Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Don't Let Your Plot Hijack Your Story

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The plot illustrates the story, but sometimes, it has a mind of its own and takes your novel in the wrong direction.

It’s a common enough tale. You’re writing away, listening to your characters and letting them run the show. They’re diverting a little from your outline, but that’s okay because where they’re going is good stuff. Or maybe you’re the kind of writer who doesn’t have an outline, and you’re enjoying this unexpected path your characters have taken.

And they keep doing it.

And doing it.

And doing it.

You follow, because the plot is moving and it seems like a good idea, and the words are coming fast and furious. You’re getting a huge amount of writing done. You’re feeling so productive!

But then it happens.

You realize the plot has veered so far off the path from what the original story was supposed to be you don’t know how to get it back on track. Even worse, all those wonderful words you’ve just written don’t match the story that came before them.

The book you have is no longer the book you wanted to write.

If you’re lucky, the new material is far better and you’ll happily trash the beginning and revise to fit the new plot. If not, you’ll want to bang your head on the keyboard for wasting so much time heading toward a dead end. If you’re really unlucky, you’ll fall somewhere in between with just enough good material that it’ll hurt if you cut it, but it’ll be a little too much work to revise to fix it (this is where I usually fall when this happens to me).

Although this situation can make a writer cry, don’t worry—you can save the story and get your plot back on track. All you have to do is look at where it all went wrong and figure out how to fix it.

Go scene by scene and ask:

1. How does this scene serve the story?

Let me repeat that. Serve the story. Plot illustrates the story, and a runaway plot often does nothing to enhance the story. Sure, it’s exciting, it does all the things a good plot needs to do, but the individual scenes don’t connect to the overall story anymore.

For example, 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 story goal. In my effort to keep the plot exciting and the pace fast, I can get caught up in what works for that individual scene and forget the bigger picture.

It’s possible this, “How can I make things worse?” mantra got you into trouble, too.

Unless you’re writing a plot-heavy, no character arc novel, the underlying story of a novel is the force driving the protagonist's character growth. The story is the change the protagonist undergoes because they experienced the events of the plot.

Scenes that do nothing to affect that growth can feel pointless, because they don’t matter to the story. It's just “stuff” happening. Look at each runaway scene and ask:
  • Does it show the protagonist’s weakness or give a sense of what will have to be overcome by the end of the scene or even novel?
  • Does it show an emotional revelation that advances character growth?
  • Does it reveal or suggest critical backstory?
  • Does it add vital foreshadowing?
  • Does it create or enhance conflicts that will make protagonist choices harder?
If the answer is no to all questions, that’s a red flag this scene isn’t serving the story.

The easiest fix is to revise the scene so it includes as many of these as you can (as long as they work with the plot and story, of course).

(Here’s more on Thoughts On Writing a Scene)

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. The idea that drives the emotional layer of the book.

For example, in The Shifter, 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. “Finding her place in the world” was my story heart, so this was an aspect that had to appear throughout the novel.

Re-connecting with her people and trying to free her city became the metaphor for her character growth, and that allowed me to craft a plot that pushed my protagonist where I need her to go. In order to “find her place in the world,” I put her in situations where...
  • she's forced to use her abilities in thought-provoking ways that question her ethics and character
  • 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 not being true to herself
  • she does things that mirror the larger themes of the book
  • she has chances to use what she's learned and improve (or fail again)
  • she has moments to reflect on her own personal journey
As “touchy feely” as some of these are, they all worked just fine in fast-paced and action-packed plot. The personal, character arc moments can co-exist with plot, because they’re all working to tell the same story.

Look at your character arc and the story you want to tell. Are those runaway scenes serving that story? Are they:
  • giving your protagonist opportunities to grow and learn?
  • making them question long-held beliefs they need to shed?
  • forcing them to make impossible choices?
  • doing anything to affect the character arc at all?
The stronger your character arc, the more it will affect your plot and what happens in the scenes that make up that plot.

(Here’s more on The 5 Turning Points of a Character Arc)

3. How does this scene serve the other characters' story arcs?

The bigger the cast, the more story threads you’ll have tying your plot and story together. It's not always all about the protagonist. Sometimes the best way to serve the story is to let another character illustrate one part of it.

For example, Nya's best friend is a wonderful foil for her world views, because the two girls don't always agree on things. Aylin (the best friend) has her own goals and ideas on how to help Nya. Sometimes a scene isn’t about Nya, but what Aylin bring to the story.

Other characters can bring new opinions into a scene as well, especially I multiple point of view character novels. Even what the antagonist is 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?
Don’t overlook the value of secondary characters to the story. They’re opportunities to show different sides to the problem, or alternate ways to illustrated your story’s heart.

(Here’s more on Create More Story Depth With Mini Arcs)

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
If you feel like you need more “stuff” in your plot to flesh out your story, it’s possible the plot isn’t the problem. You might need to flesh out your supporting cast instead, and give them more to do. Even if you never show the story from their perspective, they can still add value to a scene and provide insights, options, and solutions to a problem (good and bad).

(Here’s more on Second Fiddle, Sweeter Music—Using Secondary Characters To Give Your Novel A Bigger Feel) 

Plots are important, especially in genre fiction, but if the story isn't holding that plot up, it’s not going to keep your readers interested. As you're working on your plot, keep your story in mind, and look at how your plot can serve your story.

Has plot ever hijacked your story? How did you fix it?

Originally published December 2010. Last updated September 2019.

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  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 :)

  12. I can speak from direct, recent experience: you are dead on.
    If you use an outline, there is a good reason for that. Stick to your outline. But do spend a few minutes evaluating if your digression teaches you something about how you might adjust your outlined.
    Absolutely, when you decide to take it out, cut that digress from your manuscript. But don't delete it. It wasn't wast3ed effort, early in authoring all writing exercise is good exercise. Now make those words give something back to you. Now that it isn't part of your MS, go critique your work, try to learn more about how you write. Consider also whether there is something in it which could be carved out to stand alone as a short story. Think about whether what you've written informs a new project, if the character behavior you're written informs a character in a new project.

    1. Great advice. Sometimes that extra idea or scene that didn't work for one story is the start of a whole new novel.