Monday, April 19, 2010

Propelling the Plot

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I'm in a bit of a slump today as my planned trip to London this evening has been thwarted by a volcano in Iceland (one which, BTW, my husband and I saw on our trip to Iceland a few years ago - though it was dormant at the time). I don't react well to disappointment (a trait which I need to overcome as a professional writer!), but I can hardly complain given how many people are stranded far from home. Still, I'm mourning the fact that I won't be able to spend time with my folks over a pint, a bag of crisps and a pork pie..:(

Instead, I get to work through some plot changes to my current WIP based on the terrific insight of my agent (who always seems to know exactly what is wrong with my drafts). Now plot is not one of my strong points...that's not to say nothing happens in my books (I don't suffer from that particular literary pretension), it's just that I often fail to ensure that my characters propel the plot forward. Despite being an outliner, sometimes I allow my characters to get swept up in the events that envelop them, reacting to the situation rather than creating and shaping the story themselves.

So how do I approach fixing this? After I have gone through the initial phase of despondency, hair-pulling and chocolate binging I approach the issue systematically (with my usual dose of neurosis).

These are the steps I plan to take this week to address my latest case of 'plot deficiency disorder'.

  • First, revisit the fundamentals. What are the motivations of all the key players? How do these and their desired objectives conflict? I then ask myself - how can I up the stakes in order to heighten this conflict and thwart those objectives? Given that most of my issues arise in the dreaded 'sagging middle' these questions help me focus on what needs to be accomplished.

  • This step enables me to start brainstorming plot ideas and situations that can heighten these stakes and which ensure the characters drive the action forward. In this second step I try to remain wide open to all options and constantly ask myself 'what if?'...leaving open almost all possibilities (except those that are inconsistent with the characters I have created).

  • Up until this point I make absolutely no edits to the manuscript - because usually (and this is the case at the moment) the bones of the story are solid and the characters are well developed. I usually start and end a book strongly (small comfort) but the last thing I want to do is start tinkering with the middle until I know exactly what I'm going to do. This is a delicate time as I have to ensure that any plot alterations do not destroy what is currently working well in the story.

  • Before I start editing I draw up a detailed plot map of the revised story and check that the new course of action is true to the characters motivation and that the stakes, now heightened, haven't become ludicrous or comical...

  • Then and only then do I start rewriting...hoping, of course, that the new plot permutations propel my story to a successful denouement!
So how do you approach plot issues? What steps do you take to remedy a 'sagging plot'? (All and any tips greatly appreciated as I have a long week of thinking ahead of me!)

I also strongly recommend reading the book Plot & Structure by my fellow blogger, James Scott Bell - it has some great advice which I only wish I followed more often!


  1. Clare, first of all, thank you for the kind words about Plot & Structure. You made my day!

    As to the steps you have laid out here, I think they're terrific. Start with those fundamentals. Motivations and stakes and possibilities for conflict. Ramp them all up.

    I usually "step back" at about the 20,000 word mark and review those basics. Things are easier to fix at that point, and I can see enough of the story to help me figure out what nees to be fixed. I shore up the foundations then press on and finish the book.

  2. Sorry your trip got waylaid by the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano (Hope I spelled that right--US media have mostly given up trying to call it by name, much less spell it!)

    I am a constant rewriter. My main problem is usually that I get so bogged down rewriting what I've already done that I fall behind schedule. The one time I didn't do that, and left it all to the end, I had problems because there was so much to do. I don't usually rewrite the plot. It's mostly transitions, language flow, "layering in" levels of prose.

  3. Your welcome James - I just wish I got it right the first time - but onwards and upwards with the rewrites for me...though my flight still hasn't officially been cancelled yet so I have that slim (0.00001%) hope of mulling over my plot in London. I should really just give that fantasy up!

  4. Clare,
    I'm still hoping you get to fly, never give up hope. I love England even though I haven't been there for a very long time. I too am a devoted reader of JSB's books. I frequently go back and read page 134 about treating each section as a mini-plot and that helps me expand the middle. You've far more experience than me but that's my two cents.:) Blessings!

  5. I am in the midst of a plot sag right now too. The beginning starts well, the end is very powerful, but at some point in the middle all of my characters start mumbling and getting bored. I think it's time take a step back and do what you're talking about here. That, and I should probably get a copy of Jim's book. Maybe the wisdom will soak in.

  6. I recommend Jim's book - as I said I only wish I was better at paying attention before I have rewrite! Anyway now at least it's London for me:( Now I need to get over the moping and get down to the business of replotting!

  7. This is the third time today someone recommended Bell's Plot and Structure in their blog post. I think I should probably heed everyone's advice!

    Great post, btw. I'm taking another look at my draft now based on your questions!