Today’s GTW Mailbag question comes from Isabella. She asks:
Hello! Could you please write something on what a strong v.s. weak plot looks like, and what makes a strong plot? Also, how do you take a weaker plot, and make it stronger? Thanks!
This is a great question. Let’s start by defining the word plot. According to Dictionary.com., a plot is “the plan, scheme, or main story of a literary work.” It is also called the storyline. A plot is both what the story is about, and the series of events that make up the story.
What makes a plot weak or strong depends on a variety of components. Strong stories have a good balance of character, plot, and setting. If you have way too much of one and too few of the others, your story could feel off.
Keep in mind that genre is important to consider when looking at plot and pacing. Romance and coming-of-age novels often include more dialogue-only scenes than action adventure or thriller novels. It’s important to study your genre and know how to structure the type of story you want to write.
That said, let’s look at a few problem areas in regard to plot and give some tips to help you know where to adjust.
Stories can be boring for many reasons. Uninteresting characters can drag down a story. If the reader doesn’t care about your characters, they’re not going to want to keep reading. However, you could also have great characters with nothing interesting happening to them. This is one my problem areas. I have the tendency to write long conversation scenes that are interesting but don’t add anything necessary to the story. These types of scenes can slow down the pacing of the plot. Since you don’t want your reader to lose interest, when you’re revising, ask yourself, “Is this scene necessary? Is something important revealed or learned in this conversation? If not, can I cut this? If so, can I move the important information someplace else and cut this long scene of talking heads?”
Another thing to look for is missing tension and conflict in your story, which can also slow down your pacing. Tension and conflict should build as the story progresses, growing tenser and building deeper conflicts until the story reaches the climax. If your story doesn’t have an “It feels like the end of the world” climax, take some time to develop one. The goal is to have interesting characters in interesting situations and to organize everything in a way that holds the reader’s interest. This doesn’t usually happen in a first draft, so be patient with yourself and continue to work hard to make your characters and the events that happen to them page-turners.
Have you ever read a book where you really have no idea what is going on? I have. And I always want to quit reading those kinds of books! Stories can become confusing for many reasons. You might be dumping too much information into your story. Telling and exposition can slow down your pacing. It can also pull the reader out of the story.
Imagine you are reading about Danny who puts on his boots and goes out into the snow to investigate a strange sound he heard at night. As he’s walking around in the dark, he starts to think about his day and a conversation he had with Megan. All of a sudden the reader is in a flashback at lunch with Danny and Megan. When we finally come back to Danny, we’ve lost all the tension that was built when the strange sound was first mentioned. The reader is confused what to care about. Danny and the sound? Or Danny and Megan?
Don’t do this.
If you catch yourself interrupting an interesting scene, revise. Let your interesting scenes play out and save the flashbacks for later—or better yet, put then in real time. Make sure it’s clear what you want your reader to care about in every scene. Also, don’t try to do too much at once. Work hard to keep your reader engaged and they will want to keep reading.
Another problem that can confuse readers is when your pacing is so fast the reader is unable to follow what’s happening. Like I said before, tension and conflict should build as the story progresses, growing more tense and building deeper conflicts until the story reaches the climax. If your story is climax tense from the start, there is no place for the character to grow and nowhere for the story to go. Take it down a few notches at the start and move that climactic scene to the end of the story. Then see if you can create some scenes that build up to that climactic moment.
If your reader is confused, it could also be that you’re leaving out important information in your story. It can be tricky to learn how to get everything that you the author know about the characters and the story from your head onto the page. When I first started writing, someone would ask a question about my work-in-progress that would totally puzzle me. As I was explaining the why, I’d realize I never actually wrote that detail into the story. Whoopsie! When you’re revising, make sure to include all the important story information so your reader will be able to keep up and stay hooked.
Another plot problem that troubles some authors is when they include illogical or unrealistic events. Even one such happening can be enough to sabotage your plot and annoy readers. Unbelievable situations can creep into our stories from many different places. We might unconsciously add something ridiculous because we’ve seen it in a movie. Such scenes might work in movies where special effects can show the viewer an over-the-top scene, yet in a book, without those special effects, they only create confusion and sometimes eye rolls.
Unbelievable events might also happen because you didn’t set them up well. This is what my former editor Jeff Gerke called Plant and Payoff. If you know you’re going to need your character to do something amazing later in the book, plant early on in the story that your character knows how to do this. The same is true for magical objects and subplots. Set up everything you need before you need it so that readers aren’t surprised by something that conveniently came out of nowhere.
There is also the accident when your characters slip out of character and start saying and doing things they would never do. This often happens because the author needs the plot to work. If you have done this or are tempted to, don’t. I know it’s hard, but take them time to rework that scene so it is believable for both your plot and your character. Readers get super annoyed when characters do things they know the character would never do.
The last area I want to talk about today is disappointing your reader with the outcome of the plot and/or subplots. No author sets out to write a story that disappoints or annoys readers, but it happens. One of the biggest ways to let down your reader is to let your hero disappoint them. Does your hero save the day or solve his own story goal? If not—if someone else swoops in and does it for him—this will likely disappoint your reader, even if your reader doesn’t know how to put that into words.
This is what writers call deus ex machina, which is a Latin phrase that means “god from the machine.” This is when an outside force (often a god) swoops in and saves the day, rather than your hero rising above his weakness and using his skills or bravery to conquer that story goal. This usually refers to the climax of the story, but be careful also not to let side characters steal the spotlight too often. Make sure your hero is the one to be active and working toward growing and solving the tasks before him. This very thing is why your reader is reading. They’re rooting for your character. They want your character to succeed, so make sure that pays off often and especially at the end of the story. The main character needs to be integral in solving the story problem. That’s why they’re the hero.
There is one other thing to watch out for. Don’t get into the habit of letting important things happen in your story by accident. Too many coincidences make readers roll their eyes. If you have a first draft filled with coincidences, go back in and see what you can do to turn those coincidences into choices the character makes. You could also turn them into clues or red herrings, then allow your hero to puzzle his way through. Reading about a character who is working to solve a problem or mystery is so much more exciting than one who just keeps stumbling into success through no skill or initiative of his own.
You Can Do It
As you work through your rewrite, analyze each scene carefully. Is it too fast? Too slow? Does the reader care about what’s happening? Does the point of view character have a clear goal? Is there a risk? Have you given too much information? Too little information? Or have you accidentally contradicted yourself and given conflicting information? Comb through each scene carefully and pinpoint where you might have gone wrong. Once you know that, you can make a plan to fix it.
Which Do You Struggle With?
Of all the plot problem areas we talked about today, which one do you struggle with the most? Are there any you used to struggle with but have now worked past? Share your tips, insight, and questions in the comments below. I want to hear from you!
Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms, and the author of several young adult fantasy novels including the Blood of Kings trilogy. She loves teaching about writing. She blogs at goteenwriters.com and also posts writing videos on her YouTube channel and on Instagram TV. Jill is a Whovian, a Photoshop addict, and a recovering fashion design assistant. She grew up in Alaska without running water or electricity and now lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two kids. Find Jill online at jillwilliamson.com or on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.