Sometimes it’s hard to get a handle on a character’s history and to add a little juice to a plot. One way I have found that is effective to improve plot is to consider the areas of a character’s life where he or she is unaware of the effect they create. A junk drawer is a place where we put the stuff that does not fit anywhere in our otherwise ordered life, and also sentimental mementos such as a ticket stub, Mardi Gras necklaces or a rusty pocket knife that was your grandfather’s. The memories attached to these items can prove to be just the place to find a hidden experience that your character keeps secret for one reason or another.
It’s useful to do this exercise both for your main character and your villain.
Here’s the exercise:
- Step 1. Set a timer for 15 minutes.
- Step 2. If your characters don’t have a junk drawer, select wherever it is they collect “stuff,” and have them take inventory. Writing in first person as your main character, describe where the junk drawer is, what’s in it and where an item or two came from.
For example, in the novel I just finished writing, one of the characters is a chef. In her junk drawer, she has dozens of cards and scraps of paper with numbers of potential clients, dates, suppliers and recipes. They are heaped in a square box that once held edible flowers. She also has a few airplane miniatures of Cabernet Sauvignon, two checkbooks, and a manila envelope full of memorabilia from her failed marriage. There is also an old coin purse. What can be inferred from this collection? Well, in this case you’ll have to wait and read the novel, but we can infer the following: She drinks, she hasn’t gotten over her marriage and that she has a busy life. The discovery for me was the coin purse which ended up playing the part of a key plot element in Act 3.
- Step 3. Go a little deeper into the exercise beyond mere description. What memories did the objects inspire? Was your character surprised to find some of these items? Were there memories triggered by an old matchbook or ticket stub?
- Step 4. Repeat the exercise for your villain.
This exercise is a fun way to improve your story by finding objects and memories that will advance character and reveal plot.