Q : I submitted my manuscript to an agent and she said the plot was confusing and needed a lot of work. I was crushed! What should I do?
A : Telling a good story is the writer’s most important task. But constructing a great plot with so many ideas, characters and actions careening through your seething neo-cortex — and getting it all neat and organized on the page — isn’t easy. A reader can tell right away if it doesn’t work, especially that literary agent you’re hoping to impress.
Whether you’re writing a novel or a non-fiction book on 14th century agricultural techniques, you’re telling a story. It’s a narrative. The same rules apply. You need a great opening, a first, second, third act, and some kind of closure, denouement, maybe even an epiphany. For more detail on this, take a look at an earlier post on constructing the narrative arc.
Many authors have problems plotting their stories. Here are some solutions for the most common issues:
1. First, you need an outline!
The most important first step for coherent plot building is to make a plan. Write a chapter-by-chapter outline. The finest writers I’ve worked with, literary artists on many levels, with the exception of the boy genius Tom “Tommy Rotten” Robbins, all have at least a rough private outline before they get started, so they know where they’re heading.
Don’t close your eyes and rely on the muse to whisper in your ear. That could be a mischievous imp with some very bad advice — unlike the hardworking elves in the cartoon above who obviously know their stuff.
As a discipline, start with fourteen chapters, three or four scenes per chapter. Use a personal shorthand to write out as much detail as you can, then study it carefully. Pretty soon, I’ll bet you’ll notice material that’s in the wrong place, can be compressed, or just has to be tossed.
Then move around the remaining pieces by cutting and pasting, or on index cards, or on a big erasable white storyboard like they use in the movie business. I’ve done it with writers using all of the above and it works, believe me, and it will save you a whole lot of time and trouble.
2. Start like you’re jumping on a moving train
Some writers are afflicted with a compulsion to keep clearing their throat on the page. They have a hard time getting started. They don’t know where to begin or how to nail that fabulous first sentence. So they dither around, groping in the dark, all the while putting down words about this, that, nothing, usually digressive and meandering. Nothing said. Nothing happening.
Instead, start with something real that represents the essential theme and thrust of your narrative, a crucial moment in time, including one or two major characters in the story engaged in significant or symbolic actions. Like the faux ending of a relationship (to be remedied later, or not), or a crucial point in your political argument, history, or biography that cuts to the core of your idea or characterization. For more on this, you might want to check an earlier post on the power of the opening sentence.
To get the juices flowing, browse through your own collection of books to find a good opening. Here’s one off my shelf, Sister of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni:
They say in the old tales that the first night after a child is born, the Bidhata Purush comes down to earth himself to decide what its fortune is to be. That is why they bathe babies in sandalwood water and wrap them in soft red malmal, color of luck. That is why they leave sweetmeats by the cradle. Silver-leafed sandesh, dark pantuas floating in golden syrup, julipis orange as the heart of a fire, glazed with honey-sugar. If the child is especially lucky, in the morning it will all be gone.
3. Careful with the flashbacks
The flashback can be a wonderful technique in telling a complicated story. Recent literary successes such as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides have made very effective use of shifts back and forth in time.
But I see many manuscripts that rely way too much on this literary device. Most common is the big-bang school, an explosion of climactic action as the opening scene, then flashing back to the beginning of the story to explain how the characters got to that point. This particular kind of flashback – slamming the story into reverse from point 9.5 to point 1.0 — has become so familiar it can seem canned and formulaic.
Another popular flashback device is to start at the beginning of something important, like a birth, or first meetings, or the launch of an idea or event, then flashing back to the historic antecedents or legacy that led to this scene. This is more like a 3.5 to 1.0.
In both cases, a very common and unfortunate technique is when the writer has a flashback within a flashback. That is, the story opens with characters in a climactic embrace or other significant end-game event, then the time shifts abruptly to an earlier time.
The poor reader tries desperately to get re-oriented when suddenly there’s another flashback to an even earlier climactic moment. So the pattern becomes 9.5 to 4.5 to 3.7 and still not back to 1.0. It’s bewildering, and ultimately annoying. Prospective agents, editors, and publishers will put that down in a hurry.
4. Let your story tell itself
A common problem is the irresistible urge to explain what’s happening in the alleged story with a huge reservoir of meaningful and significant information that ranges over paragraphs, pages, or even an entire chapter, usually at the opening, but often at other inconvenient spots in the book. The point of this information dump, the writer thinks, is to keep the reader alert regarding background, progress, prognosis. It’s a form of omniscient voiceover that has no place whatsoever anywhere in the book and should be banished, exiled, and forbidden to appear. Please!
Another aspect of this issue is the familiar mantra for writers everywhere: Show, Don’t Tell. Many clichés are true and this one of my favorites. There’s nothing more tedious than the intrusion of the omniscient narrator giving us a filtered summary of a scene instead of letting the characters speak in quoted dialogue, including sounds, smells, visual details, and all the other dramatic accessories of a real-life event.
5. Create characters we care about
Reading a book involves an altered interior universe we carry with us throughout the day. So we the readers need to engage with your characters, especially the leading protagonist. We have to care about what happens to them, one way or another. It’s better yet if we can identify with or be inspired by their quest, their transformation from beginning to end.
In a misguided attempt to create anti-heroes or realistic villains, many writers alienate or fail to attract readers with their completely unappealing characters, people you don’t want to know or care about. Villains need to be interesting.
For example, Satan is definitely Milton’s most interesting character in Paradise Lost. He has passion, he bleeds and rages and plots against God, whom he also loves, whose approval and re-acceptance he yearns for. Yes, he may represent an ultimate evil to some, but he’s also a nuanced, very believable human representation.
So remember that your central characters need to go through changes, develop, improve maybe or at least be fully realized as three-dimensional personalities who receive their just deserts.
6. Fire that gun
“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it,” Anton Chekhov famously wrote in 1889. That maxim, known as Chekhov’s Gun can be applied to every character and event in your story. If you introduce a person at the beginning of your story they had better have some relevance to what happens after that. And if you invent a dramatic incident, it needs to lead to something else and not stop dead in its tracks, never to be remembered, like some kind of coincidental disaster.
This is the kind of issue you can resolve in an outline, as recommended above. Watch out for anyone or anything that doesn’t reappear at some point in a significant way.
7. Read your story aloud
Not necessarily to other people, at first, but alone, as if you were explaining something important to a loved one or friend. See if you want to hurry past some parts. That’s a bad sign. Or if you remember something important that should be added at precisely one spot that you somehow forgot to mention.
Remember it all started sitting around the fire in some cave millions of years ago. Humans have an inexorable compulsion to tell stories, to make meaning of their lives, to select the most important moments, events, words said by others, and use it to build connections, influence, explain, or inspire. It’s in our genes.
Mary Dispenza says
I have an offer to publish my book with Graham Publishers, an e-book publishing company. It happened so fast that it stunned me and I said, “I will give it some thought.’
My question is, “Should I just say yes or explore traditional publishers also?” I read your piece on “What Do Publishers Say”. It was great. E books are mentioned.
Alan – Great advice, especially to new writers. Having an outline totally helped me figure out my story, plot, sub-plots, and ending. Also the outline is a living document. Once I had it in place and began re-writing my novel I quickly noticed areas where I needed to add an extra scene. I look forward to your next post.
I found many helpful thoughts here in the article AND the comments following. I especially appreciated the ideas in the article about outlining and flashbacks. The comments by J.M. Strother about outlining using a spreadsheet and a calendar were very enlightening, making outlining a very concrete thing to do. I’m going to try it. Thank you for all the insights.
Lady Mondegreen says
I am so grateful to have found your blog! I have never been a fan of outlining on paper, although I can see the merits of doing so. I thought I could keep it all in my head this time, but I am taking on a long dormant novel and my plot is all over the place. I am pausing to get an outline started and already my plot is more directed and focused. Thank you again. :)
first of all, thanks Alan for the top-notch blog.
i would like to ask poster Sarah Jackson a question, although i’m not sure she’ll answer seeing as she posted months ago! anyway here goes: what do you mean by ‘What is the business of the spot?’
thanks for your time and once again thanks to Alan
Hi. Thanks for a great piece. I have always outlined in my head and let me tell you what it leads to for me. REVISION. Even after my first novel was sold, I had to do a tremendous amount of cutting and then rewriting. With my second novel, my agent insisted that I write only 50 pages and a synopsis. As it turned out, I started the story too late and added 40 pages to the front end (per his suggestions), but now I have 90 pages and a strong synopsis (he would not let me get away with anything wishy-washy in the synopsis! Haha!) and I can tell already that this book is going to require a lot less revision. It’s much tighter and makes much more sense from the very beginning. And I know what happens, so it’s not this wild ride that I’m on, but more like a road with a map. It’s exciting. I’m going to save this post to refer to though, so thanks.
Heidi Wilde says
Thank you so much for putting your time and effort into this blog! I am one in the crowded mass of souls who are trying to write their First Book and I need all the help I can get :)
Numbers 2 and 4 hit home the hardest for me, I think. I get so caught up in wanting everything written perfectly from the start that I haven’t really been -able to- start. I also think I have a tendency to want to explain/tell too much instead of letting things show themselves. I keep thinking, “But… will they notice this? Did they get that? Maybe if I just point out this…” It’s a struggle to keep myself under control.
Oh! I also wanted to thank Jon for his helpful advice, I really like the calendar idea.
Thank you again, Alan, I will definitely keep your blog at my fingertips.
Sarah Jackson says
Ohhhhh, I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have stumbled on this blog tonight. I’m trying hard to fight the freakout that only a first book can bring;-) Your advice here on keeping a plot moving and dynamic reminds me of the best advice I ever received as a promo writer/producer at Comedy Central. “Be funny, Sarah, be cool. But never forget the business of the spot. What’s the BUSINESS of the spot?” Whenever I am lost, I always go back to that and eventually find my way out. I’m thinking it might help with my book, too.
Wonderful advice here. Have a great weekend!
Rick O says
I’ve been mulling over Checkhov’s Gun lately, contrasting it with Hitchcock’s Bomb. I have to wonder if you hit a point with an audience where firing the gun is anticlimactic. Where maybe you can’t fire the gun because the audience knows you must. There are so many minutia in our lives that look important, turn out to be nothing, but create tension along the way.
It all makes me step back and wonder if and/or how a writer’s audience has changed from 100 years ago, or even just 50. We’re now so inundated with media and story in the form of TV and film, might we not follow different rules than those who came before us?
I don’t know. I look at some of the fiction I read and I can’t help but think how transparent it is, because I can see all the guns on the walls and bombs under the tables.
I am an outlining freak, my outline for my current WIP is 20 pages long, and it hasn’t been fleshed out completely yet. I just don’t know how I could keep track of all my ideas if I didn’t have one…
I think the answer as to whether or not you need an outline lies in the answer to the question “Are you lost, confused, or unable to proceed with the novel?” Chances are you are in need of a plot. I like the opening you posted. It gives a clear taste of the writer’s style, gives the reader an indication of what the tone is going to be and delivers a little bit of mysticism. I’d read further just to see how this opening ties into the story.
But then, I’m curious. Always curious. Or nosey. Take your pick.
Natalie Hatch says
Where have you been all my writing life? Thanks so much for this I’ve been in a real bind with my Young Adult SciFi story and have come to a bit of a standstill. So now I need to plot further afield than just three chapters. The timeline is one I hadn’t thought of until you mentioned it.
Alan Rinzler says
Thank you, Jon, for two very valuable tips: that during periods of writer’s block, the mental outline may be requiring more attention, and that keeping track of the timeline is also very important. Calendars are great, and I also urge writers to date what’s happening in their outline and sometimes to note the time again in chapter headings of the book itself. Alan.
J. M. Strother says
I’ve seen the “to outline, or not to outline” debate go on for years. Many people claim not to outline, and seem to do just fine. However, I believe they do outline, if only in their heads. I used to say I did not outline, but came to realize that I did, even if only very sketchily. It may not have been on paper, but the outline was there. Slow periods, the “writer’s block” periods are usually where that mental outline is the most vague.
In recent years I have begun outlining more formally. I find it really helps the story move along. I am now a big proponent.
Two things I find very useful in plotting are using a spreadsheet and a calendar. The spreadsheet acts as a great big virtual white board. I use characters as column headings and enter actions in the cells. This really helps keep things sorted out. The same with a calendar. Stories take place over time. Entering actions/events on given dates and times on a calendar keeps the timeline consistent. I recommend Google Calendar, but any calendar will do, even paper ones.
Eva Ulian says
Yes, I appreciate all your good advice on plots, which I certainly need to work on. However, I don’t think the opening of “Sister of My Heart” is one of those openings which will make me read much further, giving me the idea this is going to be one of those stories of personal interest that will go on for ever. Sorry, we all have different tastes, and I’m sure many ravished it.