Friday, 7 March 2014

Stuck for a plot? Listen...

Jimmy, are you there?
Image by Callflier001 from Wikimedia (CC licence)
Two weeks on, I’m still wondering about some of the snippets of conversation I overheard on my train journey. Did Debs’ dad ever confront her sister to her face, or did Debs have the courage to do it for him? Did Jimmy lose his job in the carrot factory? And - perhaps more immediately - did he ever find his way to the pub in Preston?

I would guess he didn’t, as he was a little hazy about which pub he was supposed to be going to and he seemed to be having some trouble getting through to his friends on his phone. He wouldn’t have got off at Preston at all if some kindly onlooker hadn’t reminded him that it was his stop; and actually he was lucky to make it to to the right station (assuming it was the right one, of course) because he was nearly left behind at Carlisle after stepping out onto the platform for a quick smoke.

On such strange and sometimes shaky foundations, plots are built. They change. Of course they change. Instead of a middle-aged male drunk, choose a bereaved/jilted/unwell young woman. The kindly passenger of fact is a trickster in fiction. And the stop that could have been Preston is a village in the middle of nowhere with fog rolling in from the moors. Oh, and and there’s no train out until next Wednesday.

Is it a romance? Is it a thriller? Is it a ghost story? Is it Wuthering Heights for a digital age? As a reader you’re at the mercy of your author but as a story-teller (and, by the way, anyone can be a story-teller whether they write it down or not) you have control.

Go back and change any element of this embryonic plot - perhaps it isn’t a village station but a bustling city where your protagonist doesn’t speak the language - and it’ll take you somewhere totally different. Or use the elements as they are and change it going forward. It snows/there’s an earthquake/she gets run over by a horse and cart and wakes up in the Middle Ages. It doesn’t matter. Do what you want. It’s your story now.

So, here’s my writer’s tip for this post. Never waste a snippet of information.  You don’t have to look far for a plot. Look at the people around you and think ‘what if?’; and don’t be afraid to change what you heard.

But Jimmy, if you’re out there…I’d love to know whether you made it safely or whether your trip to Lancashire turned into a real adventure.


  1. Great, Jennifer. I love overheards and find restaurants particularly fruitful. Anne Stenhouse

  2. Buses are great too. I nrestaurants I always find omethign else to occupy me - the food!

    That said, I did spend a fascinating evening watching a couple on what looked like a blind date, both drinking more and more (she out of enthusiasm and he out of what might have been desperation). I'm saving that one for a future piece!

  3. Love that post, Jennifer - makes me want to listen in more!

  4. Great post. And just think of all the novels which have been inspired by someone overhearing our own conversations at bus stops, hairdressing salons, the dentist. Hmm....

  5. The important thing, Jennifer, (for me at least) is to make sure I have my notebook handy. Otherwise, I'll forget the conversation before I can make use of it.

  6. Oh, Joan...some of the things I heard on that journey are seared into my brain!