How To Turn a Story IDEA Into a PLOT

Filed in Writing Craft — July 7, 2024

Anyone can look at my website, and see that I’ve published 40+ books.

What nobody sees? The 100+ false starts.

The times where, even after I was established and bestselling, I sat down to write another book, and had to bail on it. Either to abandon the manuscript entirely, or go back to the drawing board and start from scratch.

So what goes wrong?

Every now and then, a manuscript is just not ready for prime time; I only publish my best efforts, and if I’m not 100% convinced it’s the absolute best I’m capable of, I set it aside. There are a few of those.

But most of the time what happens is that I have a great story idea … I dive in …

Only to find myself majorly struggling at the 1/3 or 1/2 point to move the story forward.

The problem?

I had a story idea.

But I didn’t have an actual plot.

The distinction is important.

The annoying reality is that some of our best ideas are actually just the set-up. They’ll get us to Chapter Three relatively easily, but then what?

Without a plot, we’re likely to stall out at by the 50% mark (if not before!) because we don’t know where we’re going.

Now, to be clear, some ideas do come with the plot baked in. This is the dream.

For example, Miranda in Retrograde came to me beautifully packaged and ready to go:

A physics professor is denied tenure, and losing her faith in science, decides to live an entire year by her horoscope, only to find herself falling for her absolutely wrong astrological match.

That’s a story idea that was also a plot. If you’ve got one of those, cling to it! You’ve got a good one!

But on the flip side, here’s a story idea of mine that I had to figure out how to turn into a plot:

A woman makes over a “rough around the edges guy” into a polished New Yorker in a reverse Pygmalion story.

That’s an idea. But I had to workshop the hell out of it to turn it into a plot.

So how do we know the difference? How do we know which ideas are plots, and ready to go, and which are only the set-up, and will only get us as far as Chapter Three?

I used to just dive in and hope I had an actual plot, but I’ve gotten smarter over the years, and have developed a formula. I don’t start any book without taking my story idea and running it through my 5P Method.

The 5P Method:

PLOT = A PERSON in a PREDICAMENT who comes up with a PLAN, only to run into a PROBLEM.

Let’s see what that looks like, starting with my book Miranda in Retrograde I mentioned above.

  1. Person = Miranda, a physics professor
  2. Predicament = Denied tenure, and loses faith in science
  3. Plan = Live a year of her life by her horoscope
  4. Problem = She finds herself falling for her wrong astrological match

Lest you think this whole blog post is a sneaky sales pitch for my books, here’s the 5P method applied to the wildly successful Emily Henry’s People We Meet on Vacation.

  • Person = Poppy Wright, a travel writer
  • Predicament = Her once-close friendship with Adam feels strained
  • Plan = Plan a final trip to reconnect with Alex and repair their friendship.
  • Problem = Poppy’s plan forces her and Alex to confront their unresolved feelings, and the reasons behind their rift.

You may be thinking, “Okay sure, sure, I got this,” and if you do, I’m glad!

But here’s a tip. Keep your eye on the plan component. It’s the plan that is the sneaky, sometimes-elusive component that aspiring writers often forget. But you need the plan. The plan is what moves the story forward; what keeps us from getting to the halfway point and thinking “Now what?”

Take this story idea for example:

Kelly, a highly-capable office manager is secretly in love with her playboy boss Adam, only he seems to barely know she exists.

Sounds pretty good, right? So let’s put it through 5P:

We’ve got a person (Kelly) with a predicament (she’s in love with her boss) and a problem (he’s not in love back).

Uh oh! We know that’s an idea, and not a plot, because you’re missing a P!

  • Person = Kelly, a highly-capable office manager
  • Predicament = Secretly in love with her boss.
  • Plan = ??
  • Problem: Adam doesn’t seem to know she exists beyond managing his calendar

There’s no plan! What is Kelly going to do about the fact that she’s invisible to Adam? There are only so many chats at Kelly’s desk and company events we can write before we lose steam, and readers get bored.

But watch what happens when we give her a plan:

Kelly, a highly-capable office manager is secretly in love with her playboy boss Adam. To finally make him see her as a viable romantic interest, she hires a stranger, Michael, to pose as her boyfriend, only to find herself falling in love her fake boyfriend just as Adam finally becomes interested.

  • Person = Kelly, a highly-capable office manager
  • Predicament = Secretly in love with her boss.
  • Plan = Kelly hires a stranger to pose as her boyfriend to make Adam jealous
  • Problem: She’s falling for the wrong guy
  • Alternate Problem: Her boss is finally noticing her, and she and Michael part ways, but will Adam forgive her when he learns she manipulated him?

BOOM!

Now we’ve got a plot!

Why do we care if we have a 5P Plot? Because it makes our writing life easier. Look how many scene ideas emerge just by rounding out our Ps. The moment we add the crucial plan, we can start to see these scene options:

  • Kelly coming up with the idea to hire a fake boyfriend
  • Auditioning fake boyfriends
  • Meeting Michael for the first time.
  • Telling her boss (Adam) that she can’t stay late because she’s going out with her boyfriend, and gleefully seeing his surprise
  • Actually going out to dinner with Michael to get their stories straight
  • Michael and Adam meeting for the first time
  • A double-date scene with Adam’s new girlfriend
  • A coworker’s wedding, where she brings Michael, but she and Adam share a dance
  • Adam telling Kelly that he’s developing pesky feelings
  • The company Christmas party where jealousy abounds

If you want to make sure you have enough story to sustain an entire novel, make sure you have all the Ps!

One more example. I mentioned above that my reverse-Pygmalion story was an idea and not a plot:

A socialite makes over a “rough around the edges guy” into a polished New Yorker in a reverse Pygmalion story.

Can you spot which Ps I’m missing?

  • Person = A socialite
  • Predicament = … ?
  • Plan = Makeover a rough country guy into polished city guy 
  • Problem = …?

Here’s how I ultimately fixed it:

  • Person = Violet, a Manhattan socialite
  • Predicament = A dear family friend will lose her company if she can’t get the board to accept her illegitimate grandson as the next CEO.
  • Plan = Turn Cain into someone who can mingle with the NYC elite and run a company.
  • Problem =  Violet finds she likes Cain … the way he is, not the way she’s trying to make him to be.

The 5P exercise took me from “A pygmalion story?” to Made in Manhattan.

PLOT = A PERSON in a PREDICAMENT who comes up with a PLAN, only to run into a PROBLEM.

You’ve got this.

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