Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Pushing the Plot Forward—Tying (and Trimming) Loose Ends for a Tidy Finish

By Aly Brown, @AlyConnerBrown

Part of the How They Do It Series

Tying up all the loose ends in a plot requires the right balance between too loose (where the ending isn't satisfying) and too pat (where the ending feels too contrived). Alythia Brown joins us in the lecture hall today to share some tips on keeping our plot threads neat and tidy.

Aly Brown is a newspaper editor and author represented by BookEnds LLC. She recently inked a deal with Feiwel & Friends / Macmillan for a nonfiction middle grade book on Alvin Submersible called The Last Unexplored Place on Earth. Release date 2023.

Take it away Aly...
I am a plotter, through and through! I admire people who can just write and have it all come together in the end. But I’m far too scatter-brained for that—it’s how I used to do things. And, trust me, you don’t want to read anything I wrote before I learned how to plot. But whether you’re a plotter or a pantser—no matter how you go about edits—every thread you cast into the structure must be evaluated and tied (or trimmed entirely) by the time you reach The End.

Beginning the Threads

When we write, structured or no, we often allow the free form of storytelling to “introduce” us to new ideas or characters we had no idea were going to be part of the story. This is such an amazing phenomenon, and it happens to even the strictest plotters. It can open doors for a deeper narrative and plotline. The problem I’ve found when editing for clients is that these magical manifestations can quickly become forgotten, and many times left to dangle as loose ends. Your reader will notice! And your number one job as a writer is to think of your readers.

Imagine every new situation—every new character—is a thread along the plot line. Like this:

The threads are tethered into the work by one end, but the other is floating around. These threads can be mysteries about characters that are hinted at in the beginning and later revealed. The smaller ones can be building blocks to tie up the largest thread—the major goals of the protagonist.

Securing the Threads

The further along you get into the plot, or edits, you may end up with most of the threads nailed down. But sometimes, it will be closer to this:

To me, this image represents the majority of stories still in the editorial phase. The writer has figured out how to pull most of it together, but they forgot a smaller component of the story. It reminds me of a particular manuscript I edited in which the protagonist kept referring to an old enemy. The Hero had current enemies, but she kept bringing up the one from the past—complete with flashbacks. Automatically, I thought the writer was setting the stage for this old enemy to resurface. But the old enemy simply never does, and is never mentioned again past a certain point. To draw that much attention to it, only to forget them completely felt like a lapse on the writer’s part. After some revising, the writer ended up with an amazing story where the little red thread you see above tucked neatly into the plot. Actually, that little red thread became crucial to pinning the other parts down. It was a neat development to watch.

Only Keeping Threads that Push the Plot Forward

Only keeping scenes that push the plot forward can be a difficult task when you’re not even sure what that means, or how to identify them. Your characters are in the midst of an adventure—they’re going to encounter seemingly unimportant people, or wallow in down-time while nursing their wounds from the latest battle.

You may think things are just happening. But nothing should simply happen for the sake of happening. Nothing should be mentioned for the sake of mentioning it. Everything fits somewhere. Or at least, it should.

That one peasant your hero spoke to gives him a coveted chunk of information, or guides him on his way with an eerie word of warning. (You guessed it—the MC remembers these words at a later time, and only then understands the meaning.) The time your characters spend hiding in a cave before gearing up for another day of travel isn’t just time for idle chit-chat. It’s a chance for people to connect—to uncover more about their friends that maybe they didn’t know before. It’s a time to form alliances, or convictions that, until that moment, hadn’t been fully formed.

If you find the conversation ping-ponging tediously about how to properly build a fire, perhaps it’s a scene that needs restructure, or a full cut. UNLESS, of course, this is a clue for later. (i.e. Chuck builds a fire with a meticulous method for arranging the logs. Later on, our Hero recognizes this burnt formation in the hearth of the house where the serial killer supposedly lives, and begins to piece things together.) This would be a sample of why you would keep something that the reader just believes is innocent conversation. The fire-building lesson served a purpose.

By the time you’re through with edits and ready to move on to the next phase planned for your work, all threads should look something like this in your mind:

Now, clearing away the threads, I’ll break down the diagram itself. It’s something that will help you identify what is, and what isn’t, pushing your plot forward. The arching line represents the Character Arc (the personal growth of your protagonist), the middle line represents the Hero’s Journey (phases in great storytelling that every Hero must go through), and the bottom line shows how it all breaks down into “Acts” in accordance to Christopher Vogler’s method. (By the way, his book discusses each of the steps through the Hero’s Journey and the Character Arc in full chapters. It’s worth every penny!) You’ll see the key for each letter and number on the right.

So whether you plot it or wing it, take some time to make sure everything in the work pulls together. Nothing left dangling!

Do you have loose ends in your current WIP? Are you struggling with tying them up, or cutting them? 


  1. This is actually helpful. Whatever I do, I might actually try it and see if it works.

  2. Thanks for sharing this useful information, Alythia. I'm currently messing around with my story and I believe you have given me the tool to finish.

  3. I've got a weird tip. Switch tactics and go search for excessive usage if the word "and." I find I have to slow way down to really read and absorb what is going on, being said. This helps me to really see each scene and think about: How does this connect? Along with: Ah ha! Another and, die sucker! (lol.)