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Wednesday, February 21

A Handy Tip for Crafting a Seamless Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When it comes to writing, I’m a plotter. I like to figure out my story and how it will unfold before I ever start writing. But I’m also a pantser when it comes to characters. I do little work on them beforehand, and prefer to discover who they are as I write.

Because of this, I’m constantly running into moments where my characters say or do things that have zero groundwork in the draft to support them.
  • They have feelings about the problem they didn’t have at first.
  • They have resources or skills that didn’t appear before.
  • They reveal backstories I had no idea existed.

Luckily, this has been part of my process long enough that I know I fill my first drafts full of random, ungrounded details that can make a plot feel contrived if I’m not careful. But it can also create subtle plots with layers I never would have planned for.

How? you say? I’m glad you asked.

Adding details when I need them forces me to go back and layer them into previous (or future) chapters so they feel natural and not stuck in. This makes the plot feel inevitable, because the clues were there all along—even if I didn’t plan for them to be there.

For example, I wrote a scene last week where my female lead is given a gift—a dress. In all of the previous drafts of this book, she wears it, and it has a few minor consequences. But in this current revision, the nature of the dress has changed, because the characters have changed. Unexpectedly (for me), she decides can’t wear the dress, knows how bad it would be if she did, and makes a strong, powerful declaration to herself that she will never wear this dress.

The instant I finished that line, I hoped over to my notes file and wrote that at some point in the climax, she has to wear this dress.

I haven’t figured out how yet, and I probably won’t know until I’m much closer to the scene and see how things actually happen versus what I outlined. But when a protagonist makes such a strong statement about what she won’t do, she has do it before the story is over.

Readers will forget about this dress. It’s a detail wrapped in an already emotional scene that focuses on other plot points. But when it happens—it’ll feel like I planned the whole thing right from the start. It’ll feel like well-crafted misdirection instead of a happy accident I never saw coming over a detail that was never that big a deal.

(Here's more on making the most of accidental foreshadowing)

This detail required forward planning, but most of my “happy accidents” need backfilling to make them flow with the story and plot. For example, here are just a few of the things I’ve done in the last few weeks:
  • One character needed to notice items were out of place, so I backtracked and added a few details where she casually mentions something not being where it ought to be, or having to move something back where it belongs.
  • One character needed clue that would point to nefarious deeds, but the clue appeared when they realized the truth—so I went back and added that clue in two other spots to lay the trail to the reveal. The rule of three worked perfectly in this case.
  • One character changed their views on something important, and it worked well to shift their opinions where it needed to go for their character arc. But it was too sudden a shift, so I went back and added a few nudges leading up to that scene so the change felt natural.

Working backward to add the groundwork for a good plot moment or scene allows me to write where the story needs to go—even if it doesn’t go where I planned. Most of the time the changes are small and take little effort to add into the story, but once in a while something develops that’s too good not to use, but will require some major tweaks to make fit. It can be a pain, but it’s almost always worth it.

Don’t be afraid to write where the story goes. You can always fill in the holes and craft new trails for those plots later.

How do you handle unexpected details in a scene? 

Looking 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. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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, and The Truman Award in 2011.

As J.T. Hardy, she write urban fantasy for adults. The first book in her Grace Harper series is Blood Ties.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook. Her Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series offer step-by-step guide to revising a novel. Her Skill Builders series includes Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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  1. Yes, I recognize this very thing and pleased to see that it happens to other writers as well! These occurrence make it very exciting for a writer as you get deeper and deeper into into your own story.

    1. It really is. My subconscious is a far better writer than I am (grin).

  2. Janice - This post comes at a great time for me. I am writing the first draft of a project and I have been hopping back and forth through what I have done so far, what I am currently writing, and what I had planned out. I must be following along the same course with planning out roughly what will happen, yet allowing the characters to also dictate where the story will go. Thank you so much for this. I think as I carry on, I will refer back to this post several times.

    1. Perfect! It might seem odd to keep jumping around, but it's work nicely.

  3. Ha! I just nodded along this whole post, I do EXACTLY the same thing! I've been feeling very pleased at my own brilliance with some of them ;)

    1. Nice! It's so much funny when it all falls together

  4. Wow, this is exactly how I write most naturally. Thank you for this!

  5. Raising my hand as well. I'm forever discovering interesting tidbits about my characters that I have to weave into earlier chapters. But not the "wound" or misbelief. I need to nail that before I get more than a few chapters in. I'm so pleased to see I'm not alone! :-)

    1. I think we all have certain things we need to know to write a story, but everything else is negotiable :)