Tag Archives: Plot

The derailed plot #amwriting

You’re a pantser, not a plotter–you like to wing it when you write, just let the ideas flow freely. This can be liberating, but sometimes in the course of writing the first draft, we realize our manuscript has gone way off track and is no longer fun to write.

At this point, we must go back and find the point where the story stops working. We cut everything back to there and make an outline to build some structure into the manuscript.

Let’s say we are working on a manuscript titled “Dog Days of Summer.” We wrote most of it during November and are sixty thousand words in, but we aren’t even a third of the way to the finish. When we look back, the first twenty thousand words are exactly what we wanted the story to be. But at that point we became a little desperate to get our daily word count, and now we don’t know what to do or how to bring the story to its intended conclusion.

When this happens to me, I stop floundering and (literally) cut my losses. It needs to be cut back to the place where it dissolved into chaos. This is good – it’s called rewriting. Nearly every published novel has entire sections that had to be rewritten at least once before it got to the editing stage.

Much of what you cut out can be recycled, reshaped, and reused, so never just delete weeks of work.

  1. Save everything you cut to a new document, labeled, and dated: “OutTakes_DDoS_rewrite1_09-19-2018.” (Out Takes, Dog Days of Summer, rewrite 1, 09-19-2018)

Now, you must consider what will be the most logical way to get the plot back on track.

Sit down with a notebook (or in my case a spreadsheet) and make a list of what events must happen between the place where the plot was derailed and the end—a list of chapters with each the keywords for each scene noted:

15 Aeddie sick – Mendric can’t repair his heart-take him to Hemsteck 
16 Three days into the journey Elgar and Raj battle Thunder lizard
17 Star stone falls outside Waterston
18 Aeddie sick, nearly dies, Mendric nearly burns out gift keeping him alive
19 South of Kyran, water wraith
20 North of Kyran, mob attack
21 Nola – inn
22 Maldon, highwaymen, and William

You can go even farther and color code your scenes to show who the POV characters are, as was noted in my previous post, Author Simon Wood on Plotting.

What is the core conflict? Make a large note to remind yourself of what the central conflict is so that you won’t go off track again.

Pay close attention to the story arc. Make a “blueprint” of the intended story arc, an outline.

  1. Where does the inciting incident occur?
  2. Where does the first pinch point occur?
  3. What is happening at the midpoint? Are the events of the middle section fraught with uncertainty but still moving the protagonist toward their goal? If not, cut them and insert events that propel the story forward.
  4. Where does the third plot point occur?

What does each character desire? List each character and make a note of what they want at the beginning, what stands in their way at the middle, and what they get at the end.

  1. At the outset, what do the characters want?
  2. What are they willing to sacrifice to get it?
  3. How are their attempts to achieve it frustrated?
  4. Do they get it in the end, or do their desires evolve away from that goal as the story progresses?

Everything you write from the point of the inciting incident to the last page will detail that quest for the unobtainable something. At the outset, your protagonist must desire nothing more than to achieve that objective. Use whatever you can of the material you cut, and write new prose where you must.

By the end of the book, the internal growth of the characters may have caused them to change their personal goals, but something big and important must be achieved in the final chapters.

Where are they going? If they are traveling in a created world, draw a simple map for your own reference. Otherwise, use an atlas or Google Earth to keep your story on track.

Don’t be afraid to rewrite what isn’t working. Save everything you cut, because I guarantee you will want to reuse some of that prose later, at a place where it makes more sense. Not having to reinvent those useful sections will greatly speed things up, which is why I urge you to save them with a file name that clearly labels them.

Finally, don’t feel that, just because you wrote a wonderful section, it has to stay in the manuscript. If the story is stronger without that great scene, cut it. Use it as fodder for a short story or novella set in that world.

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Reblog: A Question of Quests, by Stephen Swartz #amwriting

My good friend, Stephen Swartz had an excellent blogpost on Sunday. (He usually does, but don’t tell him I said so.) Anyway, since I accidentally hit “publish” instead of “schedule,” thereby posting today’s post yesterday (DOH!) I offer for your reading pleasure:

A Question of Quests

by Stephen Swartz.

 >>>—<<<

swartz_efwd1_frontcvr6x9_bw_670_cs-3_thbA little more than a year ago, I set out on a quest, pushed by fellow writers who encouraged me to try my hand at writing an epic fantasy. Well, good folks, I did that. I typed every day of the year with a story firmly in mind. On good days in the summer I wrote for a full eight hours. I actually wrote a novel following a hero’s quest. Then I wrote a novella about a little princess in another part of the realm. Then I merged the two stories. The result is a 235,000 word tale of daring-do chocked full of all the epic wisdom I could stuff into it–which, I am learning, may be relevant in our heated political season.*

stephen-swartzBy “quest” I mean a journey of some kinda hero’s journey, in Joseph Campbell parlance. However, in writing an epic fantasy, a quest could be a hero going in search of something of value, or a hero simply trying to travel home from far away, perhaps from a place of tribulation. A quest could mean a bubbly travelogue, much like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Or, a quest could be a hero going to a particular place where he intends to do something important. This last option is the pattern I adopted for my epic fantasy. (e.g., A man with a plan, out getting a tan, and learning to pan the jokes of his sidekick Tam.) My model for a quest was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, although I bent over backwards to avoid borrowing anything from it. Likewise, I started reading George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, but I deliberately avoided any dragon references which my readers might tease were similar to Martin’s use of dragons.

Then, much to my chagrin, I discovered a problem. A fatal flaw. An underlying faux pas. A fundamental error. So…what to do with a 235,000-word tale of rousing adventure that falls short of being an epic fantasy? Maybe call it epic sci-fi? That just might be crazy enough to work! You see, there are some rules….


For the rest of the story, continue on to A Question of Quests, Deconstruction of the Sekuatean Empire.

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#amwriting: the struggle is the story

A point that was raised on another blog I follow is something many authors struggle with: devising the complicating events that raise levels of risk for the protagonist, and also for the antagonist. A compelling story evolves when the antagonist is strong, but not omnipotent. The protagonist must also be stronger than she thought she was, but still not omnipotent.

Small hindrances must occur between the larger events, frustrating the journey. These things delay the protagonist, and sometimes send them down the wrong path, but as each is overcome the reader feels a small sense of satisfaction. Following the protagonist as he/she is negotiating these detours is what makes the story captivating, in my opinion.

If you have a story of any length, short or long, you can’t have people sitting around idly chit-chatting. Conversations must have a purpose, and be designed to advance the plot. Information emerges that the protagonist (or antagonist) must know. The reader discovers this at the same time as the characters.

Better You Go Home Scott DriscollIn the literary novel Better You Go Home by Scott Driscoll, Chico Lenoch, a Seattle attorney, is desperately ill and needs a family member to donate a kidney. None of his family members here locally are suitable donors. He has always wondered about his family in the Czech Republic, which his father won’t discuss, and has recently discovered he has a half-sister still living there. He journeys there to find his sister, and in the process, he unearths the secrets his father and mother left behind. As each terrible secret is revealed, hindrances arise. Danger, political fallout, personal vendettas, and a growing concern for his sister conspire with Chico’s failing health to keep him from achieving his goal.

If the path had been easy, Chico’s story would have been an exploration of a man with a problem, but not real exciting. Because of the roadblocks, it’s a taut thriller, and his journey comes to an unexpected and electrifying conclusion.

TA patch of Dry Skin, Stephen Swartzhis notion of making the path difficult is explored well in  Stephen Swartz’s literary fantasy, A Dry Patch of Skin. The story opens in Croatia but moves to Oklahoma. This tale is a fantasy in the sense it’s an exploration of vampirism, but is literary and gripping in its plausibility. Two of my favorite lines of all time are in the opening chapters of this novel:

Mirrors are such odd devices, and whoever invented them should have been killed. They purport to show us the true state of affairs and yet everything is distorted.

The protagonist, a man of Hungarian descent, named Stefan Székely, has a disturbing genetic skin condition and embarks on a quest to find a cure, desperate to somehow salvage his relationship with Penny. He has a job as a phlebotomist, which allows him to conceal his ailment, but eventually he is unable to hide it. Many roadblocks arise, interfering with Stefan’s success, forcing him to seek a cure in Budapest, but even that trip is fraught with frustrations. Because of those hindrances, the tension builds toward the end, making for a gripping read. The novel ends in an unexpected fashion and is one that stayed with me for a long time after.

Both these novels detail a seemingly ordinary thing—a person dealing with a life-threatening illness, both seeking a cure that seems like it should be easy but which becomes virtually impossible. In both novels, the roadblocks and detours along the journey create compelling narratives I found impossible to put down.

e.m. forster plot memeBoth are set in a contemporary setting, and both have surprising endings that could only have been arrived at because of the roadblocks and hindrances placed in the paths of the protagonists.

This is why we can’t make it easy for our characters. The struggle is the story.

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