Here are the typical things I encounter when I review novels, plot-wise.
story starts on page 10. Or 15. or 20.
- this is when I read the first chapter and go – well, that was a great study on character. Now where’s the story? Does your character write a diary entry on page one that’s all about a party she attended that has nothing to do with the real plot (a bank robbery) in the next entry? Are you slow to warm up that story-engine? Maybe there’s a hint of plot in the beginning but by the end of your opener, the reader still has no clear idea what sort of ride she’s going to take.
- Solution: establish both plot and character in your opening pages. Work them in at the same time. Second, setting expectations properly is vital to ensuring your book “gels” as a whole. Your opening scenes or chapters should set the tone and course of events for the story. If you start at point A in Chapter One, and end up at another point A in Chapter Two, your reader will wonder – um…where is this story going? Your goal should be to start at Point A. Move to Point B. C. And so on. If you feel like you have two point As, OR NO POINT AT ALL in Chapter One, perhaps your opening was only a warm-up for you (the writer), not the reader. If your story starts late, feel free to eliminate opening chapters and rework your “new” beginning. Your end goal is this: your reader should have a great sense of your character, the plot, and where the story might go from your opening pages.
- Note: please do not mistake this as saying you should give your plot away at the start of the book. I only ask you to BEGIN your plot in the opening pages of your book. Set the tone for the story so the reader knows what sort of journey they will be taking when they read your book.
cuh-razy openings (i.e., trying too hard)
- This is when something really tragic or fast-paced happens at the beginning of your book (as if to hook me in), but I have no idea why I should even care about your characters. This is a reversal of the slow-start. Where instead of a character exposition as an opener, I get a plot one.
- Solution: Again, character and plot should work together. Your characters provide the “why I should care” part of your story. Your plot tells me “what’s happening to the characters I care about.” If you immerse me in plot with little information about your characters, I say “so what?”. Should I be freaked someone has a knife to Billy’s throat? Do I care Joan is being chased by pit bulls? Instead, show me a little bit about your characters before you throw them into a high-action opening. A paragraph about Joan wishing the neighbor’s pitbulls won’t chase her today before she heads to school could be enough for me to understand who Joan is (maybe her voice is funny or exceedingly shy.) Maybe she lets me know: show-and-tell is today and she’s brought her mom’s outrageous yearbook. She can practically see the “oohs” and “ahhs” from her classmates as they ponder Momma’s icky hairdo. Maybe now Joan will be cool like Mary Tenuta – Mary who had brought in old photos of her Daddy’s horses. Bad Hair is way more interesting than mangy horses! (Terrible example, but you get the idea.) Now I might care when pit bulls are chasing Joan down and oh my, one of them is about to shred Mom’s yearbook!
- So be mindful of high-action scenes where the reader is only seeing plot and very little character. Don’t ask me to care if I don’t know who your characters are.
Miss Snark’s “aliens have landed in Chapter 14”
- This is when the story is moving along fine and then aliens land in Chapter 14. I credit Miss Snark for this little analogy. It seems some authors might have difficulty navigating the middle. They know the beginning and the end. But “stuff” has to happen in the middle to pass the time. Often that “stuff” doesn’t fit the book.
- Solution: did you get the sense you had to make something up to keep the middle exciting? Does the plot sort of wonder into “no man’s land”? Did you write yourself into a hole and now you can only get out if aliens show up and whisk your character to a new planet? Seriously reconsider events which end up in the zone of soap-opera land or wander too far from the driving plot. This might help identify trouble spots: summarize in one or two sentences what happens in each chapter. It’ll be easier to spot the aliens when you only have a page or two to work with. Write aliens out of your book and try to create more realistic events to get from point A to point B to point C.
- This is when the same thing happens over and over again. Just like characters can have redundant thoughts, plots can have redundant events.
- Solution: Identify the purpose of each scene in your book. Was this purpose identical to another scene before it? If so, can you get rid of one? Or modify the redundant scene so something else is gained from that scene? For example, if you have a friendship building between two characters – are you deepening their relationship with each new scene between the two? Or are their interactions with each other identical? If they’re similar, the reader won’t see a relationship deepening. They’ll see two people running into each other again–so what? Always give the reader something slightly new to work with. Progress the story; don’t rehash it.
- This is when nothing happens. It could be a long section of scenery description. Or a digression on the fashionability of people’s clothing.
- Solution: Look for spots where you’ve wandered off the mark. When you look at each page, ask yourself how relevant is the “essay” to your story? Cut. Cut. Cut. Or condense. Your pace stalls if nothing is going on. Which leads me to…
too much is going on
- This is when the author tries to solve world peace AND get the girl to the prom in time ALL IN ONE BOOK. There seems to be a belief out there a lot has to “happen” in your book for it to be interesting.
- Solution: my answer to this is it really depends on the kind of book you’re writing. If your book is character-driven, you don’t need to tackle THAT many events to make a story. Take Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret as an example. Was there a crime scene or a high-speed chase in this book? Did she make headlines in fifty different newspapers in the country? Did her mother die? Did anyone get into a serious car accident? No. Nothing really happens in this book except normal everyday stuff for this girl. You don’t have to take a book very far event-wise to make a good story. However, if your book is a suspense-thriller/action-adventure/murder-mystery, then stuff should happen in your book. People expect it. I have to say I haven’t read that many action-adventures for free-tiques. But it seems like I’m seeing a lot of action-adventure events in books where they don’t belong. Hmmm…a bit fishy. If your book isn’t high-action, it’s okay to go for the normal-stuff and make those everyday events interesting. I give you permission to give yourself that freedom. 🙂
separate threads, separate stories
- What’s a thread? A strand or thread could represent a relationship you are focusing on in your book. For example, the MC and her irritating friend. The MC and her love interest. The MC and a track competition she is trying to win. The threads carry the different parts of the story along. Independent threads mean the strands never come together to tell the story. The result? The book reads like two or three individual stories, not one.
- Solution: Identify your threads. Determine if these threads should twine together to make your story tighter. Some books are intentionally written such that the threads never come together. That’s fine. But if the threads should twine because in real-life they would, make sure they twine! Would the MC’s best friend know about the hot boy the MC is in love with? Would the MC and hot boy have the track competition as a common interest or not? Ask yourself: A) Would this make your story tighter? and B) Would this make your story realistic? It’s often too easy to keep threads separate because writing separate stories is simpler than combining the tiny stories together. Why? Combining threads requires you to mix the character and events together. Now you’ve got a huge balancing act on your hands. You have to know how to mix it all up (really know your characters) and have everything make sense. To me, the best stories wind the threads together. Some tightly, some loosely. But all of the threads are somehow related to form the “big story.” I, as a reader, loved to get tangled up in it all. If you need a visual: think of your plot as a Pull N’ Peel Twizzler (I love cherry!). Multiple strands come together to form one delectable treat.
broken threads, broken stories
- This is when the track competition is the center of focus in Chapter One and then the track meet is only brought forward again at the end when the MC needs to win it. Or Hot Boy only shows up in Chapter 2 and 29. Read related post, revision 9-1-1 for novels: characters.
- Solution: Watch the progression of your threads. Identify when the thread is addressed. Which chapters or pages. Is there a big gap? Can the events which address the thread be spaced out a little better? Do you need new scenes to bring the thread back into the picture? Do you just need to get rid of the thread altogether? Note: whatever you do, also examine each thread for “progression”. Something new or deeper should be offered as you develop a thread from start to end.
- This is when the story goes here, goes there. And it’s probably clear to the author, too, he has no idea where the story is supposed to go. The story is an idea at this point. Not a book.
- Solution: Try an outline. Even if you don’t finish the dang outline, sketching out a beginning may help you get on the right track. I highly advocate outlines for novels. THere’s just so much to juggle when writing a 150+ page book. A good outline keeps you focused and can help you see plot and character flaws even before you start writing. Saves time. Saves energy. Saves frustration. Of course, not everyone can force themselves to do this or do it well. But if you can, go for it. You’ll be glad you did.
- Let’s face it: there are only so many things you can write about if your book is based on realistic events. Even in fantasy, there are only so many unique things you can come up with that no one has ever written about before. Here’s some common things I’ve seen:
- MC wants hot boy; hot boy turns out to be bad for her
- MC believes best friend is best friend; best friend turns out to be bad friend
- MC moves to a new town; he’s the new kid on the block and must find his/her place in the world
- There are many more. But does this mean you shouldn’t write these ideas into your story? No. So what should you do?
- Solution: find a unique way to write about these familiar things. The one thing every writer has going for her is that humans are individuals (as are animals, dragons, whatever). No two individuals are alike. Every reader wants to believe your characters are unique and that they deal with issues in their own special way. It is your job to deliver that. If you have a familiar situation in your book, you better make dang-sure your characters live and breathe on that page and deal with the situation in a way only those characters could. Also, you can further differentiate your story by finding a way to twist the expectation. Maybe the bad friend really isn’t bad after all. Maybe the hot boy IS GOOD for the MC. (if this is true, he really has to be a very down-to-earth character. Keep it real.) Apples to apples, you must fight the stereotypes and deliver a telling of the story that is unique.
what’s the big idea?
- Story-telling is not just about plot. Or character. These two elements should push and pull each other to move the story forward. Don’t ask me to care about your plot if I don’t care about your characters. Don’t ask me to care about your characters if nothing ever happens to them. Something “happening” also doesn’t mean you need to makes headlines or kill off someone. Everyday events count, too. (It’s your telling of everyday events that makes them interesting.) And remember, a novel is hard to write by the seat of your pants. Careful consideration should be taken when you examine your plot and the evolution of your threads. Look for continuity, progression, and ways to twine your threads if that would make your book more authentic or interesting. Outlines are great tools (written before or after the fact) to help pinpoint your trouble spots. Finally, deal with familiar plotlines by working hard on characterization and twisting the expectations if at all possible.
Read more articles in the Revision 9-1-1 series, http://www.cynthealiu.com/category/revision/.