you hate organizing your writing and like spontaneity, you’ll love this
perspective on plot: “Many writers spend the majority of their time
devising their plot. What they don’t seem to understand is that if
their execution—if their prose—isn’t up to par, their plot will never
even be considered” (from The First Five Pages: A writer’s
Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman).
The book was written ten years
ago, and I highly recommend it. But if this is the skinny on plot, why
deal with it? Because plot and prose are inextricably linked, because
every story is a journey, and all journeys need planning.
It’s helpful to view plot as a
road with a starting point, pathway, and destination. I’ve avoided the
usual “beginning, middle, and end” terminology because it feels
restrictive, as if all stories need to be linear. They don’t. For this
study, which is from an editing perspective, we won’t address plot
forms. Instead, we’ll look briefly at what plot is, why it goes wrong,
and ways to fix it.
Let’s start with a working
definition. This pertains mainly to fiction but applies to nonfiction:
“Plot is simply the stuff that happens to your characters.” That’s
James Scott Bell from Revision & Self-Editing
(also recommended). It’s a great definition because it’s open-ended
enough to appeal to the most free-form writers.
So, why is plot important? One
reason is that if literally nothing happens to your characters (include
setting as character), you don’t have a story. Even Seinfeld,
a TV show about nothing, was really about relationships—like Friends
but with bite. It was also about humor in America, and to that end
became a classic.
Since “stuff” happens in all
stories, and since we’re viewing plot as a road, let’s consider these
common problems: potholes, detours, alternate routes, and under
Potholes often appear in spring.
They can show up in writing, too. It’s hard to catch them in the first
draft because you’re still telling yourself the story. You’ll know a
pothole when something major is missing, usually in a character or
storyline. For example, a character progresses from one stage to
another without enough development, or a defining event occurs without
This problem usually appears
when you read your work and ask, “How?” “How did Carol get to be so
mature?” Or, “How did we go from calm to confusion here?” As you
increasingly view revision
part of writing, you’ll “feel” these gaps
just as if you’d been driving and bottomed out.
fix a pothole, compare the character or story before the gap and after.
Consider what’s missing and why, and which characters are affected.
This should reveal where and how to make the fixes; just make sure you
make them everywhere they’re needed.
Another common problem is the
detour. Mysteries specialize in detours, and good mysteries add
suspense and zest. Taking readers on a wild goose chase, however, is
different. An unintended plot shift may not be as chaotic as a goose
run amok, but it has the same result. Readers won’t appreciate chasing
a wrong turn that wastes time and emotional energy.
One way to recognize a detour is
when you start asking “Where?” as in, “Where did this come into play?”
Two other signals are loss of interest and confusion. Detours are best
fixed by avoidance. When planning your story, especially a turning
point, do a what-if scenario for each option, and follow each to its
conclusion. Select the option that works best. If you find the detour
after the draft is done, retrace your steps to the fork in the road—the
decision point—to see what went wrong. Use the what-if approach to
determine how best to reroute.
Subplots, or parallel routes,
add layering and work well as long as they don’t confuse, obscure, or
overpower the main story. Instead, they should add depth. An
ineffective subplot yields the same frustration as the ineffectual
detour—readers feel annoyed that the story and people they care about
have been overshadowed. One caveat: Sometimes an alternate route works
better than your main plot. In this case, reconsider your story. What
is it really about, and which storyline best conveys what you want to
get across? Again, use the what-if scenario to make the fix.
The last plot problem is “under
construction”: a plot that’s unclear, undeveloped, underdeveloped, or
overdeveloped. Yes, that last one is possible. To fix these
construction issues, do a new outline and replace ambiguity, thin
story, weak story, or too much story with clear cause and effect in a
plausible storyline with a unique concept, good pacing, and an absence
of overwriting. Remember it’s all a journey, and you want to make it
memorable—for the right reasons.