4 Reasons You Might Be Missing Out on Your Best Plot Ideas

4 Reasons You Might Be Missing Out on Your Best Plot Ideas

Are you missing some of your best plot ideas? Some writers tell me they find it easy to create characters and story worlds, but struggle to create enough plot. What they often don’t realize is they already have significant and rather good plot material–if only they knew where to look.

Here are four places where your best plot ideas might be hiding.

1. Your Characters’ Background

If the main focus of your plot is family or personal questions, look for the drama that might be lurking in your characters’ jobs or obligations.

Detectives might have murders to solve, adulterers to spy on, missing people to find, thieves to thwart, or stolen treasures to recover. Doctors have moral dilemmas, medical conundrums that highlight the human condition or require them to be brave and brutal. Airline pilots, ambulance drivers, and even car mechanics bear the responsibility for people’s lives. In historical fiction or fantasy, servants might have conflicts between duty, family, and personal standards. Kings might be similarly troubled. We’re all human (or goblin or zomboid).

By the same token, if the thrust of your story comes from your characters’ roles in the big wide world, don’t forget to mine their personal backgrounds. Each stage of life provides challenges that can feed stories: leaving college, becoming a parent, watching the children move away, changing career, and getting old. A character of any age might face the death of a partner or be cut adrift from home and safety.

2. Backstory–Including Secret Burdens

Many writers give their characters an exciting secret burden–which they then don’t use in the story. They might give their protagonist a long-lost brother, or a mother whose identity was never known, or a hidden romantic obsession, or a puzzling birthmark–and nothing comes of it.

Such exciting character tidbits are like Chekhov’s gun. If you load a firearm in the first act, the reader will be looking for it to appear later on. If it doesn’t, you might have teased them on false pretenses–and they will notice.

Chekov's Gun Star Trek

But if you give your characters these colorful issues, do they have to be resolved? Not necessarily. Chekhov’s gun doesn’t have to be fired. Stories don’t have to mete out rewards and answers in a simplistic way. The characters don’t have to conquer every fear or heal every injury. But each secret wound adds a marker the readers watch for. So consider how far you can take it and whether it could generate interesting story events.

3. Conflict at Home

Conflict is not just good guys versus bad guys. It doesn’t come only from your antagonists. In any situation that’s dangerous or troublesome, there will be people on the same side who clash and make it far more messy.

In Lord of the Flies, the group of schoolchildren have to deal with the practical problems of survival, but these soon become much worse because of the children’s personalities. Each phase of the plot produces new challenges to each character’s sense of right and wrong and personal coping thresholds. It’s conflict all the way, and yet they started off “on the same side.”

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies (1963), British Lion Film Corporation.

If you put characters in a situation that causes trouble, each of them will react differently. They don’t always have to turn traitor or become deadly enemies, but they won’t all comply with full obedience to the story’s mission. Detectives, scientists, astronauts, or friends on holiday will all have their personal ways to tackle a problem. As their plight becomes more desperate, rifts and disagreements will grow. It’s human nature to form loyalties and rivalries–especially in an unfamiliar or challenging situation. The interpersonal conflict could create far more complications than the original problem.

If you have a bunch of characters on the same side, how could they tear each other apart?

4. Unexplored Mysteries

Sometimes writers set up potential mysteries then reveal the answers immediately. But these could be teased out into tantalising story threads.

An example: you might reveal the village veterinary surgeon is a drug dealer. You could give this more mileage by, first, having a character wonder why he has a mysterious second mobile phone. You might then make the other character wonder if the vet has a secret lover. That’s two stages of mystery from one simple idea. Before you reveal an answer, ask yourself: Did you make the most of the intrigue? How far could you spin it out?

These tips are taken from Roz Morris’s new book Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel 3, available now in print and on all e-book platforms.

Tell me your opinion: Where have you found some of your best plot ideas lurking?

4 Reasons You Might Be Missing Out on Your Best Plot Ideas

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About Roz Morris | @Roz_Morris

Roz Morris published nearly a dozen novels and achieved sales of more than four million copies--and nobody saw her name because she was a ghostwriter. She is now proudly self-publishing as herself with two acclaimed literary novels My Memories of a Future Life and Lifeform Three. She has also been a writing coach, editor and mentor for more than twenty years with award-winning authors among her clients. She writes a blog and the Nail Your Novel book series for writers, and teaches creative writing masterclasses for the Guardian newspaper in London. Listen to her Surrey Hills Radio show So You Want to Be a Writer.


  1. Good thoughts, Katie. I often read stories and go, “Oh, if they’d only worked that detail this way, the conflict would have really popped instead of fizzling.” I think sometimes we get too invested in a pre-planned plot, or too much in a rush to finish to consider the wonderful possibilities that lurk about us, ready for our discovery!

  2. thomas h cullen says

    They were a lucky few. Derivative, actually, but still lucky, the way I mostly feel. The idea that lifts me up more however isn’t that these few story points came to me, but then that I had the ability to know to centre the story round them..

    Like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, or Game of Thrones, etc, The Representative has its universe, and its devices and identities populating it; the separation however, is that unlike so many of these rival universes, The Representative’s universe barely needs to be showcased:

    Its plot’s own strength is so without rival!

  3. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Roz!

    • I’m late getting here (I was busy plotting!) but the very first comment I’m going to answer is this one. Thank you, Katie, for having me on your blog today! And for finding such brilliant pics to put with my piece. I especially love the Lord of the Flies still!

  4. spacechampion says

    K, the beginning of your articles always start with the first one or two words squeezed to the far right side of the column… It’s a little disorientating because it’s takes a second for me to realize where to begin. Is it suppose to begin that way as some sort of stylistic choice? Or is it just rendering oddly on my 1920×1200 monitor screen in Chrome?

    Good article. I had an aha! moment by what was said about roles changing through life. People are usually stressed during those transitions between roles, so more likely to make mistakes and get into conflicts, and a lot of good fiction has been written about a character who has that change in role at the beginning of the story, seeing their subsequent adjustment to the new role. Novels in the YA dystopian story trend are like that, exploring the setting, though they also usually graft on a more plot-focused story too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It does that on my screen too. I was hoping I was the only one. :p I’ve talked to my web guys about fixing that, but they’re having a hard time figuring out what’s causing it.

      • I believe the problem is caused by the PRINT icon (or maybe the EMAIL icon) having extra vertical padding beneath it). If you increase the font size (cntrl-+ in Chrome) eventually these two icons pop onto their own line, there’s a Very Large Space between them and the leading text. You might be able to adjust the main text block’s column width so that there’s no room for the orphan text to auto-wrap directly to the right of the PRINT icon.

    • Hello, Spacechampion! I love this point you make about the life roles and how the changes cause stress. That is it exactly – that period of stress is the best time to set a plot.
      I often tell students that a story in a novel should feel like a defining moment in someone’s life – which is again what you are saying.
      Nice to meet you.

  5. The part about “unexplored mysteries” really got my attention. I feel a little overwhelmed thinking of all the little bits of my protagonist’s life that maybe should be explored and drawn out more…

    Thanks for the tips!

    • Hi Sharon! A little overwhelmed? It’s funny, I just had an email today from another writer who’s just found herself mobbed by ideas. We start with very little and then suddenly, bam, they’re everywhere and we have to marshal them. That’s half the work, isn’t it?
      A good point to raise – thank you.

  6. Great suggestions! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Thanks for a great post Roz. Your new book looks fantastic.

    One of the best ways to build suspense is to build, then break away for a while, but those break aways better be plot building and interesting or it will readers will get frustrated. You’ve got some great advise here.


  8. Thanks, this was helpful!

  9. Oh yes!!!! My plot needed this!!! Wishes of the Few was a deeply thought out plot, but then I got distracted and fizzled the plot out of existance by my first two drafts.
    The plot of my book is of a young woman bringing magic and faith back into the world, restoring the balence of animal and plant life, trade, and magic to her world. My antagonist is a powerhungry Duchess who hates magic in any form, she rules under her own name with the faked approval of her husband who is dying of a stange illness caused by a failed experiment he made with his magic.
    But I thought it was strange. So I forgot about it.
    Then my critter finished reading my second draft.
    He told me almost the exact plot I had planned in the first place! So now, in D3, we get to do my “real” draft.

  10. I have been re-reading “Story” by Robert McKee (strongly recommend for all writers, not just screen writers) and he pushes that the concepts of Character Driven or Plot Driven stories are not correct. Character and plot (even theme and structure) cannot be mutually exclusive. So, if you tell me you have great characters then you already have a story.

    Now, if what you really mean is that you have great caricatures, then yes, these are great ideas for really flushing ideas out. (Side bar of information, I did a list of 10 caricatures for a film competition and it was fun to see what story the filmmakers would tell.)

  11. I love digging things out of the darkest places and sticking them into my plot.


  1. […] By the same token, if the thrust of your story comes from your characters’ roles in the big wide world, don’t forget to …read more […]

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