Viable Paradise: A Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop

The Evil Overlord Devises a Plot


Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Excerpted from my lecture on Stupid Plotting Tricks
By Teresa Nielsen Hayden

Start with some principles:

  • A plot doesn't have to be new. It just has to be new to the reader.
  • In fact, it doesn't even have to be new to the reader. It just has to get past him. (It helps if the story's moving fast and there's lots of other interesting stuff going on.)
  • A plot device that's been used a thousand times may be a cliche, but it's also a trick that works. That's why it keeps getting used.
  • Several half-baked ideas can often be combined into one fully-cooked one.
  • If you have one plot presented three ways, you have three plots. If you have three plots presented one way, you have one plot. (I stole this principle from Jim Macdonald's lecture on how to really generate plots, which is much better than my lecture on stupid plot tricks.)
  • Steal from the best.

Looked at from this angle, the Internet's various lovingly-compiled cliche lists are a treasury of useful plot devices. The instructions that follow are one way to use them.

1. Below, you'll find a comprehensive collection of the various Evil Overlord lists. Don't go there yet. First, using whatever method pleases you, generate five random numbers that fall within the following ranges:

  1. 1-230
  2. 1-150
  3. 1-130
  4. 1-123
  5. 1-94

2. Now go to the Evil Overlord lists, which I've divided into five categories. Take your five random numbers and match them up to the appropriate entries in the lists:

  1. Lead Characters (Bad)
  2. Lead Characters (Good)
  3. Auxiliary Characters (Bad)
  4. Auxiliary Characters (Good)
  5. Further Evil

Alternately, you can go here and have them generated for you. You now have five juicy cliches.

You're going to make a plot out of them. You'll find it's fairly easy to make a silly one, but it's not all that much harder to turn them into a decent one. You've got a lot of potential story to work with.

3. You're not done yet. Before you start writing, roll one die. Take whatever number comes up, and generate that many random numbers which fall between 1 and 141. Now go to Murphy's Laws of Combat, which follow the Evil Overlord lists, and find the laws that match your numbers. These are plot twists. Use them as needed. If your story absolutely requires that Gareth go from point A to point B and drop off a package at the Post Office along the way, but you're finding that part dreary, tossing in modifiers like "Every man has a scheme that will not work" or "If your attack is going really well, it's an ambush" will suggest ways to liven it up.

4. You're allowed to throw out one cliche, but only if you're convinced you know another comparably lurid thing that should be happening there instead. You're also allowed to use the cliches straight or reversed. Say you've drawn A-34, "I will not turn into a snake. It never helps." You can have a character turn into a snake and find it doesn't help, or do it and find it very useful indeed, or decline to do something so obviously useless and do something else instead. That's fine. Just get in there and make the story start happening.

5. You may be tempted to throw out awkward-seeming list picks and go for more obviously writer-friendly cliches. That's your choice; but try the awkward set first. It's figuring out how to make them work together that produces interesting and unexpected story lines.

6. If you're trying to write science fiction, it may be useful at this point to pull the same stunt using the mighty and compendious SF cliches list at For a perfectly shameless mixture, you can also toss in a few cliches from the "Things We Learned at the Movies" list—but only if you use them in reverse.

Did I hear someone murmur that this is overkill?


Overkill is good for you! And if your stories start getting too exciting, we'll let you know. But so what if they do? It's a hell of a lot easier to remove some plot from a story that has too much of it than to try to fix a dreary story that doesn't have enough.

Flee, puny humans!

©2000 by Teresa Nielsen Hayden,