Couple of ideas on how plots work. Just messing around.
1. When you’re telling someone about a story you heard — about someone you know, maybe — it goes like this:
You know…? Yeah, the one who… well, something happened one day… no, wait, it gets better/worse… but in the end it was all okay/it was too late.
I’ve used the “no, wait, it gets better” thing in conversation without even thinking about it.
Plot: You know Janet? Yeah, the really boring kid from our class who does nothing but take care of her grandmother now. Well, she was offered a deal one day by the devil–beauty, success, money, attractiveness–only she couldn’t eat chocolate any more. No, wait, it gets better. The devil gave her everything she asked for, but he blocked her from getting the things she thought that stuff would get her, like a husband who loved her, or even any real pleasure out of life. And then he tempted her with that one guy from the class above her, the nut who was always threatening to bring a gun to class and kill anybody, who it turned out she had this horrible crush on, and guess what? Yeah, he worked at a chocolate shop…. [Ending cut; suffice it to say it both turned out OK and was too late. I think this is my next large project, which started out as novelette a few years ago. I still come back to the idea.]
2. Mental writing exercise. There’s a conflict in the story, but what is it that makes conflict hang together? If you know tarot*, pick a card, and figure out what the meaning of the card and its reverse mean to you.
Say, Strength. The upright meaning is “Courage. Self control. The virtue of Fortitude. The power of love. Control of passion against one’s baser instincts. Determination. Generosity. Strength and power under control. Energy. Optimism. Generosity, resolve and reconciliation.” The reverse meaning is “Power wrongly used. Defeat. Lack of willpower. Feelings of inadequacy. Pessimism. Surrender to unworthy impulses. Tyranny. Concession. Inability to act.”
Then decide whether you want a character who starts out more as the “upright” version and fights external, “reverse” issues, or who starts out as the “reverse” version and resolves internal conflicts, inspired to become the “upright” version. (Or both, if you’re feeling particularly snappy — starts out as “reverse” and fights “reverse”-type issues, only resolving them when the internal change to “upright” comes about, e.g., Schindler’s List.)
Make characters to fit that pattern. The main character is “upright”: A woman with energy and optimism. (How do we prove she has energy and optimism? Let’s say…she has ten foster kids, whom she raises well, and she’s in the process of adopting three of them.)
However, she is beset by the “reverse”: the real father of those three kids comes back into their lives. He’s a real scumbag, a guy with a lot of power who always gets what he wants, and he wants to get these three kids back. (Why does he want to get the kids back? Because the media has found out that he abandoned the kids years ago, and they’ve exposed him as a heartless bastard, unable to behave responsibly toward the people he should love…make him a politician, maybe? Or a corporate exec, which tends to come to the same thing these days.)
Then you throw the two together. In order to prevent the adoption from going through–ever–and because he hates this woman, he makes it seem like the woman can’t control herself: she’s having an affair with an abusive alcoholic, and the kids have been taking care of each other while she’s with him. (We could throw in a fire, I guess.)
Finally, decide how to resolve the issues between the two aspects of the card — the “upright” version survives everything the “reverse” can throw at her; the “reverse” has a change of heart; the “upright” version falls to pieces (with or without a change of heart by the “reverse”); you could even move the characters to the next card in the series — in this case, the Hermit.
The woman loses the three kids (being an incurable romantic, I say because the man decided to become a better father; he also fell in love with the woman), but comes through the situation wiser, calmer, less likely to give too much of herself, less likely to fall in love. A sadder-but-wiser ending.
Not a great idea, but a workable idea. For me, the main thing is that the conflict revolve around something — that the characters be tied irrevocably to the conflict — that the characters and the conflict come out of the same breath. I read something yesterday about how The Fugitive is about justice: Dr. Kimble is justice; Officer Gerard is blind justice; the villains are injustice. The writer wasn’t talking about the tarot deck, but it made me think about it.
*Yeah, the brief Mortal Coil game with the tarot cards put me in mind of this, too.