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Friday, December 17

Don't Let Your Plot Hijack Your Story

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

One of the benefits of publishing a novel is that you get hundreds of free critiques in the form of reviews. I can't speak for all authors, but some of the things folks have pointed out (good and bad) in my novels are things I wish I'd known while I was still writing them. Not the technical stuff, but really great observations or catches.

There was one review in particular that really made me think of story vs plot, because he pointed out story elements he wished I'd done more with (and I did too). As I was revising Darkfall, I thought about his comment a lot, because I wanted the story to be as robust as possible. In trying to do that,  it's easy to let the plot become the focus and hijack the story.

Some things to think about as you revise:

1. How does this scene serve the story?
I like action, and I like throwing my protagonist into trouble, but trouble can lead to more trouble and more trouble and pretty soon the outcome of that trouble has nothing to do with the original scene goal. The underlying story of a novel is the force driving the protagonist's character growth. So events that do nothing to affect that growth can feel pointless. It's just plot, stuff happening, but no one cares. A scene can do a lot more. It can also:
  • show a weakness your protagonist has that will have to be overcome by the end
  • show an emotional revelation that advances character growth
  • reveal some important back story
  • add critical foreshadowing
  • create or enhance conflicts that will make protagonist choices harder

2. How does this scene serve the character's story arc?
Sometimes I'll write down the story heart on a post-it and stick it to my monitor to remind me what that core story is. Not the plot, but the story. My protagonist Nya's plot is about saving her sister, but her story is about her figuring out who and what she is and finding her independence. Re-connecting with her people and trying to free her city is the metaphor for her character growth that allows me to craft a plot that also pushes my protagonist where I need her to go. So I put her in situations where...

  • she's forced to use her abilities in thought-provoking ways
  • she has to examine the opposite view of something she believes in
  • she has a chance to make the wrong choice so she can learn the consequences of that
  • she does things that mirror the larger themes of the book
  • she has chances to use what she's learned
  • she has moments to reflect on her own personal journey
3. How does this scene serve the other characters' story arcs?
It's not all about the protagonist. Sometimes the best way to serve the story is to let another character illustrate one part of it. My protagonist's best friend is a wonderful foil for her worldviews, because they don't always agree on things. Other friends can bring new opinions into the scene as well. Even what the antagonists are doing can force your protagonist to consider different things that reflect your story. How might other characters...
  • highlight a theme of the story?
  • force the protagonist to take another step along the story path?
  • show the protagonist they were wrong about something?
  • display growth of their own?
  • help the protagonist understand their own growth dilemma?
  • advise them on the wrong course of action because it serves their growth, not the protagonist's?

4. Do the non-protagonist characters even have story arcs?
Not every character needs one, and they don't need to be as developed as your protagonist's, but giving your secondary characters story arcs of their own can help you develop richer stories. You'll be able to...
  • show different sides to a theme
  • explore opposing sides of an argument without appearing preachy
  • provide the story with more potential conflicts and plot fodder
  • show aspects of your story you couldn't do with just one character
Plots are important, especially in genre fiction, but if the story isn't holding that plot up, it just flops around and makes people look away. As you're working on your plot, try keeping your story in mind, and how that plot can serve that story.

Has plot ever highjacked your story?


  1. As always, great post Janice. I've learned more about writing from your blog than I have from any other source, and that includes writing courses.

  2. Great advice! I'm currently revising and I always find your posts helpful. Right now I'm trying to weave all my subplots together into something cohesive. I think the points you've made above will get me there.

  3. I'm writing my WIP, and this is great advice. I'll also have to look at some of my finished novels for this sort of stuff. Excellent!

    It's so amazing how complex 200-300 pages can be, isn't it!?

  4. Awesome post as always. I like the idea of putting a stick it note on the computer. It's so easy to forget what you're trying to do when you have so many things going on. Sometimes i get lost in all my plots and subplots. This post is really helpful!!

  5. Good post! I'll have to keep this in mind while I rewrite...

  6. Stina: Thanks, I'm glad I can help.

    Melissa: I hope so! I've been weaving subplot with my revisions as well. Good luck with yours.

    Carol: Totally. And I don't even write the really complex stuff.

    Angie: I love the notes. They really help keep me going sometimes.

    Amber: Thanks!

  7. Fantastic post! I came over from Stina's blog, and so glad I did. :)

  8. You know, that's one of the things I had to beat into myself: That not every character needs a personal plot arc.

    I used to be so nervous that each supporting character needed their own themes and development. But sometimes a character can just be there, doing their thing, whether they're a friend who helps out or a thug who works for the bad guy.

  9. Paul, exactly. It's nice if you can weave them in and support the main plot, but trying to do too much just bogs the whole story down.

  10. Great post, thanks for sharing. I especially liked your comment about trouble leading to trouble that doesn't follow the original story plot. It's something I think I'll keep an eye out for in my editing. :-)

  11. Sbibb, you certainly have wiggle room there, but it's an easy spot for plot to take over when you don't mean it to :)