Ambit Creative

Adele Annesi

Adele Annesi is an award-winning editor and writer for global Web content and print publications. She worked as a development editor for Scholastic Publishing, and is a fiction and nonfiction book editor, specializing in nonfiction and memoir. As a press correspondent and columnist, Adele writes for newspapers, magazines, blogs and literary journals. Her stories have appeared in The Circle, The Fairfield Review, Hotmetalpress, Miranda Literary Magazine,,The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Trillium, the Italian-American literary journal Pyramid and an anthology for Fairfield University. She won Poetic Voices of America's editor's choice award, and presents the editing and writing workshops for libraries and other venues. She is a nominated member of Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in America and Who's Who in American Women. She's also working on a new novel. Visit her website at: Adele Annesi, Facebook, LinkedIn, Redroom, Twitter, and Word For Words.

The Road Best Taken: A Study on Plot

If 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 construction.

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 sufficient groundwork.

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

as part of writing, you’ll “feel” these gaps just as if you’d been driving and bottomed out.

To 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.