We’ve updated the look and feel of ProWritingAid. Learn more about our new chapter.

Learn more
Creative Writing Writing 101 2020-02-07 00:00

4 Plot Mistakes You Might Be Making

man sat at desk, writing, surrounded by crumpled paper and books

We’ve been talking about how to write your novel, and have covered a lot of ground already. If you’ve missed any of the articles, here are links to each:

We’re going to spend a little bit of time on plot this month—talking about what NOT to do.

Sometimes it’s hard to see plot problems while you’re writing and you don’t notice them until the end. This will send some writers into a downward spiral of negative self-talk. Others will white-knuckle their way through half-hearted revisions.

Here are a few common plot pitfalls and what you can do to rectify them.

1) The Plot is Unoriginal

I had an excellent story idea recently—or so I thought—and shared it with my daughter. She said, “I dunno, mom. I feel like it’s been done to death.” Yikes!

Since most stories follow a common story arc, it’s hard to have a truly original story. But what makes a story different from what’s already been done is your take on it. What elements will you add that are your own? Where in the traditional narrative arc does it go unexpectedly off-course? Readers like to be surprised. If you’re trying too hard to fit into someone else’s mold of what makes for a good story, you’ve not given yourself enough freedom to be you.

An easy way to separate the boring, unoriginal pieces from the new and shiny is by printing out your manuscript and sitting down with your red pen. Read each scene and jot a note in the margin if you’ve read it before in someone else’s work or if you’ve seen it in a movie. And then have a trusted second reader go through and mark what she thinks are unoriginal bits.

Now it’s time for some major brainstorming. Choose a problem area that you marked as unoriginal, and use a mind map to come up with alternate ideas that will take your characters away from what’s already been done and into some new territory. Play the “what if” game. What if the main character had a childhood crush on the antagonist? What if there’s suddenly a gun in this scene? What if the next door neighbor is a con man? Or go even further and ponder “what if one of the main characters dies?”

This tactic also works well if you have a lackluster character who is central to the action. Start brainstorming ideas for strange obsessions this character can have that will affect the outcome of your story.

The best part about this exercise is that it’s great fun to let your imagination run free. Imagine how you’ll pique the interest of your reader when that kangaroo shows up with a gun in its pouch. Or maybe not…

2) Too Much Action is Exhausting

On the flip side, you can actually have too much action. You don’t want your readers to gallop through your story. Give them a moment to catch their breath in between action scenes. Think about your favorite action movie. The main character isn’t always fighting the bad guys; sometimes she’s quietly contemplating her next move or examining her feelings.

You need these quiet scenes between the action to help you develop your characters, too. Readers learn about the main character by his or her actions and by thoughts, too. The conversations your characters have are just as important as what they do to thwart the antagonist. If you don’t feel like you know and understand your characters and their motivations, you won’t care if they win or lose.

You also need a way to show your character’s flaws—warts and all. You can’t do that with non-stop action. It’s time to take a real look at your story arc. Is your plot too shallow perhaps? Are you too caught up in the action and the magnificent symbolism you’ve created?

Let depth of character serve to give your reader a rest between action scenes.

3) Too Many Subplots Obfuscate the Real Issue

If you’re having a hard time keeping up with all the subplots as you’re writing, imagine how difficult it will be for your reader. This is when it’s time to “kill your darlings” as Faulkner said.

Again turn to your red pen. If a character with a subplot isn’t absolutely vital to the denouement, use that red pen. Delete at will. Not all characters need to have intricate character arcs. Some can be reassuringly one or two dimensional and still serve a purpose in your story.

This is when you test the mettle of your strength as a writer. You may be seriously in love with these characters. How can you possibly cut something that’s part of you?

Think of it this way:

Don’t kill your darling; simply move her to a new novel as the main character.

Voila! Problem solved. New novel started.

4) An Unsatisfying End: Readers Know Exactly What’s Going to Happen

This may be a result of a few things. Have you chosen a plot premise that’s been “done to death” as my daughter says? If you follow a traditional story arc too closely, then your reader will be able to predict exactly what will happen from chapter 1. Think of ways to add unpredictability so that your reader is compelled to keep reading to see what will happen next.

Have you given away the answer too soon? If you’ve planted blatant clues all along that lead directly to an obvious ending, your reader won’t feel worried about the outcome. If your reader feels concerned for your characters, but doesn’t know what that potential bad guy is up to, they will keep turning pages. So don’t show your reader everything that your antagonist does. Instead use foreshadowing to hint at what he or she might do. Don’t show your antagonist slipping a leash around the neck of your main character’s pet; show him at the store buying dog biscuits. Let the reader connect the dots and figure out that he’s up to no good.

There are so many books that leave the reader breathless by ending in an unexpected way. Think of Atonement by Ian McEwan, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, and so many more. Most readers didn’t see those endings coming and so they had a strong emotional reaction when everything was revealed.

Final Thoughts

Revisions are hard, especially plot revisions. That doesn’t mean they can’t be done. It will take some time, however. Don’t give up just yet.

There’s one key idea you should take away from this: every plot problem has a solution.

And you’re just the right person for the job.

Happy writing!

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy these articles from our archive:

Are you prepared to write your novel? Download this free book now:

The Novel-Writing Training Plan

The Novel-Writing Training Plan

So you are ready to write your novel. Excellent. But are you prepared? The last thing you want when you sit down to write your first draft is to lose momentum.

This guide helps you work out your narrative arc, plan out your key plot points, flesh out your characters, and begin to build your world.

Be confident about grammar

Check every email, essay, or story for grammar mistakes. Fix them before you press send.