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Friday, May 2

Diving in the Deep End: Strengthening Your Plots

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was from my agent:
"Don't go wider, go deeper."
When we're working on a story, it's easy to add more "stuff" to make it exciting. More subplots, more characters, more details. We start off with a story about a guy trying to survive a zombie attack who finds love, and end up with a guy trying to survive an zombie attack, win the heart of his true love, find a cure for zombification, uncover the truth that the government was behind it all along, a woman who discovers her husband is cheating on her, that her company is the one responsible for the plague getting out, how dodging responsibility had always been an issue for her ever since she quit her job at the CDC, which in turn caused her parents to disown her because they always wanted her to be a doctor, a girl who gets thrust into the middle of it all and is trying desperately to find herself after her lover abandoned her to save a total stranger, dealing with the secret that she once had an affair with the man who created the zombie virus, and gave their love child up for adoption, all while exploring the deeper themes about what it means to be human in an ever-increasing world of anonymity.

Um...what was the story about again?

Any combination of just a few of those elements is enough for a book--a solid external problem, a compelling internal conflict, and a greater theme. But when you try to put everything into one book, nothing is developed enough to really grab a reader. Quite often, it's just more of the same stuff repackaged for another character.

There's Bob finding out there's a secret conspiracy to regenerate living tissue and it turned horribly, horribly wrong. And there's Sally, learning her company was involved in a secret conspiracy to regenerate living tissue and it turned horribly, horribly wrong. And because we need to tie all the subplots together, there's Jane finding out her lover was working for the government agency who sponsored the secret conspiracy to regenerate living tissue and it turned horribly, horribly wrong.

Do we need all this? Probably not. It feels like a lot is going on because three people are finding out something shocking in three separate plot lines, but as far as the reader is concerned, it's the same story revelation being told three different ways. They're ready to move on and learn something new.

How do you know if you're diving deep or splashing around in the shallows?

1. If you cut a subplot, would it change how your protagonist resolved the problem in the end?

Look at the core conflict. This is what your book is ultimately about--the big bad driving your story. This is the problem that readers want to see resolved to their satisfaction. Now look at your subplots. There's a good chance these are solid in their own right. They follow interesting characters and create tension and do all the things they're supposed to do. That's what makes them hard to cut. But do they all relate to and advance/enhance/reveal more about this core conflict in some way?

An unnecessary subplot won't affect the resolution, because it won't tie into the core conflict. If the protagonist never learned about that subplot, or met the character who has the subplot problem, things would have turned out basically the same.

(Here's more on when a subplot might be leading you stray)

2. If you cut a character, would it change how your protagonist resolved the problem in the end?

I'm as guilty of this as the next writer. We're writing along, trying to think up fun and dastardly things to do to our protagonists, and we keep introducing characters that work with that one specific event or issue and then are gone, off to do their own thing. If you have a character that's there for the sole purpose of being a problem in one small plot point, but they have their own subplot with lots of problems as well, there's a good chance you don't need them.

(Here's more on determining if your novel has too many characters)

3. Is your protagonist trying to do too much?

This one's a toughy. How much is too much? A good plot needs subplots to add depth and complications to the story, but add too many and your reader loses focus and doesn't know what the story is about anymore. Asking question #1 again can help determine if this extra problem for your protagonist is needed or not. You can also double check what a problem is accomplishing for your protagonist. What do they learn or gain from solving this mini problem (this might relate to their inner conflict or character arc), and how does it help them solve (or make it harder to solve) the core conflict? If it doesn't do either, consider cutting it.

(Here's more on over plotting your novel)

A secondary bonus to these questions is when you have a huge word count and you're looking for ways to trim the novel down. Weeding out unnecessary subplots can cut chunks out and tighten up a novel.

Where do you fall on the plot scale? Do your drafts usually have too much, too little, or a plot that's just right?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Great advice! I've had problems with this in my WIP, too - it just became _too_ large (and equally impossible to read).

  2. I like that you explained the comment in detail. These questions are good to consider.

  3. As I'm getting closer to revising draft 1 (eek!), I'll definitely bookmark this post! (At this point, I'm just bookmarking this whole blog.)

  4. Great advice! I've been tempted lately to branch out in the first draft of my WIP, but now I'm thinking that might be just a cop-out, a way to avoid exploring in depth some difficult issues that are emerging for my characters.

  5. This is great advice - thanks!! *bookmarks*

  6. Glad I could help. I share my mistakes and stumbles so you guys don't have to skin your knees as badly. :)

  7. That is excellent advice. I'm definitely guilty of going wider rather than deeper.

  8. fabulous post, and the exact problem I'm having with my WIP. the subject matter keeps uncovering new pathways, new subplots, and other digressions I feel I HAVE to explore. I have to keep reminding myself to simplify.

  9. I'm terrified of falling prey to these mistakes with my new WIP. I've got the overall series storyline planned out over several books, but I don't want to wait too long to reveal certain plot points.

  10. As usual, this is perfect timing for me. I am hip deep in revision, and I tend to have several different plot layers going on. This is a great way of weeding out what's vital and what's just making things longer.


  11. Paul: Knowing when to reveal is tricky. I think it depends on how easy they are to figure out. If it's something the reader might figure out earlier, reveal it sooner so they don't have that "come on already" feeling. But if it's something they won't figure out and you can keep the tension up by keeping it secret, you can play it out longer. One tip I heard (think it was at RWA) is to plant a new secret shortly before you reveal an old one. That way there's always something new to uncover. So maybe that can help determine where to reveal something.

    Elizabeth: Yay! I love good timing.

  12. Oooh, I like that idea. Must remember that.

  13. Wow, Bob and the Zombies really mushroomed! :) I'm just feeling my way through a new WIP so it's still early to tell, but I have had problems with over complications in the past. One thing that helped (some) was learning to write in first person.

  14. Great post - as always!

    My wider/deeper lollygagging tendencies are curbed by a note stuck on my monitor: and your soap opera is called . . .

  15. I need to keep that in's really too tempting to add all the exciting ideas that pop in our mind while plotting, and I'm a terrible decision maker when it comes to sacrifying things !

  16. Good post.
    The first manuscript I wrote was so bloated that I am now splitting all the extra characters off and giving them their own story. It's taking my 400000 plus word count down to 7 novels of 80000 after fleshing out andI finishing the individual threads. How many main characters do you think works in a genre fiction novel before it gets too complex? There seem to be a growing number of stories like the Game of Thrones that have sprawling character trees.

  17. What feels like years ago, my husband (an avid reader) told me, "You have to write more."
    My puzzled expression prompted him to explain more thoroughly.
    "Don't add more stuff. Pick a story subject and explore it."

    Thank you for this helpful article, Janice.

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