July 12, 2013

The Laziest Way to Find a Winning Plot

By Dr John Yeoman

What’s the laziest way to find a plot? Let it find you! It happened to me recently in my kitchen in central England. Believe it or not, this little story will help you find a plot at once.

I found my wife inspecting a brochure about pet insurance. “We don’t have a pet, dear,” I reminded her gently.

“Yes, we do. It’s you.” She pointed at my rheumy eyes, stubbly jowls and odorous bathrobe. “Look, just £49 a year will insure you against mange, dropsy and gout. If you fall ill, they’ll take you to a pet clinic and feed you with premier dog chow rich in vitamins. That’s a lot healthier than the slop you’d get at a hospital.”

“Or here,” I murmured, inspecting my breakfast of carbonised fried eggs.

“Isn’t that more humane than the default method favoured by the National Health Service of sticking an empty saline drip in your arm and pushing your trolley into a corridor?”

“Well," I conceded "it’s certainly cheaper than paying £2900 a year for private medical insurance that will disallow any claim we’re likely to make”

“Such as falling downstairs while intoxicated with marital bliss? Now all we have to do is decide what type of dog you are.”

“How about a St Bernard? It carries its own alcohol at all times.” An idea struck me. I bounced a fried egg across the table. “But we must make this a joint policy.”

“Of course. There’s a 10% saving! What kind of animal shall I be?”

“That’s easy enough.” I looked at her. I picked up a steak knife. I applied it to my egg. “What do they call a female dog?”

The 2Cs in a K method.
Seriously, there’s a plot nugget there. It could be expanded into a short story, given further insults from the wife and forlorn responses from the dog (sorry, husband). Following the jargon of advertising folk, I have named this the ‘2 Cs in a K’ method of plot discovery. Just put two characters in a kitchen and slop around it in your bathrobe.

Alternatively, keep your ears open at the local pub, gym or bistro and eavesdrop on other people’s anecdotes. Every good joke or yarn is a story waiting to be expanded.

See how award-winning author J. A. Konrath makes this work. In his story The Big Guys, two friends go out in a boat. One is teaching the other how to fish for shark. He cuts up bits of fish and throws them in the sea as bait. ‘Chum slick,’ he mutters, cryptically.

Then he picks up his friend and tosses him overboard as well.

As the sharks gather, the friend gasps: ‘Pray, good buddy. Grant me this one boon before I die. What does “chum slick” mean?

The man smirks. ‘It’s the name we give hereabouts to someone who fools around with his best friend’s wife.’

The melodrama of the climax is gloriously deflated by its punch line. The story is an extended joke.

Take a joke off the shelf. 
If you’re shy about eavesdropping, take a joke or anecdote off the shelf and rework it. So you’re not writing humour? Every joke contains a victim. (One theory of humour is that a laugh is a form of aggression. Why else do we expose our canine teeth?)

Present the story from the viewpoint of the victim and the joke becomes a tragedy, endowed with pathos. (Gogol’s sad masterpieceThe Overcoat is like that.) Shift the pov to an onlooker, describe the same incident and you’ll have us smiling. In the late 17th century, James Howard presented Romeo and Juliet as both a tragedy and a comedy on alternate nights.

Every joke is a little drama and every story is a structured drama.

Perhaps that’s why I love my wife. (Truly.) Her dramas are legendary.

What’s the laziest way to find a winning plot? Let it find you! Any joke or anecdote you overhear is likely to contain conflict, characterisation and a ready-to-go structure - plus a strong close. You just need to expand it as comedy, tragedy or something in between.
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. His books include Our Village, The Bear's Water Picnic, Mouse Trouble, and Sixes and Sevens. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at:

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