Monday, August 02, 2021

Don’t Let These Plotting Errors Knock Your Novel Off Track

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Here are five common plotting mistakes to avoid when writing a novel.

Plots are tricky things. They ought to be easy, since they’re just the steps characters go through to resolve a novel’s conflict, but for a lot of writers, those steps are loaded with traps and pitfalls. These writers have no trouble creating deep, fascinating characters and crafting compelling character arcs for them, but how they get those characters from Point A to Point B mystifies them.

Plotting doesn’t come naturally to all writers, same as developing characters, world building, or writing snazzy dialogue. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Once we identify (and accept) what we’re weak at, we can work on improving those areas and paying a little more attention to them in early drafts.

When plotting, it helps to remind yourself that a plot is the series of events that illustrate a story. It’s not the theme, the characters, the character arc, or the idea behind the novel—just what the characters actually do.

The plot is the framework your entire novel hangs on. When it’s weak, the story topples right over.

Because a plot is so basic, it’s easy to over-complicate it and get your manuscript into trouble (often right around page 50 or page 100). You add extra problems and subplots to deepen the story, but they make the novel feel shallow, because nothing is fully explored. You don’t understand where the conflict truly lies, so you end up chasing whatever cool idea hit you that day and solving problems that have nothing to do with the actual core conflict. You try to connect every character and their issues to the protagonist or antagonist and the novel winds up feeling contrived and overworked.

(Here’s more with Why Your Plot Isn’t Working)

The first step to fixing novels that have been knocked out of whack is to identify what’s causing the problem. Take a look at these common plotting mistakes:

1. It’s more premise than plot.

A great idea is a wonderful thing, but it takes more than a great premise to create a plot. Many novels fail because all they are is a premise.

For example, “Four siblings go through a magical wardrobe into another world” is a concept with lots of potential, but there’s no plot to be found in that idea. It’s what the siblings do once they get to that magical world that creates the plot. The characters’ decisions in that world determine how the plot unfolds.

In contrast, “Four siblings go through a magical wardrobe into another world and must defeat an evil queen enslaving the land” is a plot. It shows what has to be done and why.

Is this your problem? State your idea in one sentence. Does it contain what your protagonist has to do by the end of the novel? If not, you might not have the core conflict needed to drive your plot.

(Here’s more with Is Your Novel All Premise and No Plot?)

2. It doesn’t offer enough choices.

A series of scenes that describe how a character accomplished a task might technically be a plot, but it’s rarely a good plot. “This is what they do” only gets you so far, and if “what they do” isn’t all that interesting, you’ll lose readers. Often, it’s the why and how that captures a reader’s curiosity.

Predictably watching someone do exactly what’s expected is boring. The more choices you give a character, and the harder you make those choices, the more unpredictable the plot (and the story’s outcome) will be. Readers will feel that anything can happen and they need to keep reading to find out how this story turns out.

However, choices won’t hold a reader’s interest if the outcome doesn’t matter. Each tough choice should have consequences attached to it: punishments for failure and reward for success.

Is this your problem? Look at the turning points in your novel. Are there tough choices at each point? Do the options have consequences?

(Here’s more with The Impossible Choice: A Surefire Way to Hook Your Readers)

3. It’s all in your protagonist’s head.

Stories that are too internal and focus too much on how a character feels and thinks often lack a solid plot because there’s nothing for the character to actually do. It’s all theme and character arc, and while that’s great, not knowing how a character grows and embraces that theme gives you nothing to work with.

For example, if the protagonist’s goal is to “be happy,” there’s no direction to help you create the plot. But if the goal is to “find a higher-paying job and move out of his parent’s basement,” you have clear steps the protagonist can take and choices he can make to create your plot.

Is this your problem? Can you pinpoint what your protagonist has to do to be happy or achieve a goal? Can you list the physical or external steps needed to achieve that goal?

(Here’s more with Two Questions to Ask for Stronger Character Goals and Motivations)

4. The protagonist has no reason to act.

Plots often get derailed because the protagonist is only doing what the author told them to do. They have no personal reason to do it, no goals driving them, no stakes hanging over their heads. They could turn and walk away and nothing in the story would change.

Imagine the movie Die Hard if John McClane’s wife wasn’t a hostage in the building. He’d have no personal reason to risk his life and go to the extremes he does to stop the bad guys.

Is this your problem? What happens if your protagonist walks away? Could you use the second most-important character as the protagonist with little to no change in the novel?

(Here’s more with Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

5. There’s nothing working against the protagonist.

Stories are only as strong as their antagonists, and a weak antagonist leads to a weak plot. The antagonist (be it a person, society, or nature) creates the obstacles the protagonist will need to overcome to succeed: the plot.

He, she, or it sets the conflict in motion and presents the first choice the protagonist will have to make. Which in turn causes the antagonist to react and make a choice, forcing another protagonist choice, and another action and so on until the climax and resolution of the conflict.

Is this your problem? Does your antagonist have solid reasons to do whatever it is they’re doing? Are they trying their hardest to defeat the protagonist, even if that makes it harder for you to get the protagonist out of trouble?

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

No matter what type of story you’re writing, if you remember to keep asking “What is my protagonist doing?” “Why are they doing it?” and “What happens because they did it?” you’ll rarely lose your way between page one and the end.

Take five minutes and check if you’re making any of these plotting mistakes in your novel. If you find any, brainstorm ways to fix them.

Have you ever made one of these plotting mistakes? Are you struggling with one of them now?

*Originally published on The Write Life August 2016. Last updated August 2021. 

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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  1. Excellent analysis.

    My own favorite theory is that it all comes down to the choices characters make, along with the effects before and after them. Problems 1 (Just A Premise) and 3 (In His Head) trip over those because the character's just drifting around the setting or his beliefs about it, instead of having to take a stand. (Problem 4, No Motive, could cause that too.) And Problem 2 (No Choices) is rushing past the good stuff and only showing what actions work, instead of exploring all the blind alleys and misconceptions that life is really about sorting out.

    1. Thanks! Absolutely. Choices are so critical to a strong plot. That's what creates the tension and makes readers care.

  2. Thanks for this article, Janice. Your timing with this one is impeccable.

    1. Oh good! I'm glad it found you when you needed it

  3. Very helpful, thank you, Janice. And very timely for me.

  4. Great basic refresher -- thank you. Sometimes I feel like, as I master one of these, the other rears it's head -- that's part of the beauty of it, though.

    1. Thanks! It is. Every story is different and has different challenges to work out. Maybe we master the story, but then we kinda have to relearn it all again for the next one (grin).