Dear Story Nurse,
You mentioned in #22, Passion Projects and Practice Projects, that you felt plotting was one of your weak points. I wondered if you had any anecdotes on how you work to overcome this and any advice for the bare bones of creating a plot that keeps moving?
I’ve been told that my writing is best when it focuses on characters and my most successful stories have been tight 1,000 word flash fiction competitions with a time limit of a weekend. I seem to be able to craft memorable moments and interactions pretty solidly. When it comes to working on bigger projects I tend to get stuck because I don’t know how to turn a solid character-based idea or series of moments into a plot that moves along.
It’s not that I don’t have ideas for plots, and I have two longer stories I’ve stalled at. One is a horror story at maybe 4,000 words that is effectively a possession story, but with a past life rather than a demon. The second is a novella or novel length story with an English-village-comedy genre about a flower seller who gets an unusual side job that lands her in trouble.
They have a goal and end point and characters that have good voices and interactions. They have (I hope) decent enough concepts and opening paragraphs to hook in a reader for the ride, but it’s how to add in the turns and beats you need with the plot that trips me up every time until my anxiety makes me freeze up.
In the past I’ve tried the Stephen King approach of ambling without much direction until a plot happens, which didn’t help. When it comes to the opposite approach of plotting in detail I often feel lost as how to begin but for “Start. Middle. End. Some sort of drama somewhere.”
Any advice is much appreciated!
All the best,
This is a great question and one that a lot of people struggle with (definitely including me!). You ask for the bones of plot, but it sounds like you already have those: start, middle, end, some drama. What you need are the muscles and tendons of plot, the pull and thrust and tension that turns a skeleton into something that moves and breathes.
Momentum is a physics concept that basically means “how fast you go is a matter of the difference between what’s pushing you forward and what’s pushing you back.” For example, if I give one of my baby’s toy cars a push to send it rolling across the floor, that initial push is gradually countered by the pull of gravity and the friction of the floor until the toy loses all its momentum and comes to rest. (If it runs up against a wall, it will come to rest a lot faster or might even roll back at me.) A lot of people who have difficulty plotting tend to have good ideas about how to give the story a push—that hook of an opening paragraph, that tasty concept—but a single initial nudge is not enough to keep it going for very long. The plot of a longer work is more like a real car with an engine that provides frequent, ongoing acceleration.
To ditch the metaphors, what you’re pushing forward in your story is not actually the story itself but the reader’s attention, belief, and enjoyment, and what’s pushing back is the reader’s susceptibility to distraction, skepticism, or distress.
There’s a nice short list of things that get readers interested and keep them engaged:
- Novelty and surprise. This is often what gets readers to pick up a book in the first place. Excitement about a new concept, setting, or character can keep a reader interested through a good few chapters. An unexpected plot twist serves the same purpose later in the book.
- Familiarity and reassurance. Stuart Woods just published his 40th Stone Barrington thriller; no one picks it up expecting it to be particularly different from the last 39, but it’s still on the bestseller list. Comfort reads can be very appealing. Readers also like books that reassure them and confirm their beliefs and expectations.
- Questions. Wanting to know something—who did the dirty deed, how the adventurers will escape their peril, when the naive hero will learn the terrible truth, what form the villain’s well-deserved comeuppance will take, whether the lovers will overcome the obstacles to their happy ending—is what makes readers pick up a book they’ve put down, or stay with a book when they have other things they really ought to be doing. Crucially, any motivating question must have multiple plausible answers (as discussed in #23, Constructing a Satisfying Mystery) to keep the reader hooked.
Novelty and familiarity work together to push the reader through the book. Questions pull the reader through the book.
The tension between novelty and familiarity, or between surprise and reassurance, is what Trey Parker and Matt Stone get at in their famous talk on linking scenes with but and therefore. “The protagonist of my urban fantasy novel is a werewolf” is pretty familiar territory for a lot of readers. “BUT she’s a deep-sea diver” is surprising and intriguing. “THEREFORE she owns her own dive shop because she doesn’t want her secret to get out” brings the reader back to what they expect from an urban fantasy novel about a werewolf: some degree of secrecy from the human world. “BUT the reason she hides her werewolf nature is that the selkie mafia has a monopoly on the diving industry” upends things again. Every transition from familiarity to novelty and back again re-engages the reader and creates questions that keep those pages turning. But and therefore are the tendons and muscles of your story, or the pistons in your engine. You don’t need to strictly alternate them—the next beat could be “BUT she starts dating a mob boss’s daughter, who helps her pose as a selkie”—but it’s important not to lean on one or the other too much. Too much surprise is exhausting; too much familiarity is boring. Keep that rhythm going.
Another thing Parker and Stone touch on is every scene needing to work as its own little story. So if you’re stressing about how to keep your momentum through an entire long work, think smaller. Just get your characters through this one chapter or scene in some way that has a but and a therefore and leaves the reader with a question, unless you’re at the end of the story and it’s question-resolving time.
Leaving the reader with a question is my biggest challenge as a writer; I would always rather give answers. (This is why it’s easier for me to write advice columns than fiction.) In my novel-in-progress Valour Advances the Man, I managed it through the simplest expedient possible: having a third party interrupt a conversation at a crucial moment. The run-up to this quote can be summarized as “Our publishing company is nearly broke, and therefore we need to publish and sell more books, but our customers are flocking elsewhere, tastes are changing, and we’re losing the rights to publish the books we have.”
“If we’re not to continue selling the books we have to the customers we have—and I acknowledge that both books and customers leave much to be desired—where do you propose to find new patrons, and what do you propose to sell them?”
The bell on the door jangled, startling them both.
This is pretty crude, but it serves its purpose. I had originally ended Nathaniel and Eliza’s conversation scene by having Eliza answer Nathaniel’s question with her workable but risky business plan, which then left the scene feeling too complete and gave the reader no reason to continue on. Leaving the question hanging while adding the novelty of an exciting new character keeps the reader not only going through the introduction scene but reading on toward the later sections of the book where Eliza and Nathaniel argue over risk vs. reward (who will win?), settle on a plan (can they pull it off?), attempt to enact it (did it succeed?), and so on.
To be clear, as a writer I find this absolutely agonizing. I want to resolve all the tension! It is so tense! It will be hanging over me for months or years as I write the book! I can’t handle it! But the reader won’t take months or years to read the book, so from their perspective it’s quite bearable.
You can also use the but+therefore+question formula when introducing a new character or adding some deeper element of characterization, to ensure that they do their part in keeping the story moving. In the case of Algernon, the fellow opening the door to the shop, he’s rich and loves books and therefore could help bring more rich customers to the shop but he’s kind of a flake and class barriers are difficult to cross; what happens if they ask him for help?
When setting up obstacles (the but part of the formula), it’s important to make sure that your characters are sufficiently motivated and empowered to overcome them. For example, if Algernon were the Prince of Wales, Nathaniel and Eliza wouldn’t dare to approach him and personally ask him to become the store’s patron. But he’s only a baronet’s son, and therefore the class gulf, though still certainly present, is crossable. He’s also extremely good-looking, giving Nathaniel additional personal reasons to want to talk to him again. But Nathaniel’s absolutely certain that there’s no way a cross-class romance between two men could ever work, and therefore he sits around stressing instead of going out and pursuing this opportunity, and therefore the reader no longer cares about the story or believes that it can go anywhere interesting and goes off to play Diablo 3.
Wait, hm. That’s not how that’s supposed to go. Somewhere the narrative became unbalanced; the but got too big and the therefore got too small and the question had only one possible answer. The reader’s distraction and skepticism kicked in and the momentum was lost.
Fortunately, the situation can be fixed. It’s hard to make that particular obstacle smaller, so the characters need to become more capable of surmounting it. Let’s have Algernon directly and rather aggressively flirt with Nathaniel. That both makes him more approachable and gives Nathaniel more motivation to flirt back. Also, let’s make Nathaniel more of a fret-then-take-action person than a despair-then-do-nothing person. And when Algernon buys some books from them, Eliza tells Algernon that Nathaniel will deliver the package to Algernon’s house. Now it’s easier for the reader to keep believing in their continued interaction and stay interested in finding out what happens next.
Maintaining the reader’s enjoyment is a little trickier because enjoyment and distress are so personal. For an obvious example, some people aren’t put off by graphic scenes of violence, or even find them enjoyable. Others find them so distressing that they can’t continue reading the book—the equivalent of the toy car running into a wall. So before you start writing, build a good sense of who your audience is, and throughout the writing process, check in occasionally to make sure you’re not including anything that’s likely to lead to book-abandoning distress in that audience. When the book’s done, do your best to promote it to the people who are most inclined to enjoy it. External elements such as cover art, genre and reading age labels, and trigger warnings can all be useful in this regard.
Most crucially, as you’re writing, check in with yourself as a reader. If you catch yourself losing attention, belief, or enjoyment—all things that are often described as “getting stuck” or “hitting a wall” in the writing process—go back to the last place you had them and try taking the book in a different direction from that point. If you’re bored or distracted, the story may need more novelty, or questions that have more than one plausible answer. If you’re skeptical, it may need more familiarity. (These aren’t the only possibilities, of course; it might also need less repetitive prose, more well-rounded characters, etc. But distinguishing plot problems from other craft problems is outside the scope of this piece.) If you’re distressed by how the story is going—as distinct from being distressed by the writing process!—identify and remove the triggering element.
There’s so much more to say about plot, but I’m past the 2000-word mark already, so therefore I will stop and hope I have answered your question. Happy plotting!