Tuesday, November 2, 2010

How to rescue your story: Fix the Plot

Isn't it a great feeling when we finish our novel / story? We've all been there, right? But, how about when our editor tells us the plot is weak or is not good at all?

On her Writer's Digest article on August 3, 2010, Laura Whitcomb tell us how to fix the plot without starting over.
1. THE PLOT ISN’T ORIGINAL ENOUGH. Go through your pages and highlight anything that you’ve read in another book or seen in a movie. In the margin, write where you’ve seen it. Quick notes like these can help you detach from unintentional imitation.

2. READERS ALWAYS KNOW EXACTLY WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN. This may be because you’ve chosen a plot point that’s overused, or because you keep giving away the answer in advance.

3. THE PLOT IS BORING. Take each page and imagine what different writers might do with the same plot. After thinking of wild ideas to make the story more interesting, you begin to come up with workable ones that are just as stimulating, but better suited to your book.

4. THE PLOT IS ALL ACTION AND THE FRENZIED PACE NUMBS READERS. Let them breathe. Give the readers a little downtime now and then in your action story. Look back at your favorite action novels. Notice the conversations, summarized passages, meals, introspection and releases of emotions that are set in between the car chases, shootouts and confrontations. List them. Then give the readers a chance to breathe in your own manuscript. Find the dramatic respites that come from your characters’ needs, flaws and strengths.

5. THE PLOT IS TOO COMPLEX. Often, a complex plot can be trimmed into a sleek one by cutting out some steps. When deciding whether or not to simplify the plot, ask yourself over and over again, “Why does she do that? Why didn’t she just do this?” Making a plot less complicated doesn’t have to make it less clever.

6. THE PLOT IS TOO SHALLOW. Sometimes as writers we get caught up in the action. The symbolism. The metaphors. The witty dialogue. The great character names. The slick descriptions. Sometimes we ride these skills over the surface of the story and forget what’s really important. If you or your first readers (friends, family, agent) complain that the novel feels insubstantial, step back and ask yourself these questions: Why am I bothering to write this story? Why does the outcome matter to the characters? How do the characters change? How did my favorite book affect me the first time I read it?

7. SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF IS DESTROYED. Readers need to buy into the reality put forward by what they’re reading. You may go too far with a plot point or not far enough with preparing your audience for that plot point. If something that sounded right when you outlined it is coming off as farfetched even to you, look back at the stepping-stones that led to the event. If your murderer turns over a new leaf at the end of act two, make sure you’ve given her reason to.

8. TOO MANY SUBPLOTS MAKE THE PLOT OVERLY COMPLEX. If you start to feel weighed down by your numerous storylines, start cutting them. List the subplots (shopkeeper with a crush, neighbor’s dog that tears up the garden, accountant who threatens to quit every day), and then list under each title all the ways it’s necessary. Only subplots that are so vital that you could not remove them without destroying your novel get to stick around. Be bold.

9. THE SEQUENCE IS ILLOGICAL. Sometimes the sequence set down in an outline starts to show its true colors when you’re writing the chapters. If you feel the order of scenes or events in your story is off, list each scene on a separate index card and, in red ink, write a question mark on every card that doesn’t feel right where it is in the story. Shuffle the cards. I’m not kidding. Mix them up completely. Lay them out again in the order you think they might work best, giving special attention to those with red question marks. Something about these scenes tricked you the first time. This time, really look closely at the proper place for those tricky bits.

10. THE PREMISE ISN’T COMPELLING. If you fear that a mediocre premise is your holdup, take out a sheet of paper. Make a list on the left-hand side of everything that’s dodgy in your present premise. Then write a list down the right-hand side about all the things that work great in the premise of a similar favorite book, play or movie. See where you might make the stakes higher, the characters more emotional, the setting more a part of the overall plot. Remember: The premise should make your readers curious.

11. THE CONCLUSION IS UNSATISFYING. Once again, write a list of what bothers you about your conclusion, and next to it, a list of what worked great about the end of your favorite novel. Do you have to create more suspense before you give the readers what they’ve been craving? Do you need to make the answer to the mystery clearer? Does the villain need to be angrier, or perhaps show remorse? Unsatisfying conclusions are usually lacking something. Whatever that is, make your story’s ending have more of it.


  1. Cool. Some interesting ideas there to keep by me while editing. Thanks.

  2. Wow! Thank you Claudia!! These are brilliant points to keep in mind with plotting. I think I can see where my own plot problems are - it's so nos 5&9. I got bogged down with so many strands that the end result read like a copout - akin to "guy wakes up and it's all a dream"!! BAD BAD BAD!! Hence me deep in editing mode! :-)
    And I really must invest in some index cards!!!
    Thanks again! Take care

  3. Hi Mac,
    Long time no see! Thanks for stopping by. How's beautiful Molly? Hope she's recovering fast.

    Hi Sheila,
    You're welcome!

    Hi Old Kitty,
    Plot, plot away! You're so funny! ;) Don't feel bad, a lot of us are in the same boat. Creating a great plot is just one fifth (since other elements of writing apply) of creating a great story. :0
    You and Charlie take care.

  4. Hi Claudia 50k words by the 15th that must have been the flu medicine talking but we will see how it goes :)
    I'm a pantser and even I find this helpful because once I am done writing and let my characters run amok, I now have to edit which is by far the toughest part for me, i spend months typing and editing its ridiculously painful and a long process.

  5. So much good information here. I'm re-following you because due to a glitch in blogger, I had to delete my old blog and begin a new one, title only slightly different and nothing else changed--except I have to go into the blogs, again, of those I want to keep following. Yours is definitely a keeper!!

  6. I'm usually hanging out at number 5, but if not, I'm getting arrested for loitering at number 9. Have you ever been people-watching in a public place? You usually see that one person who you can't figure out. She's wearing a ball-cap with a sexy corset-vest and high heels, holding a beer that she isn't drinking, and not talking to anyone in particular. There's just too much going on there to figure out her real story. Yeah. That's how my manuscripts are at first. They beg the question: Huh?

  7. Hi Joanna,
    LOL! You're a riot! I still think it's amazing that you took on this challenge ;)

    Hi Ann,
    Aaww! Thank you for your kind words and welcome back ;)
    I will definitely visit your blog and join.
    Too bad you had to delete your previous blog. Darn computers! :(
    I bet your blog will be as great as before.

    Hi Anna,
    I totally understand you. We want to write every single detail and we don't want to miss anything (we get carried away) so we forget that our MS can turn into a schizophrenic story ;) LOL! Yes, we've all been there. But that's why we have the editing process or better yet, an editor ;)

  8. These are such good points. I can't tell you how many times I read books and find the plot to be complex, dragging or non-existent. It's not always easy to master, but learning the craft of good plot is certainly essential in writing.

  9. Super post, Claudia! Thanks for sharing Laura's article with us. :)

  10. Hi Claudia,
    I was thinking that I am going to need novel writing resources next year, and along came your post! Thanks. Thanks also for your interesting comment on my latest post. Referring to an earlier post by you - what do they say is the ideal word length range for a short story collection?