Monday, May 14, 2018

8 Signs You Might Be Over Plotting Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Plotting a novel can be a strange thing sometimes. We might have one idea we develop without trouble, or we might struggle with every goal and scene. And then there are the novels where the plot ideas hit us so fast we barely have time to write them all down.

But sometimes, what looks like a great idea is just an extra idea, and before we know it, our novels are so over plotted we don’t even know what it’s about anymore. Trouble is, we don’t always recognize an over-plotted novel when we write one.

They can be sneaky, making every plotline seem necessary, because they’re usually connected to characters and ideas we don’t want to cut. They’re shiny, often fun, and once they’re in the story, they fight stay there.

(Here’s more on over-plotting your novel)

Here are eight red flags that you might have an over-plotted novel:

You Have Way Too Many Main Characters

While “way too many” can be subjective, the higher this number, the more likely it is that there’s too much going on in the novel. If you have more than five or six “main characters,” and you’re not writing an multi-book epic, there’s a good chance some of those characters aren’t as “main” as you think. You might have important secondary characters, but they’re there to support the mains, not compete with them for page space.

A true main character is one who has a conflict-centric problem that’s driving the core conflict of the plot. Think “protagonist” and how that character is at the center of the story. How many of those do you have?

(Here’s more on deciding if you have too many characters)

Every Notable Character Has Their Own Plotline or Subplot

A lot of characters isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if every one of those main characters has their own storyline, odds are it’s too much for one book. This goes double if secondary characters have their own plots and subplots. With so much going on, there's not enough time for readers to care about any one story or character.

(Here’s more on cutting characters from your novel)

You Can’t Explain the Plot in Two Sentences or Less

If it takes several paragraphs to cover the plot of the novel, be concerned. Pay particular attention if you notice describing your book requires multiple characters and multiple plotlines, and you only see a loose connection between all those stories. Over-plotted novels tend to read like multiple books in one.

(Here's more on writing your pitch line)

This One Book “Sets Up a Multi-Book Series”

A common red flag for “too much” is the rationale that “it’s just the first book in the series.” You know you’re going to explore all these characters and plots over the next nine books, so it doesn’t matter if you start seven major plotlines in book one, right? Except, yes, it does, because there’s not enough page time for any of those stories to take root and hook readers. Look at the math—even a large novel of 120,000 words has only 480 pages. Split that between seven plots and you only have 68 pages per character to tell their story. That’s barely over 17,000 words each.

(Here’s more on the difference between setup and setup)

More Than One Conflict Could Be its Own Book

Often, an over-plotted novel gets that way because ideas keep coming to you. They’re good ideas, too, and you want to use them, and you start working hard to fit all those pieces together. But they don’t really fit, so you have to add other subplots or character arcs to make it work, and those need supporting characters and arcs, and before long it’s a huge mess.

If an idea would make a good book all on its own, save it for its own book. As my agent once told me, “Go deeper, not wider.” Explore the conflict you have, don’t add extra just to make the book “bigger.”

(Here’s more on building your internal and external core conflicts)

The Same Conflict is Explored or Seen Through Multiple Characters

This is a common problem with premise novels, since the point is to explore the idea. Sure, there’s only one problem—for example, stopping an evil wizard from destroying the world—but seventeen characters are trying to do it, and the novel is showing all seventeen points of view while they do it. Nothing new is brought to the story, because everyone is basically doing the exact same thing, just with slightly different details.

(Here’s more on determining if your novel is all premise and no plot)

Your Story Won’t Fit in Any Story Structure Template

Over-plotted novels often have trouble with structures, because they have too many turning points—one set for every plot in the novel. You’ll likely have to choose which beat to use in the template based solely on where it falls in the novel page-wise, not because the turning point moves the story at that point in time. Or you might have multiple turning points occurring at once, such as an “inciting event chapter” with four scenes that all show a different character being pulled onto a different plot path.

While there are novels that don’t follow the classic templates, story structure is a tried-and-true way of building a novel. If your plot doesn’t come close to fitting any template, or you hit all the right beats but with different plotlines for each beat, odds are there’s a problem.

(Here’s more on story structure templates)

Many Scenes Don’t Advance the Story or Affect the Main Conflict

Over-plotted novels frequently have extra scenes that either repeat an idea already stated, or add “exciting” scenes that don’t actually advance the story or affect any change at all. The easiest way to tell if a novel is over plotted, is to take the scenes one at a time and ask: If I cut this scene, does anything change? If losing it doesn’t affect the plot or the character arc, there’s a good chance it’s not needed.

(Here’s more on what you need to ask in every scene)

An over-plotted novel is not a lost cause. Most are fixed by simply cutting out what isn’t needed, and streamlining the parts of the story that advance the core conflict and supporting conflicts. It’s not always easy, since you’ll likely have to make hard choices about what stays and what goes, but you’ll wind up with a tighter and stronger novel by the end of it. And you might even end up with multiple books if those unnecessary plots can be their own novels.

Have you ever written an over-plotted novel? Were you able to fix it?

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 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.

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. I am rewriting a novel that I put aside a few years ago. I lot of the problems I had are on your list.

    I am being really careful with the way I approach it this time. The character count is down. One conflict needs to be dealt with instead of several and the dreaded third act needs some spark.

    As always, thank you.

    1. Happy to help :) Good luck on your rewrite!

  2. Like Bryan [who commented before me], I am doing a rewrite. However, the number of characters aren't changing. Also, I'm keeping the two conflicts in because one is outwardly and the other is inwardly. Probably for the reader, the inward one is more of a subplot even though I have one of those too.

    1. Just because they're on this list doesn't mean they're bad. Just common places where problems are found.