule her country. What is being fought for is survival, first in her village and then, after she is chosen as a “tribute” gladiator by the rulers, in a fight to the death that is televised as “entertainment.” The battles Katniss fights are against the other gladiators, against the rulers who decree this cruelty, against her reluctance to kill, and against her own soft feelings for the two boys who are both in love with her. By the end of the book, Katniss has won some of these battles, lost others. Even though the war is not over (since this is the first of a trilogy), the author’s view is clear: violence solves nothing.
In THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, protagonist Mary Boleyn also has several antagonists: her sister Anne, who is a rival for King Henry’s affections, the king himself, and her avaricious extended family. At stake: love and survival. The battles are fought in the throne room and the bedroom. Anne becomes queen but Mary ends up the clear victor. She gets a quiet life with a man she loves, and Anne is beheaded for adultery. The war itself is a commentary on ambition and power.
How can all this help turn a story idea into an actual story? When I have something I want to write about but no clear plot, I ask myself these questions:
  • What two (at least) sides can be taken about this idea? Who should be on each side? Almost any idea can lead to conflict, as long as someone wants something connected with it.
  • What is that thing that is so desperately wanted? Why are the characters desperate about it? (If they’re not desperate, you will not have a strong story.) What is the war being fought over?
  • What sort of battles are these two forces likely to engage in? Some possibilities: Both sides want the same thing (Mary and Anne Boleyn). Both sides want mutually exclusive things (Katniss Everdene and the rulers of the Hunger Games.) One side imposes something on the other, who resists (every story of adolescent rebellion, and many romance novels). One side wants something very badly, and the other does not want to give it up (most detective fiction, in which the detective wants the killer).
  • What can go wrong? This is a key question for devising battles, since fiction is about things that get screwed up, not things that go smoothly. Your protagonist is on the way to getting what she is fighting for. Then – what can go wrong? Make it do so!
  • Who will win in the end?
  • Was this war worth the fighting?
I followed this thinking when I wrote my science fiction novel BEGGARS IN SPAIN, which is about people genetically engineered to never sleep. I had that as an idea, and a young girl as a protagonist. She is intelligent, clear-headed, idealistic. There are no biological downsides to this bit of DNA tinkering. So how can I turn idea into plot?
For opposing forces, I decided on a struggle between the Sleepless and the “norms,” who resent the advantages the former enjoy (eight more hours each day of tireless accomplishment!) Then I added another split, between the Sleepless who work toward integrating the two types of humanity and the Sleepless who wish to break off into their own, heavily defended enclave. This suggested all sorts of possible battles – in the courts, at the enclaves, among the bigoted of both sides. Because I believe in ambiguous endings (more like real life), I awarded some victories to each of my three factions. And my view of the entire “war” is clear: You can try to retard scientific advancement, but it’s going to happen anyway. All this helped me plot my novel.
Thinking of your fiction as wars can be very useful even if your stories all take place in nineteenth-century drawing rooms. (Maybe especially if they take place in nineteenth-century drawing rooms – consider Thackeray’s VANITY FAIR, or anything by Georgette Heyer.) So -- strap on your helmet and fight.

Nancy Kress is the author of twenty-six books: three fantasy novels, twelve SF novels, three thrillers, four collections of short stories, one YA novel, and three books on writing fiction. She is perhaps best known for the “Sleepless” trilogy that began with BEGGARS IN SPAIN. The novel was based on a Nebula- and Hugo-winning novella of the same name. She won her second Hugo in 2009 in Montreal, for the novella “The Erdmann Nexus.” Kress has also won three additional Nebulas, a Sturgeon, and the 2003 John W. Campbell Award (for PROBABILITY SPACE). Her most recent books are a collection of short stories, NANO COMES TO CLIFFORD FALLS AND OTHER STORIES (Golden Gryphon Press, 2008); a bio-thriller, DOGS (Tachyon Press, 2008); and an SF novel, STEAL ACROSS THE SKY (Tor, 2009).

Kress's fiction has been translated into twenty languages. She often teaches writing at various venues around the country. Kress lives in Seattle with writer Jack Skillingstead and Cosette, the world’s most spoiled toy poodle.

Seekerville is honored to have Nancy Kress with us today. One lucky commenter will receive a copy of Nancy's Writers Digest Book, Character's, Emotion & Viewpoint which is a foundation for every writer's library. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.


  1. Hi Nancy! I checked out your books and Dogs looks realy good and scary...I can't imagine Coco with a crazy flu virus LOL!

    BTW I've read The Hunger Games series and it is one of THE best non-Seekerville YA series' out there!

    XOXO~ Renee

  2. Hey Nancy,

    Appreciate your being here today. Thanks for your insight. Quite helpful, especially since my heroine IS fighting a war (or will be in book 2 that I've not yet begun... to fight!)

    Do your works in other languages maintain the same covers? If not, are they similar or completely different?

    Have a happy day!

    may at maythek9spy dot com

  3. Oops,

    We have some trail mix and cheez-its to snack on with assorted coffee and teas...

    We're expecting bad weather here soon, and Helen's Internet may be down again (arg)... Hopefully not!

    Thanks again y'all!

    Renee, I wasn't able to finish the game today. Did the Steelers win???

  4. Nancy, welcome! You've given me a lot to think about. I love to plot, but I usually only think about one thing that would oppose characters and I never thought about allowing all sides some victories. Thinking about it as a war helps. I might have to have the kids set up Risk for me so I can get a visual.

    reneelynnscott [at] gmail [dot] com

  5. Thanks for the insightful tip. Liked the "war" idea.

    umdmaurer at gmail dot com

  6. Hey KC! Yes the Steelers won but barely it was 23-22.

    Hope the weather isn't too bad for you tonight, it was 75 here today so I was a hapy camper!

    XOXO~ Renee

  7. I was brainstorming my hero and heroine this last weekend, I didn't think "war" but I thought - how can I give them plenty of reason to hate each other. I guess I'm on the warpath. :)

    rmjagears AT gmail DOT com

  8. Your posting made me happy. I'm a newbie caught in the middle of the kind of garbled mess you spoke of. I have so much to learn, but don't know how to get started...well, kind of, but I could sure use your book to help. You wrote a lot to think about and thank you for offering your book for giveaway. I'm thankful for the chance to win it. I hope I do!

    Barb Shelton
    barbjan10 at tx dot rr dot com

  9. Hi Nancy:

    I read about 1,000 SF novels in the late 1950s to mid 1960’s. (I was reading those writers who now have awards named after them!) I need to read a few more SF books today and see how the future has changed.

    I like your sleepless idea.

    I wrote a story about a runner who could never stop running. He ran day and night for years. At first he hid out not wanting to be discovered. Then the jogging craze came about and he was discovered. He won prizes and was a media sensation. Great efforts were taken to prove he was a fraud. But he was genuine. It was said to be genetic. It didn’t take long for the public to tire of him and soon they began to resent him.

    In the end he was left to run over the most forlorn back roads in America. If anyone saw him, they would boo him. He is still running today.

    I never thought of this as a war. I just thought it said something about human nature that I could not say any other way. Now I will have to rethink it.

    Thanks, I really enjoyed your post.


    vmres (at) swbell (dot) net

  10. Great concept and questions for developing your thoughts/ideas into a book. I currently have a short story that just within the last couple of days I've begun to realize there is a book there. So your questions, Nancy, will be extremely helpful in getting it from a short story to a book.


  11. I'm working on my plot to start NaNoWriMo in the next week, so this post was timely. You pointed out some great questions in relation to war and greatest desires. Thanks for giving me something to chew on today!

  12. morning everyone.*yawn* tired but off to work in a few minutes. I always have trouble flipping to day shift.
    was someone making apple pancakes today? :-) hope so..I've never had them!

    don't enter me in the drawing - I wouldnt' know what to do with it LOL plus I'm gonna be busy ready Cheryl's books - hot doggy!


  13. I read Nancy book when I picked it up along with some other helpful Writer's Digest books. Thanks for being one of those authors who wants to help others along, Nancy!

    reneeasmith61 [at] yahoo [dot] com


    Welcome Nancy. I was pretty much stunned when Nancy accepted my invitation to Seekerville. I am a huge fan and I pretty much slept with her book Characters , Emotions & Viewpoint under my pillow as a newer writer.

    This post is amazingly helpful.

    I'd like to know how you begin your plotting program (or not) when you start a new book, Nancy.

    What is your routine for beginning a new story?

    And coffee is ON!

    Yes Susanna the pancake buffet is hot and ready to go.

  15. /passes out breakfast tacos because she's completely out of Cheerios :p/

    I too am plotting [ish] for Nano [I'm so much more a pantser but...] and the female protag keeps telling me she's in WITSEC. So, apparently there's war with the mob going on. Gotta figure that one out here pretty quick....

    Thank you for the insight!

    carol at carolmoncado dot com

  16. That was great information, Nancy. I've often thought of ideas and said, "hey that would make a great book". But then not sure where to go with the idea. Your suggestions
    would make it easier. Thanks for giving away a copy of your book.


  17. Good morning, everyone!

    Thanks for the great post, Nancy. I've known about conflict but haven't ever thought about my plot in terms of war. That starts giving things some new twists.

    I've got bacon, sausage and hashbrowns on the griddle to keep the pancakes company. Tina's handled the coffee, which is good since I'm not a drinker.

    Nancy's book is great - gotta love all those resources from WD.

    Sherrinda and Carol M - good luck with NaNo prep! I toyed with joining in but have 2 big projects for work that are taking up my extra time. Maybe I'll have my own version in December! LOL


  18. Hi Nancy!

    This post was incredibly helpful. I never looked at my story ideas as sending my characters off to war, but it adds a whole new dimension to the writing process and digging deeper into my plot and characterization.

    Thank you!


  19. Since my nineteenth century characters spend much of their time in drawing rooms, I love the idea of thinking of it as a war. The conflict is like a battle (sometimes more like a cat fight), so I'm going to view it that way and not as a genteel conversation with just sub-text.

  20. Nancy,

    Great timing for me on this post. I'm trying to get my plot fleshed out for next month's NaNoWriMO and this gives me more to think about to up the conflict.

    RRossZediker at yahoo dot com

  21. Loves 2 Read Romance - LauraOctober 25, 2010 at 8:21 AM

    Thank you Nancy for stopping by and talking to us. I really liked the way you explained how every things needs to be looked at as a fight. It will help me as I start to write.

    fantum2004 AT sbcglobal DOT net

  22. thanks Tina! yum! ooh and breakfast tacos!

  23. Hi Nancy, Welcome to Seekerville. Thanks for sharing such a wealth of information.

  24. Nancy, this is invaluable. What a great way of looking at plot set-up (even for us pantser/planners) because the opposing forces are so strong in sci-fi and thrillers.


    Great analogy.

    And I get to create war in small town America which isn't really all that hard (as anyone from a small town knows...)

    Nancy, so you start with an idea germ...

    And then opposing forces to that germ.

    And then... what?

    Writing it down, starting, making notes?

  25. Wow, this is a new way to think about it! Thanks so much for this insight.


  26. Welcome to Seekerville, Nancy. Loved your post! I'd never thought of plot in terms of going to war but it helps. That makes me, the author, Commander in Chief. :-)


  27. I have never thought of a book as war. Very interesting. Now I will look at every book I read alittle differently.

  28. Nancy, I loved your post. Very helpful! I'm at the end of my first WIP (Finding Beth) and I'm already planning the sequel. I've taken notes on your post to help me flesh out the plot for story two of my "When Love Leads You Home" series.

    Thanks for joining us today and giving of your time and knowledge. I'm stricktly a romance writer at this time, but I see how your ideas can be translated to any genre. I love the war analogy! Very helpful! Thank you!


    lr. mullin at live .com

  29. Nancy, I love the idea of story being war.

    Analyzing the opposition.

    Plotting strategy.

    Looking for the enemy's weak spots.

    I would have made a great General!

    I'm in the early stages of plotting some ideas to complete a series, so I'm going to go to war!!!

    General Pam

  30. This sounds like a great book on the writing craft!

    Since I'm a YA writer, I really should read The Hunger Games. But the thought of gladiators fighting to the death doesn't really appeal to me. Still, I do need to get it and read it.

    But I do like the idea of plotting fiction based on the concept of war. Everybody is desperate for something, they're at cross purposes, they can't all win every battle, etc. Good thoughts.

  31. Nancy,

    Thanks for sharing your ideas of using the "war" idea to plot books. I've never looked at a book quite like that, but it does help to clearly define your characters' opposing goals. I'm going to use your questions next time I plot a book.

  32. Melanie,

    I don't blame you for not looking forward to reading Hunger Wars. My 7th grader had an opportunity to read it, but after the teacher told me about it, I said, "No way!" I'm hoping the author has a good moral to wrap up the story with, but that's not something I want to read as an adult. Why would I want my child to read it?

    I understand you wanting to read it from a work perspective, though. I do that sometimes myself. I like to get into the head of other authors and see how they think. It broadens my perspective a bit and sometimes gives me fresh ideas.


  33. Thanks, Nancy! Great advice. I'm in the middle of plotting a novel, and your tips will help.

  34. Melanie Dickerson, you brat, I've got a kid that wants to e-mail you because The Healer's Apprentice was (in her words) "Better than the entire Harry Potter series! I can't wait until Melanie Dickerson publishes another novel, Ruth. She's my favorite author..."

    I pretended I didn't hear her.

    Sigh.... ;)

    Sometimes reading down and dirty is the best way of getting a handle on how to wrestle a plot from average to stellar, in my humble opinion.

    If it's distasteful, it's probably a good launching point to eventually end up somewhere in the middle. But that's just me talking.

    And trilogies....

    Oh, Nancy, I love trilogies. The dark second novel, where hope seems lost....

    Oh mylanta, hurry, hurry, and spin me to the happy ending where good prevails!!!

    Aslan dying...

    mopping tears just thinking of it.

  35. Did somebody say breakfast tacos? And here I am with no food and sipping on a cup of now cold hot tea. I know, I know! I still need to get my mug warmer, Ruthie!


  36. What a great post!


  37. I like your terminology-war for conflict. That's what it's all about. I love watching reality shows and picking out how they "create" conflict that isn't really there to keep us watching. However, I hate seeing the same techniques used on news shows! There should be enough conflict in the world without creating more!

  38. Appreciate Tina taking care of the coffee. Here's a pot of tea to go with it.

    I went to bed WITH A BOOK last night. And this morning I have internet. Life is good!

    This post couldn't be more timely for me, as I'm just getting into a new story. Thanks for the insights, Nancy.

    Now--off to war.


  39. I have Characters, Emotion, & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress, and I found it to be most helpful when I first started writing.

    Thanks for this informative post!

  40. WOW, Nancy, great post!! Welcome to Seekerville, and I have to say that this post is a definite keeper, one I will be printing off. Thank you for your invaluable insight!


  41. It's early in Seattle but Nancy will join us when she is able. Please feel free to ask her questions.

  42. Hello Nancy,

    Great way of looking at plotting!

    Every character's internal conflict is really a battle against self - or certain aspects of self.

    Very interesting way to look at things.

    Your book on character sounds very helpful, too. Must check it out.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us!

    sbmason at sympatico dot ca

  43. Interesting to put it like that. A war.

    War and Conflict are synonyms. So why not? I like it.

    I think my heroine and hero need to be more at each other's throats right now. I'd better go fix that. :)

  44. Nancy,

    Welcome to Seekerville.

    So writing a story is like going to war.

    That explains alot... I feel like I'm constantly battling something when I write; time, grandchildren, sleep deprivation, brain loss...

    Oh, wrong battlefield...

    I can see what you're saying about the story though.

    And maybe when you look at it as a battlefield, it becomes easier to sit up the characters for conflict and a fall.

    Do you sit up the whole battlefield or do you plot the story by the skirmishes?

    I can so see it in my head.

    Pick my war arena. Rouse the character and plot troops. Draw up my battle lines. Send out some reconnaissance and perhaps drop in a few shock troops. Lay a few landmines. Send in some air support. See who gets the high ground, see who gets wounded and survives, and who rues the day.

    thanks again, Nancy

    blessings from Soggy Western Colorado.

    Tina P.

  45. Ohhhhh Nancy. This was SOOO good for me. NEEDED this reminder tons.

    And if you only knew how MUCH I want your book on characters. I JUST (as in this past Thursday) finished Plot and Structure by JS Bell, and NEED another writing craft book.

    Thanks so much!

  46. Forgot to give my e-mail

  47. I already have this book on my TBR writing stack, so I don't need to be entered. Thanks :)

    But I did want to say I loved what you said about every story being a battle. So very true!

    It was great to "meet" the creative force behind one of my future writing workbooks, thanks for being here. :)


  48. I like the Sleepless story line. It kept reminding me of X-men.

    I've gone through the exercise of what' the worst thing that can happen to my characters, but I've never thought of it as a war between various factions within the book.


  49. Tina and Ruth-- You asked how I apply those "every story is a war" guidelines. Usually I have a character in mind, and a situation -- say, a child named Leisha who has been genetically engineered to not sleep. Then I pick a place to start the story (in this case, before she's born!) From there, I try to imagine that I AM Leisha -- what might happen to her as a result of being like this? How might she react? How might others react to her? Gradually the scenes become clear in my mind, one by one, and as I write them, the whole arc of the "war" also becomes clear.

    KC -- No, foreign editions don't usually use the same covers as American ones. Each editor has his or her own ideas.

    Glad to hear from you all!

  50. Nancy, it's a delight to have you in Seekerville today! I've long admired you for your excellent instructional articles on plotting and characters.

    In today's post I especially liked your examples of the types of battles story characters might be engaged in: wanting the same thing, one character forcing something on the other, one character wanting what the other character refuses to give. These are great places to start the brainstorming juices flowing!

  51. Nancy~ I loved your summary of The Other Boleyn Girl. I love that book! I think Mary Boleyn may be one of my favorite characters ever.

    I'd love to win Nancy's book. Also the Seeker-Saturated Kindle if I can still enter for that one.

    I'll read all the other posts and maybe post again in a bit.

  52. Thank you for the examples Nancy. You make it all so clear!

  53. All the talk about SF writing intrigues me. I can pretty easily put myself in the place of a romance heroine, who lives in the world as I know it. But I think I'd have trouble putting myself in the place of a SF character whose world is drastically different from mine in some way. That's a level of creativity I can only dream of attaining. I'm gaining a new respect for SF writers. I may have to broaden my horizons and read a little SF to see what it's like.

  54. All the talk about SF writing intrigues me. I can pretty easily put myself in the place of a romance heroine, who lives in the world as I know it. But I think I'd have trouble putting myself in the place of a SF character whose world is drastically different from mine in some way. That's a level of creativity I can only dream of attaining. I'm gaining a new respect for SF writers. I may have to broaden my horizons and read a little SF to see what it's like.

  55. It seems I'm a little overzealous with my clicking. Sorry. : )

  56. Romance writers are said to be, as a whole, a very nice bunch and yet our poor characters - we really do torture: conflict, arguments, problems, quirks, bad histories, and now, full out war :)

    Eva Maria Hamilton at gmail dot com

  57. WOW! There are so many comments here! Congratulations Nancy, there are many here that would like to have your book as much as I do! I just know this writing would give me some helpful answers to sort my stored information to order. Thanks for this giveaway and the chance to win. I sure hope I do!

    Barb Shelton
    barbjan10 at tx dot rr dot com

  58. Thanks, Nancy.

    That was very helpful and I can see this post will be helpful as I figure out conflict in my story.

  59. This book is on my wish list.

    Jodie Wolfe

  60. Nancy,

    Thanks for the concise paradigm to help us look at the story arc and plot. Very helpful.

    Mary Kay

    mary [at] MaryKayMoody [dot] com

  61. Andrea, I love over-zealous people.

    Especially if they bring chocolate.



    Bring chocolate????

    'Cause I'm kinda hungry, girlfriend.

  62. Tina, I jumped right back to the planning I'm doing and glared at it through war-like eyes.

    Wonderful perspective.

  63. Chocolate, Ruth?

    My presence should always indicate that there is chocolate nearby.

    You've been so welcoming to this newbie, Ruth, that "mi coco es su coco." You're always welcome to my stash. Maybe just don't eat it ALL.

    No offense to any actual Spanish speakers out there. I know that was completely wrong.

  64. Hi Nancy. Great post. I don't love to plot, but you've given me some good tips. Thanks. :-)

  65. I love the idea of not needing sleep. Wish that were me (yawn).

    sallybradleywrites }[at gmaildotcom

  66. Thank you, Nancy, for your helpful post. In my first novel I worked at intensifying the battles among the characters as a real war was raging outside. Now for the next one I'll keep your post at hand and consider the points you made while plotting it. I would benefit from your book. Thanks for a chance to win.

  67. Sally, I keep Ben Franklinisms on the wall for just that reason, to remind me that sleep isn't nearly as necessary as I might wish it to be:

    "Plenty of time for rest in the grave."


    Love Ben. And that's where coffee becomes my best friend. Other than you guys, of course.

    And Andrea is sharing chocolate with me!!! OH YES, GIRLFRIEND!!!!


    I am happy now. Content. For about 5 minutes.

  68. Wow, Nancy, thanks for the insight. I had never thought of my characters or plot in those terms before. Something I definitely need to start applying to my stories.


  69. Oh my goodness! What a great post! I could really use this book.

    Cindy W.


  70. Thanks, Nancy, for all the good tips and for being with us today!

    Continued success!

  71. I'm delighted to have heard from you all.

    Especially about the chocolate :)

  72. Nancy thanks for stopping by today.

    We so appreciate it.

  73. Nancy,
    We are so thrilled to have you with us today.

  74. That's a new perspective for me and I will enjoy mulling it over. Thanks!

    Mary M

  75. @Susanna and Linnette -

    They were actually breakfast quesadillas - oops ;). Still yummy though and only 3 points =D.

    Did I enter with my address earlier? I forget...

    Back to edits in hopes that I can actually do Nano this year...

    carol at carolmoncado dot com

  76. This post is packed with insight! I'm scribbling all these suggestions down in my notebook as we speak!

    I'd love to have my very own copy of Nancy's book, especially as I've been devouring the other Writer's Digest books in this series from my local library. :)


  77. Great post, Nancy! Perfect timing since I'm starting a new story! Thanks for sharing the war theory.

  78. This is some wonderful advice! i will have to bookmark it for later consumption - again and again!


  79. I LOVED THIS ARTICLE and I have that book. When I first got it, I think I slept with it a couple of nites!


    I didn't want to forget to give you all a shout-out!!

    God bless all of you:)

  81. Nancy,
    Thank you for the informative post. I am constantly learning in this field. Please enter me in the drawing.
    Linda Cacaci

  82. Hi Nancy

    Your article is a treat. I have your Beginnings, Middles & Ends (getting a bit worn!) , but struggle with plot. I guess it is like a war. Thanks so much for sharing with us.

    Best, Sally

  83. I really benefited from Nancy's war perspective on fiction writing. Also, her Dynamic Characters book is the best characterization book I've read.

  84. I thought I had a good idea for a story, but thinking about it in terms of going to war really helps add more punch. This is helpful.

  85. What I love about the 'war' in the nineteenth century drawing room is the 'subtext'. The British have a way of saying things which sound polite but an undercurrant of tension runs underneath their words. Makes for fun reading.

    Thanks, Nancy, for taking time out to be a teacher.

    Sarah Richmond

  86. Wow, Nancy. You have opened up a whole new world to me. Thanks for sharing your insight.