This morning I ran across the article “Plot Devices: Help for Writing Your Yarn” by Edward J. Wood, which looks at, primarily, three sources for plot ideas: George Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations, Plotto by William Wallace Cook, and Wycliffe A. Hill’s Plot Genie series. Though I’ve sung the praises of Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, and even teach a four-week online Pulp Fiction workshop based on it, I’ve also warned away from formula, from too much “structure,” and so on. So what can we get out of randomly generated story ideas? Edward J. Wood asked the same question and offered an interesting answer from Wycliffe Hill:
You ask: Why use random numbers and prewritten lists? Why not fill in the blanks using your own imagination? Because your imagination will suggest the same tired old ideas that have already been done to death by countless other writers, Hill proposes. Picking elements at random lifts you out of your limited imagination, giving you directions and combinations that otherwise would never occur to you.
I bristle at the idea that my imagination is in any way “limited,” and I hope you do too. But once we get through that I think we can agree that there might . . . just might . . . be something to that. After all, I’m the sum total of my experiences, built on a foundation of genetic predispositions. That doesn’t mean there is a finite boundary to my imagination, but it could lead one to believe that I’ll have some list of “go to” ideas. Even if that’s a long list it’s still a finite one, and I’d rather stretch that than wallow in it.
If these random plot generators can add a few concepts and combinations to that list . . . why not?
Of course, now we live in the Internet Age, so though I would never stop you buying a book—and all three of the books described in that article are now on my Amazon Wish List—I went out in search of some faster, easier sources for random plot/story ideas. I found a crap-ton of them. Here are a few that might be worth a gander:
Springhole.net has a list of “Genre, Plot, & Story Prompt Generators” that get into some very specific categories like a plot generator specifically for Arabian Nights-like stories and a handy Prophecy Generator: “The kingdom of the south is taken from the man of the west. The goddess of deceit foretells peace. The palace of the plain is invaded by the army of the empire.”
There are all sorts of handy online tools at WritingExercises.co.uk, including a Random Plot Generator that presents as a log line, though I found it had little variety, especially in the way it describes characters. Still, these prompts give you a lot of room to move, leaving you to explore some basic concepts like:
A woman in her eighties, who is very decisive.
A woman in her late twenties, who is very timid.
The story begins in a desert.
Someone is lost.
It’s a story about stubbornness.
Your character has to resort to underhand methods to achieve results in whatever way you choose.
I’ll be honest, “a woman in her eighties” is not one of my go to protagonists. But why couldn’t she be? That’s what I meant by adding to that go to list!
I had some fun with another UK-based Plot Generator that lets you get genre specific. This one also suffers from some lack of variety, but here’s a random science fiction story it built for me, including a title:
Galactic Sunny Spoon Wars
A Science Fiction Plot
by John Doe
A long, long time ago in a sunny, sunny galaxy…
After leaving the wide planet Dune, a group of aliens fly toward a distant speck. The speck gradually resolves into a squidgy, space towers.
Civil war strikes the galaxy, which is ruled by Jack Williams, a false robot capable of burglary and even violence.
Terrified, a chilly ogre known as Sally Gobble flees the Empire, with her protector, Sally Jolie.
They head for Amsterdam on the planet Jupiter. When they finally arrive, a fight breaks out. Jolie uses her sunny spoon to defend Sally.
Jolie and Ogre Sally decide it’s time to leave Jupiter and steal a space rocket to shoot their way out.
They encounter a tribe of goblins. Jolie is attacked and the ogre is captured by the goblins and taken back to Amsterdam.
Jolie must fight to save Ogre Sally but when she accidentally unearths a brown teapot, the entire future of the sunny, wide galaxy is at stake.
All of their science fiction plots seem to start with that Star Wars homage, and really this is less a story generator than a sort of online Mad Libs (Jolie uses her sunny spoon to defend Sally.). Still, could it be of any use? I’m not going to write a story set on a planet called Dune. That’s somebody else’s playground. If I were to pursue this whacked out idea my first step would be to change all the specific names. This: false robot capable of burglary and even violence, actually got me thinking, though it didn’t add anything to the sort of stuff I’ve already written. Well . . . they can’t all be winners.
The Story Generator at Seventh Sanctum is also fun and easy to use. It keeps things rather more vague, also formatted more like a log line. Using the “Free-For-All” category can get you some genre recombinations that might be a real challenge to pull off like:
This is a drama/horror with a strong theme of hate and things man was not meant to know. The story is about a healthy corporate official who was once married to a cyborg. It starts in a village. The story ends with an engagement. A conflict between magical races plays an important role.
But then the challenge is the thing, right?
A wealth of one-sentence story prompts like: “A talking cat accidentally eats poisoned food in Cuba” can be found at Big Huge Thesaurus’s story plot generator. They boast “Over 5.1 million possible story plots!”
The Plot Generator at apolitical does much the same thing, but with genre-specific filters. What I like about this one is you can choose combinations of filters, so, for instance “cyberpunk” and “western” can get you to: “The heroes must assist a smuggler on the moon, but have to contend with war, and opposition from clones trying to build the railroad.”
And finally, Poets & Writers has its own section on writing prompts, which they put into perspective in a way I think is helpful and positive:
The advice we hear from agents, editors, and authors alike is always the same: Focus on the writing. However, finding the time and inspiration to write is not always easy. That’s where creative writing prompts and exercises can help. Writing prompts provide writers with a starting place, an entry point into their writing practice. Sometimes creative writing prompts and exercises result in a workable draft of a story or poem. Other times, they may lead to what can seem like a dead end. But having to generate ideas, being pushed in a direction where you wouldn’t normally go in your writing, and just plain putting pen to paper is often enough to provide that crucial dose of inspiration.
This isn’t about actually trying to make “A bumbling woman steals a clown suit by finding a monster from under the bed” (courtesy of Really Random Plot-o-Tron) into the next runaway international best-seller, but then . . . who’s to say? It’s not so much the idea as it is the execution.