Monday, July 19, 2010

When Plots Go Astray

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I was reworking a section of Darkfall, updating my chapter summaries so I could see how the entire thing was flowing with all the tweaks. I got through a few chapters, then suddenly thought, "what the heck was Nya's goal again?"

Sometimes we can get so focused on making things worse and creating problems for our protagonists that we forget what they were doing in the first place. I'd lost sight of the narrative backbone of that part of the novel. The whole reason Nya was even there. Luckily, this was just in the summary, so it wasn't hard to go back and make sure I wasn't heading off willy nilly. But trust me, I've had novels where I lost sight of the goal and did write willy nilly for chapters and chapters. (Heck, I've had entire drafts. Can anyone say early drafts of Blue Fire?)

Plotting can be rough. So many things have to happen to create an entire book. It's important to do terrible things to your characters, but it's also important to remember why they're putting up with it.

1. How does this problem hinder my protagonist's goal?
In most cases, you'll be able to answer this pretty quickly. "It keeps her from the safe house. It stops her from meeting Brad. It puts her life at risk." But look again at those quick and easy answers. Is keeping her from the safe house something that also provides a solid conflict for the overall plot, or is it just one more thing getting in the way of a step that does connect to the bigger plot? Don't just think about how the problem causes trouble in the here and now, look at how it fits into the bigger story problem.

2. Is this problem different from what I've already done?
I'm bad about this one in my first drafts. I almost always have some extra scenes I don't need that are more of what I've already done. "Having to sneak past a guard to get some vital piece of information. Being trapped and having to fight your way out. Getting captured by the bad guy." Sometimes these things are important and you can't help a little repetition, but if you find yourself doing a lot of similar things just to make things harder on your protagonist, you might be throwing too much at them needlessly. You don't want the reader to feel like they've just done this.

3. Can I combine this event or detail with another scene?
I've been condensing a lot lately. I had two scenes in which my protagonist goes back to a particular place to get something. The second scene felt redundant, but what she found there was critical to the plot so I had to keep that aspect. To fix it, I just made my protagonist find that thing the first time she goes there, and worked out why she was looking around so it fit with the current problem. Wham, problem solved, and it works so much better because things are layered now.

4. What is my protagonist trying to do from a larger standpoint, and how does this smaller step fit into that?
This is an important thing to think about before every scene. Character goals, especially larger story arc goals, don't always start and end in one scene or chapter. They span chapters, with things getting the way to slow them down. It's a good idea to remind yourself what they're trying to do overall that's making them do this smaller thing. While you don't want to bash readers over the head with it, reminders of that goal and the stakes involved also help keep the reader on track and the tension high.

Red Flags That You're Going Off Track

1. All the problem does is delay what would have happened anyway.
This is probably the number one red flag of superfluous plotting. If you cut the step out entirely, the main goal gets solved that much quicker. This is a problem that only exists to be a problem, and doesn't do anything to advance the story. When the protagonist resolves this goal, nothing about the overall story has changed at all. They still need to do X because of Y or Z will happen.

2. The resolution to the current problem won't affect the overall story much, if at all.
A second cousin to #1. The problem might affect things in a large scale "the protagonist gets caught" kinda way, but if they don't get the briefcase, they can still stop the bad guy. These are scenes that are probably decent scenes, but they're dragging the pacing a little or feel a little flat as a whole. By themselves they're okay, but it's just a little too much and the reader's eyes start to glaze over.

3. The resolution to the problem sends the protagonist even further away from the story goal.
Subplots can kill you here. Sometimes it's good to waylay your protagonist a little, but a subplot that requires more work than the actual plot to solve just so the protagonist can get back on track is stuff you can probably lose and not hurt the story any.

4. You keep adding more problems to get to some key piece of information for the plot or character.
I ran into this this past weekend. With the revisions, new plot A had to line up with existing plot B, and I found myself adding more and more and going off in the opposite direction. I kept complicating things because I needed a convoluted way to get my protagonist back where she needed to be. Thankfully, I recognized this (and hence was inspired to write this post) and called my best bud to hash out the plot. I needed an outside perspective who didn't have all the story baggage I was carrying. She made the perfect suggestion and A fit into B like they were made for each other. Because I had groundwork for it all along, but just couldn't see the connections myself.

Ironically, if you have good goal-conflict-resolution skills going, you're more likely to find yourself going astray because you're always looking for ways to make things worse. And there will be plenty of things, because you'll have layers and issues and all kinds of things you can do. Take some time to pull back and see how those problems fit in the grand scheme and keep your story tight, focused, and riveting.


  1. There's a lot to mull over here, but was incredibly helpful. Thank you!

  2. Truly fantastic, actionable post. I love the logical questions that you've provided.

    Hope you don't mind if we put this into our Friday round-up of best articles for writers this week!


  3. Keep the grand scheme in mind--excellent advice.

  4. Excellent tips, as usual. :)

  5. Great post. I tend to go into tangents that aren't always necessary. You've got some really helpful tips to avoid this.

  6. I've been living plots and revision lately. At least it gives me lots of topics to blog about!