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?
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
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?
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.