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Friday, November 30

Too Much of a Good Thing: Over Plotting Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Often it’s hard to come up with a single plot, but there are folks out there who can spin a tale like they have an unlimited supply. Trouble is, too many plots can spoil a story, and knowing where the line is between complex and complicated can be hard. How do you know when you have a layered story and when you have too much plot?

What’s Going On? 

When I first started writing novels, I subscribed to “the more the merrier” philosophy. Lots of characters, lots of POVs, lots of plots and subplots. Naturally, I ended up with a mess. It was impossible to tell what the story was about or who my protagonist was. So much was going on you couldn’t tell what was going on.

Like so many others I made it through this phase and figured out that less really can be more.

How much plot is necessary? 

The golden question, but there’s no easy answer. Complexity of plot varies by genre and market, and what works for a middle grade mystery won’t fly for a political thriller. It’s a good idea to study your genre and market to see what’s typical for those types of books. Then you’ll have a guideline of how much plot works for that type of story.

Basic rule of thumb, you’ll need:
  • A core conflict
  • An internal conflict
Beyond that, it all depends on the type of story. It’s not uncommon to see a “bigger picture” type plot that frames the story and gives the main plot something to work within, plus a few subplots to better show off those two or three main plots. You can do a lot with a little if resolving those basic conflicts takes work.

Red Flags for Over Plotting

Too Many People 

You most often see too much plot in multiple POV novels. This structure lends itself to each POV having a story and plot of their own, and those plots often have several subplots as well. You might be over plotting if:
  • Each POV problem requires its own resolution
  • Each POV has subplots of its own that are not connected to the core conflict
  • Each POV’s problem is unique and not connected or loosely connected to the core conflict.
  • You can’t say which POV is your protagonist. 

Same Event, Different Character, Different Problem 

Having different characters take different things away from an event is good, but be wary when it starts to feel like different books about a similar subject. You might be over plotting if:
  • One event causes several storylines that go in separate directions, while at the same time bring nothing new to the core conflict of the novel.
  • The event triggers issues or problems unrelated to each other.
  • Each problem has enough meat on it to become a full book on its own.

Showing All Sides, But Still Needing More 

Layers are good, but adding plots to show another side or perspective because you feel the reader just won’t get it if you don’t should make you pause. Your instincts are in the right place – you know you need more to make the story work – but you’re looking wider, not deeper, and adding things that likely only explore the idea. Are you:
  • Focusing only on the premise aspect of the story and ignoring the characters and their problems?
  • Adding characters whose sole job it is to get one point across?
  • Getting caught up in really cool backstory for one (or more) of your secondary characters or antagonist and feeling they deserve their own character arc?
  • Trying to tell everyone’s story?
  • Pulling your protagonist in so many directions you lose narrative drive because it’s hard to tell what the story is about anymore?

Can’t Say What it’s About 

Try writing a query. It doesn’t have to be good, but you should be able to say in one paragraph what the book is about. If you can’t, or you find yourself going into multiple paragraphs to explain multiple aspects, you might have too much plot going on.
  • Do you need a paragraph per major character to say what the book is about?
  • Is it impossible to say what the ending is, or what constitutes a win?
  • Can you pinpoint a core conflict?
  • Can you pinpoint the inciting event?
  • Can you write a query at all?

Getting Your Plot Back Under Control 

If you’ve over plotted, never fear, you can get it back on track. You just need to figure out what the story is really about and what plots serve that story. Ask yourself:
  • Who is your protagonist?
  • What is their problem?
  • What do they need to do to solve that problem?
  • What internal struggles are they facing that connect to this problem or need?
  • Who is your antagonist?
  • What do they want?
  • How is that conflicting with what your protagonist wants?
  • What existing plots are critical to resolving the protag’s goal?
  • What characters are critical?
  • What’s your overall theme?
If a plot doesn’t connect to your protagonist and your core conflict in some way, save it for another book. It’s fine for subplots to weave in and out, for other characters to share the spotlight a little, and for multiple things to be going on, but everything should serving the story and drive it toward the same resolution. That resolution may mean something different for every character, but each one will still work within the framework of that story.

Over plotting usually occurs when you lose sight of what the story is about. A person with a problem. Put the attention back on that and you’ll find your way.

If you're looking for more to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. Terrific tips here! I love the idea of trying to write a query. That's probably a sure-fire way to find out if you know what the novel is about. Thanks for this awesome advice!

  2. I am guilty of this. Great post, especially about keeping to the core conflict with multiple characters.

  3. Guilty as charged. My problem is I often think the subplots are vitally connected to the main plot. These awesome questions to keep me on track.

  4. Laura: I always write queries before I start a novel just to test the idea. You see so many problems that way, and can fix it before you spend a lot of time writing.

    Bekah: Thanks!

    Elizabeth: One trick that works for me is to look at the story if I took out that subplot and what I'd have to change (if anything) to fix the story. If not much changes, or I could accomplish the same thing by dong something small, then I know that subplot isn't as vital as I thought.

  5. Truly, truly excellent insights here! I hit a wall with a project I've trunked twice, and finally realized I was piling on complications too fast and yanking the protagonist too many directions. The main plot lacked a clear "throughline." You plan for solidifying the central plot sounds like just the thing.

  6. Oh, you are speaking to me here, Janice. It took me the longest time to figure this out. Especially "Getting caught up in really cool backstory for one (or more) of your secondary characters or antagonist and feeling they deserve their own character arc."

    Thanks. Great post.

  7. Yes, I've had problems with too many characters and trying to do too much in a story. It was too long and messy. Glad I'm not the only one who made this mistake.

    Great idea about writing the query. I have two critique partners who do this when they start their manuscript and their stories sound well plotted.

  8. Laurel: Thanks! I hope you find you thorughline and get that novel back on track :)

    Anne: That was my downfall. My first novel had about 10 POVs and they all had their own story. It was such a wreck, LOL.

    Natalie: I ran into that mistake full force and with gusto :) The query thing really works.

  9. I can relate to this too.

    I've been there a couple times. But usually this is only an issue when I write query letters. I know from the feedback I got last year especially that no one thought my last novel had zero plot, when I know it does, and people who I've swapped manuscripts with knew there was a plot, and a sensible one at that, it's just that my query letters don't show that, and I must improve my writing of them to prove that.

    Otherwise my new WIP will meet the same fate. Janice, I know queries are tough, but I refuse to let a one-page letter defeat me. Annoy me at times yes, but never defeat me, I really believe that now.

    I'm hoping to get my posts for today up soon. I won't spoil the surprise, but you posts from the last week and half helped me find the right words for today's articles on T.A.A.

    Thanks, and again, you've been on fire this week.


  10. Personally I don't like planning my novels out too much, because then I get bored and don't want to write the novel anymore. :P

    But I have lately learned the value in at least having some kind of timeline or outline of events in the novel, to keep yourself on track.

  11. Wow, these are great tips. Thanks so much!

  12. A possibility if you've got lots of backstories to tell and lots of interesting characters and subplots:

    Remove or minimize them from your novel. Get the novel done and published (pbook or ebook, doesn't matter).

    Now pick a couple of those backstories, characters or subplots you barely mentioned in the novel and create short stories. You've already build your storyworld, so that's a done deal. Distribute your short stories at 99 cents or whatever and ensure you've got links to the novel sales page.

  13. Trisha: I hear that a lot from pantsers, and that's okay. Everyone writes differently. I prefer a loose outline myself, so I have some structure to keep me on target and enough unknown to provide for spontaneity. I can see how a time line would work the same way for a non-outliner.

    Julie: Most welcome :)

    Bruce: My best friend does that actually (the writing not the selling, though she does submit those). She also uses shorts to understand her backstory and flesh out her characters.

  14. Thanks for this. After reading some Kate Elliott and being amazed at the intricacy done right, it's hard to let go of the desire to produce that kind of work. This is a great reminder that, although some VERY RARE people can pull it off, it's not necessary to produce something great. vs

  15. Oh, and for "done wrong" see the most recent David Eddings stories. Going over the exact same scenes from different POVs, without even learning anything new, hearing all the EXACT same dialogue, nothing omitted or added.... It was so painful I didn't even finish the third book, let alone buy the fourth.
    [Earlier Eddings stuff was great, it's just the new ones that were so abysmal]

  16. Della: I know that feeling. I have books that I love and wish I could write like that/those kinds of stories/that kinds of style/etc, and I know I can't. All we can do is be us, and strive for the same level of writing as those we admire.

  17. This post really hits home with me. The wonderful thing is that we don't have to be "one book authors" as a matter of fact publishers really like to know that there's more than one book in you! So instead of piling all that good stuff on one pile, separate it out. The above list provides a great guideline to do that. Thanks!

  18. Most welcome! I think the more we brainstorm the easier it is for us to come up with ideas.

  19. Great tips! The write-a-query tip is the one that always shows me whether I have too much or not enough plot!

  20. Impressive analysis of what to do.

  21. Lin, that one is my favorite, too.

    Giora, thanks!

  22. Janice, what a great list of questions to ask myself.
    This is something I'll need to address with my very first novel with 2 POV's. That's why it's in hiberation. LOL :-D
    Filing this in my "Writing Tips" folder.

  23. This is a great post about plotting. Succinct, common sense ideas about how to get to the heart of your book. Janice, I don't often comment, but I wanted to let you know your blog is my go-to place for writing issues. Thanks for all you do!

  24. Tracy, I feel you there. My WIP is a dual POV (first person to boot) and it's going through a too much plot stage as well. Probably common with multiple POVs :) I suspect I'll have some new insights on that in the next few months.

    Stacy, you're welcome! I'm so happy the blog helps you :) I really wanted to make it a writer's resource.

  25. Thanks for responding and I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who has to deal with having too much plot.

  26. Tracy, it's pretty common. Just like having too little plot :) Hard to find the right balance sometimes.

  27. Thanks, Janice!
    Have a lovely weekend. :-D

  28. I am a new writer who's confident with his multiple plots. The first part begins with a protagonist who makes a decision that affects a lot of people. These people then give rise to several plots that cling to the impact of the protagonist's decision. My problem is how do I weave multiple characters with different problems yet they all await the same fate?

  29. Sanele, processes will vary by writer, but I'd make sure each character was compelling, with solid stakes so the reader cared about how their story turned out. What's subtly different about each of their fates? (and if there's not, I'd suggest finding ways to differentiate them)

    For example, if the protagonist needs to decide which king to put on the throne (just pulling a problem out of the air) then each of the other characters will be affected by that choice in different ways. One wants it, one wants to stop it, one will be hurt by it, another will be aided, etc. What happens after that king is chosen? What events are set in motion? And where do those events go?

    Where they're all headed will also determine how you weave them together. You say they all await the same fate, but after the protag makes the decision, what drives the story? (It sounds like the decision is the inciting event, and then they story unfolds) What is the protag trying to do that is the core conflict of the novel?

    If it's just "here's how this decision affects these people" you will probably run into trouble, because nothing is driving the plot anymore. There's no larger goal for the story to work toward. But if there is still something to resolve, something that constitutes and ending, then you'd be okay.

    Does that help? You can always email me if you want. I know it's hard to be specific without story details.

  30. This helps me too!
    Thanks Janice :-)

  31. Thanks Janice for great advice, I must express how much I am enjoying writing, brainstorming ideas is the best part. I hope Tolstoy's writing method influences my novel in a positive way. I'm still reading Book 4 of War and Peace.

  32. Sanele, that's great! And impressive. There's something energizing about brainstorming. It's also a lot of fun when you brainstorm with a crit partner.

  33. Really glad I stumbled across this! I'm about to start on revisions and sometimes I feel like I do have a serious problem with over-plotting. I'll definitely use your checklist!

  34. Ray, hope it helps you as well! I've really found just writing it all down helps me figure out what needs to stay and what can go.

  35. This was a great post, and one I was saving for when I tackled my plot issue - which feels a bit out of control. The tips you provide are helpful, but I was wondering if there is anything specific if you are only writing first person? I know the genre I am writing in a lot of action happens...things move fast...and there are usually many characters, but I also don't want people to feel lost with my protagonist rushing through too many events/etc.

  36. Unknown, typically first person is more personal by nature so over plotting isn't as common. However, it can still happen. If you find there are plot events happening that don't connect or relate to your protagonist at all (or just barely) then it could be a red flag it's not needed. If things would occur even if your protag wasn't in the story, that's a good indicator they're not part of the protag's story or problem.

    If there's just a lot for your protag to deal with and worry about, and it's all personal and connected to them (and they're affecting or affected by it) then look to see how much of it is advancing the core conflict. If you have a lot of subplots that don't advance/complicate/affect the main storyline, they might not be needed. Another common issue is having subplots that are too similar or duplicate each other.You might check to make sure you're not having your protag do the same basic thing over and over (just with different details).

  37. Just came across this post - even though I usually have the opposite problem (I'm an under plotter) this is still really helpful advice. Thank you!

    I've linked to this on my blog:

  38. Great tips! I'd share my plot with ya'll but I'm afarid you might steal it...

  39. Wonderful tips! These really helped me to understand my own plot line! Finally, i can structure my story properly! :)

  40. Focus on the three-act structure and nail down your plot points and you can't go wrong.