This week’s post comes from a colleague and friend, Donna Cook. As an author, she knows how to write compelling fiction and plot skillfully; as an editor, she can pick apart plots as quickly as my toddler gets tired of sitting in her high chair. It’s a pleasure to have Donna here this week—enjoy her contribution to the blog!
While there are plenty of ways a story can go sideways, in my work as a fiction editor I’ve noticed there are certain problems that tend to crop up again and again. With aspiring writers who haven’t been writing long, I’m not surprised to see problems like those listed below. This is not a bad thing. It’s just part of the learning process. I made plenty of these mistakes when I was a young writer, too. Of course, even experienced writers can slip up in a big way. So whether you’re a new writer or you’ve been around for a while, check your manuscript against the following list to see how it stacks up. If your manuscript is faulty somewhere, don’t be discouraged. Revision is a powerful and beautiful thing.
So, in that spirit, here are the top five plotting mistakes aspiring authors make.
1. The Plot is Too Predictable
This may seem like an obvious pothole to avoid, but it happens often enough to mention here.
When I read the premise of a story, or the first few chapters, I don’t want to feel like I know what’s going to happen for the rest of the book. Now, new writers may get confused by this because they know certain story types have certain expectations. In the standard romance, the guy will get the girl. In a murder mystery, the detective will solve the case. In an action thriller, the hero will emerge triumphant. So, in the loosest sense, yes, I can pick up some stories and be able to predict very general things about the ending.
However, while I may have read a detective story before, I haven’t read your detective story and I want to be surprised by how it plays out. Otherwise, I’m bored. I feel like I’m wasting my time.
This may or may not be a problem in your book, but I’ll forewarn you, the author usually has no idea their plot is predictable.
Of course a good editor or excellent beta readers can help, but how can you self-diagnose this problem? Well, that gets a little tricky.
Think back to the creation of your plot. Were you ever surprised by a turn of events? Did your story take a direction you didn’t expect?
If not, that might be a problem. If you’re not surprised, why would your reader be?
Do you have plot twists? Several of them? We banish predictable storylines with plot twists. When devising such twists, keep in mind, they do more than just surprise us. Plot twists serve to advance the storyline and increase the tension and stakes. They have consequences that reach forward into your story. They should make the reader think, “Wow. Now what?”
When brainstorming plot twists (or just plot in general), ask yourself a lot of “What if” questions. Ponder how you can make things more difficult for your character. Come up with several ideas, because your first few are likely to be predictable.
How do you know if you’re on the right track? If you come up with a complication for your plot, then think to yourself, “I have no idea how my characters are going to get out of this,” that’s good! That’s what you want. If the solution isn’t immediately obvious to you, chances are good it won’t be immediately obvious to your reader either.
Don’t be afraid to paint yourself into a corner. Find a creative way out and you just might have a workable plot twist.
2. The Protagonist Is Too Perfect and/or the Antagonist Is Too Weak
This may seem like a characterization mistake, and it is. But it’s also a plotting mistake. Why? Aside from the fact that perfect protagonists are boring and hard to relate to, if your protagonist is too perfect, you’re severely limiting the potential of your plot.
If your character is already perfect, the events of the plot will have no impact on your character. In which case, why are we reading your story? But if, for example, your character is immature and self-centered, key points in your plot will have that much more impact if they cause your character to grow and change.
There are a couple of things that may cause a writer to create a protagonist that’s too perfect. One is being too nice; the writer does not want to cause their beloved character too much suffering. It seems easier to create a character than can easily deal with any problem that comes their way. These characters are wickedly smart, excellent fighters, rich, dashing, beautiful, blah, blah, blah. Now, of course you can have characters that are any of these things, but be sure you throw in some frailties or we won’t believe your character is real. Even worse, watching your character come out of any difficulty with ease will bore us to tears. (See #5 on this list.)
The other reason authors create protagonists that are too perfect is because the writer is living out a personal fantasy through their story. The author wants to be liked, praised, successful, and just plain awesome, and lives that fantasy vicariously through a protagonist who’s too perfect. Hey, who doesn’t want that fantasy? And there can be a certain element of that in our stories. Often the heroes and heroines in stories are larger than life. That’s actually a really good thing. But again, that has to be balanced with reality. NO ONE is perfect, so when we come across characters that are too perfect it doesn’t seem real. We can’t relate to them. As much as we may want to be liked, praised, successful, and just plain awesome, we also know what it’s like to be hated, criticized, failures, and…well, you get the idea.
Think about your closest friends. Are they perfect? No? Think back to when your friendship with someone changed from acquaintance to close confidant. Was it when either or both of you opened up about a problem or fear? When we trust someone with the weaker parts of ourselves, and they do the same, it establishes trust, compassion, and a completely different kind of bond. We care in a whole new way.
Give us the chance to have that kind of bond with your characters and your plot will have zing.
Another characterization error that doubles as a plot error is an antagonist that is too weak. In order for us to care about the events of a book, we should be worried that our hero or heroine will fail. Even better if failure seems highly likely. Think about Star Wars. Darth Vader was no putz.
3. The Story Objective Is Not Clear
If your antagonist isn’t a significant challenge to your protagonist, we aren’t going to care about your plot. Because the challenges in your plot will be too easily solved and therefore boring, boring, boring.
Sometimes problematic stories seem to be a string of one event after another, without any central driving force. It all starts to feel random. Like we’re all just wandering around in this world without knowing why we care about what’s going on.
When I read stories like this, I often ask myself, “What is this story about? What’s the point? What are the characters trying to do?”
Yes, there are lots of things going on in your story, and that’s great. But these events should all be pieces of a greater whole. I should know relatively early on what the objective of the story is going to be.
Defeat He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. (Harry Potter)
Get back home to Kansas. (Wizard of Oz)
Save Wilbur from being slaughtered. (Charlotte’s Web)
Climb out of poverty by any means necessary. (Gone With the Wind)
If your story is character driven, rather than plot driven, as readers we may solidify the story by saying what your story is about.
It’s about four sisters growing up in New England in the 1800s. (Little Women)
It’s about the life and art of Michelangelo. (The Agony and the Ecstasy)
It’s about the relationship between a man who spontaneously, helplessly time travels and his wife. (The Time Traveler’s Wife)
If you’re going to write a character-driven story, of course your character needs to be compelling (see #2). Also, and back to the point of this list, your character should still face plot-twists and surprises. In Little Women, Jo expected to go to France but her younger sister Amy got to go instead. How Jo faced this challenge furthered the overall focus of the story, which was about Jo growing up.
4. The Stakes Are Too Low
Here’s the best way to guard against this error. Ask yourself, if my protagonist fails, so what? If the answer is, nothing much, you have a problem.
The answer to the so what question needs to be significant.
If Frodo and his band cannot destroy the One Ring, the entire world will be subjected to horrible evil.
That’s a pretty big consequence. Of course, the consequences in your story don’t have to be “the world will come to an end” or “my character will DIE.” Yes, that can be the consequence, but it doesn’t have to be.
It’s okay if failure just means the end of the world to your character.
Consider just about any romance. If the guy doesn’t get the girl, it’s not the end of the world in a literal sense. However, if he really loves this girl, if he desperately loves this girl, then we know losing her will be devastating. Assuming you’ve made him a character we care deeply about, we will want him to succeed. You will have a plot with stakes that matter.
5. The Author Rescues the Protagonist Too Quickly
Again, sometimes the author is just too nice to the protagonist. We may like things to work out quickly and smoothly in real life, but in fiction? We crave conflict. We crave nail-biting, gut-wrenching, heart-stopping conflict.
I have no idea why we find this so entertaining. But we do.
So, give us conflict. Plenty of it. As the story progresses, stack those conflicts higher and higher. Raise the stakes until we just can’t stand it anymore. Then raise them further.
Make peace with the fact that your character is going to suffer. You can still make it all well in the end (or not, according to your pleasure). And you will want to give your character (and your reader) breaks in the action; this is called pacing and is a whole other topic. But in general, put your character through a challenge that’s worth telling.
If I came up to you and said, “When I went to check out at the grocery store, there was a huge line with at least ten people in it. I couldn’t believe I’d have to wait so long. But two other lines opened up and I got out quickly.”
You’d be like, “Uh, okay.”
Who cares? So what? Why did you just waste my time with that pointless story?
A story without meaning and consequence is boring in five minutes. Imagine it in 10 hours, which is how long it takes to read the average novel.
Don’t send in the clerks to rescue your character so quickly. We want to see your character struggle against the challenges that arise. The more difficult things get, the more your character has to work to make things right, the more satisfying it will be for us in the end.
And that’s exactly what you want at the end of your novel. Happy readers.
So, give us a character we care about, take us on a ride full of twists and turns and surprises, make sure we know what your story is about, and make it a story that matters.
Donna Cook is a book editor and the author of Gift of the Phoenix¸ an award-winning fantasy adventure that has reviewers drawing comparisons to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. She’s an Arizona native who moved to Idaho in 2011. Though she adores Boise, she also looks forward to summer trips in the hot Arizonan sun to bring out her inner lizard. Like any self-respecting woman, she’s addicted to chocolate, but tries to get in enough dancing to make up for it. You can visit her blog at donnacookauthor.com, follow her on Twitter, like her on Facebook, or ship chocolate to her home any time.