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Monday, September 30

Why Your Plot Isn’t Working

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

At the heart of every novel is a problem to solve. When the novel has no problem, you’ll have a problem plotting it.

One of the first novels I tried to write “for real” (one I intended to submit to agents and hopefully get published one day), suffered from me not knowing what my novel was truly about. I had a general sense of what the main problem was—save the world—but I never fully understood what that meant to the plot.

I knew the characters all had issues to face and problems to solve, and I knew the details of every one of them. I knew they’d all converge at a particular point in the point in the book and have a massive battle. I even knew specific details about how some of those epic fights would go down.

What I didn’t know, was what my villain wanted, why it mattered, and what he’d planned to do about it. Not on any real level anyway. He wanted to take over the world because he was a bad guy and that’s what bad guys did. I decided what “evil step of his plan” my characters encountered as I outlined the story and had to give them scene goals, with no regard to a larger plot beyond “stopping the bad guy from taking over the world.”

It’s no wonder this book was terrible and no one wanted to read it. I had a premise, and even a plot, but no actual story.

You Don’t Have a Problem You Can Plot From


Novels are about characters solving problems, and the more you understand what that problem is and where it comes from, the easier it is to plot the novel.

Even if you’re a pantser, knowing what your protagonist is facing will make a difference in writing that story. There are very few (if any) writers who can write a novel knowing nothing at all about the conflict.

If all you know at the start is that your protagonist is suffering from depression, that’s a hint of the conflict to work with. The depression is likely going to factor in somehow, either a character arc or as a problem to be resolved.

If it’s a love story about star-crossed lovers, you have a general sense of two people being kept apart. Getting the lovers together is the point of the book. What’s keeping them apart is where the conflict will come from, and solving that problem creates the plot.

If it’s a world where everyone is blind, you have a direction on where the problems might occur. Not being able to see will likely be an issue and present a major problem, but it might also be the solution to that problem. At the very least, it begs the question, “What problems might exist in this type of world?” for you to work with.

Find the problem at the heart of your novel. It’s why there’s a story in the first place, though it’s surprising how often writers (myself included) don’t pay enough attention to it before we start writing.

(Here’s more on Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?)

You Have the Wrong Problem, Which Lead to the Wrong Plot


This is what’s dangerous about a vague premise. It can feel as though you have a solid problem and understanding of that problem, but when it gets to the individual goals needed to create a plot, it all falls through.

It’s difficult to plot a vague concept. My favorite example here comes from romance novels, though this happen in every genre. Romance novels are about finding love, but go out right now and “find love.”

You can’t, because “finding love” is too vague a concept, even though everyone who reads that phrase can instantly think of multiple ways in which we might do that. Because it brings so many plot options to mind, it feels like it’s an actual goal you can plot from.

But it’s not, because it’s the wrong problem.

Trying to plot to “find love” usually winds up with a rambling plot that has little drive and no sense of a story unfolding, because there’s no problem guiding it. Just a vague premise of what has to be done.

The real problem comes from whatever is keeping the protagonist from achieving the goal—not the premise that inspired it. In this example, the real problem is the personal issues and hangups preventing someone from a healthy relationship. “Finding love” isn’t the problem—overcoming the mistrust developed from a bad marriage in order to commit to another person is.

This premise trap holds true in nearly every genre. Fantasy falls victim to the “save the world” premise. Thrillers must “stop the bad guy.” Science fiction seeks to “discover the truth about something” while young adult protagonists “learn who they really are inside.” Even mysteries can go astray with “catch the killer” premises if the writer doesn’t know enough about the crime itself.

A premise is a good start to writing a novel, but it’s only the first step. It’s the concrete problem you develop from that premise that will allow you to craft a solid and workable plot.

(Here’s more on Understand Your Premise to Understand Your Novel)

You Didn’t Spend as Much Time on Your Antagonist as You Did on Your Protagonist


No matter where your conflict (and thus the problem) comes from, there will be an antagonist behind it. The type of conflict you have determines the type of antagonist, and that determines how you develop that problem.

If all you do is jot down a few vague notes, odds are your problem will be just as vague and difficult to plot with. You’ll wind up with antagonists who, for example, want to take over the world, kill redheads with green eyes, ruin their best friend’s wedding, but no idea how or why they want to do any of those things.

The antagonist is more than just “the bad guy.” Remember, if it wasn’t for the antagonist, there would be nothing for the protagonist to do. If the antagonist is a personal hangup (as in a Person vs Self conflict), then that plot comes from overcoming that personal hangup.

This problem, whatever it is, is the reason the protagonist has to do everything they do in the story.

Understand what’s behind the antagonist’s reasons for being bad, or doing whatever it is they’re doing. Understand why the protagonist has that hangup and why they’re resisting what they need to be happy. Understand why that society has such destructive practices that are making the protagonist want to rebel.

The antagonist tells you where your plot comes from. The more you know how the antagonist (whatever type it may be) is causing the problem, the more options you’ll have to plot how the protagonist solves those problems. You’ll know the specific steps that went into the problem, which gives you specific goals in the individual scenes.

For example, if the antagonist is trying to steal the protagonist’s company because “she wants money and power,” figure out how she plans to do that. Buying it is different from conducting a hostile takeover. Marrying into the family to gain a share of the stock takes a different path from tricking the CEO into a compromising position and blackmail him into stepping down.

All of these plans create a different plot. When you don’t know the plan, you can’t see the path.

(Here’s more on 10 Traits of a Strong Antagonist)

Not Everyone Plots the Same


Every writer’s process is different, so adjust and adapt this idea to fit your needs.

But if you struggle with plotting and you aren’t sure about your novel’s problem, it might be worth spending more time figuring that out. Even if “knowing your ending” or “outlining your story” isn’t part of your normal process, you can still brainstorm the problem.

If you’re having plot problems and don’t think you have a novel-problem issue, maybe you should look again just to make sure. You might have a sneaky premise instead of a clear problem and just haven’t realized it yet.

How much do you know about your novel’s problem?

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 ShifterBlue 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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