Wednesday, January 09, 2019

An Easy Tip for Tightening Your Novel’s Plot

fix you plot, fill plot holes, tighten plot
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A loose plot can easily unravel, but tying up the threads strengthens the entire novel.

One of my favorite things about writing a novel is when I make a connection I hadn’t realized before, that fits so well it makes it seem as though I’d planned it all along. It’s my subconscious working in the background no doubt, but it dawned on me that I didn’t have to wait for my inner writer to clue me in—I could consciously look for those connections.

Once I started looking, I found multiple “hidden connections” per book that deepened the plot and made it more unpredictable. The obvious characters became red herrings for the more subtle ones lurking in the background doing “plot things” and making the story work.

Plus, it’s a ton of fun.

While you can do this during a first draft, I’ve found it’s more useful for the second pass. The book is done, the story is down, and you can more clearly see where the weak links and loose threads in the book are.

Start by looking for characters or details already in the story that aren’t doing a whole lot for it.

Which characters don’t have much to do?

secondary characters, what to do with extra characters
Don't leave characters hanging!
These are great candidates for tasks you don’t want to give to your main characters or create a new character to handle. These characters also tend to hover in the background and the reader’s memory, so it’s not out of the blue if they suddenly become the key or cause to an important moment or reveal—they were there the whole time, right under readers’ noses.

Look for:
  • Friends of friends—people the main characters know
  • Recurring world characters—people the main characters interact with on a small level
  • Sidekicks—people in the support system of the main characters
Characters at this level often appear multiple times in a book, but if you took them out, nobody would really notice or miss them. But give them a piece of the plot puzzle to fill in, and they become brilliant surprises hiding in plain sight.

(Here’s more on painting a scene vs dramatizing it)

Which scenes offer information but no action or plot movement?

tying up plot threads, fixing loose ends, plotting a novel
A tight plot is a solid plot
There are always scenes we want to keep, but we know they don’t do a whole lot to advance the plot. They might be scenes we need because the protagonist has to do or experience something that doesn’t actually matter, but it would ring false to readers if it didn’t happen. These are opportunities in the making—slip in a few details that connect back to a major plot point or reveal, and suddenly these scenes become key foreshadowing moments or clue reveals.

Look for:
  • Scenes where a character needs to act—but only to show the attempt of that action
  • Scenes where characters are discussing or catching each up—no action, but important information
  • Scenes that are similar to other scenes—common places or actions the characters return to
Often, our instincts tell us a scene needs to be in that spot, but we also know it isn’t helping serve the story. Trust your instincts, but also trust the gut feeling the scene needs more. Look for ways to add another layer to that lackluster scene so it shines.

(Here’s more on plotting with emotional layers)

Which settings don’t do more than provide a backdrop?

settings, overused setting, kitchen scenes
Get your characters out of the kitchen!
Settings are frequently overlooked as a plot device because they’re, well, backgrounds. But a setting can change the tone or feel of a scene and even make a goal harder to accomplish. Maybe key information doesn’t need to be revealed in a kitchen or a car, but shifted to a location that makes revealing that information a risk. Maybe the setting itself can provide a clue or insight into the protagonist’s problem.

Look for:
  • Settings readers have seen multiple times—add something thought-provoking or revealing
  • Settings you don’t feel the need to even describe—if they’re that pointless, give them a point
  • Settings that evoke emotion in the characters or readers—take advantage of an emotional location to really up the tension
As the saying goes, the monster you meet in your kitchen is far more terrifying than the one you meet in the dark forest. Bring the unexpected to settings loafing around in the background and make them earn their keep in the novel.

(Here’s more on using incongruent settings to raise tensions)

A novel has so many threads running through it, there are always a few loose ends by the end. But those ends can tie the entire plot together and make the story tighter and smoother.

Do you look for unrealized connections in your story? How do you handle loose ends?

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. Such great examples here! I love it when those seemingly serendipitous connections show themselves - I'll try to consciously look for some of the clues you suggest to find more of them.