Our Writing a Novel students have been tackling the subject of Plot vs Story this week, getting to grips with the selection and ordering of events within their novel and how best both can serve them. It’s something we’ve been talking about in the office too, especially as I started a new project for NaNoWriMo this month, which then fell down at the 20,000 word mark – not-so-coincidentally the point at which my outline also ended. I’ve experimented a lot with plotting and planning over the past few years, trying to figure out what works best for me (too detailed an outline and I lose interest; not enough of one and clearly I falter at the first hurdle).
But whether you’re a planner or a pantser, there are all kinds of ways in which your plot can go off the rails when you’re working on a first draft. Here are five of the most common.
You’re lacking connection
Plot is all about causality – it’s the why to your story’s who, what, when and where. How does this scene you’re showing us affect what comes next – and how was it related to what came before? These moments of connection, the feeling of pieces falling into place, are the driving force of a novel. So if everything happening in yours feels too disparate, too random, it can end up being boring for a reader, giving them no sense of something to follow.
This doesn’t mean every novel must consist of a chain of tightly connected, dramatic events – twist followed by bomb disposal followed by marriage proposal and another twist for good measure. Yes, action often leads plot, but change occurring in a smaller, more internal sense is just as valid an engine in a more character-led novel. Having said that, even in a novel where not much is externally happening, you still need to be thinking of the why. Why is this happening to these characters at this moment – and why is important for us to see?
You’ve got it all going on
At the other end of the scale, it’s easy to overcrowd your plot; to load it up with scenes and moments and key events to interest your reader. While this can have a propulsive effect, it can quickly become overwhelming. Giving us too many potential paths and connections, too many ways in which the novel could branch off (Why is that character doing that? Is this significant? What happened back in 1964 and why does that character keep mentioning it? Whose hat is that?) is confusing – instead of having no sense of something to follow, we start to wonder which thread we’re supposed to be most engaged with.
Try going back to the drawing board – this could be a whiteboard and markers, or a roll of wallpaper and post-it notes, or (my new personal favourite) a good old Excel spreadsheet. Write down each of the key plot points in the novel, colour-coding them so you can see whether it’s to do with the main storyline or a sub-plot. You can further colour-code to show whether it’s a turning point – something dramatically important – or a quieter moment (and if you’ve got multiple narrators or viewpoints, chuck in a marker for those too). Looking at the beats in the bare bones of your structure like that, do they seem well-balanced? Or do they cluster together? Do any of them seem repetitive or unnecessary when viewed with the rest?
Where you’ve ended up doesn’t fit with where you started out
No matter how meticulous a planner you are, novels have a way of surprising you as you write. The better you get to know your characters, the keener the sense you have of how they would react in certain situations, and that alone can change the plot you thought you had all nailed down. And if you set off without any of that in the first place, well, all the more mysterious the journey and its destination.
The thing is, often the end of a story is what must inform its beginning. The two need to feel linked, as if the place we leave our characters was in some way inevitable from the moment we met them. And sometimes (most of the time!) as a writer it’s not possible to have that until you’ve walked the story the whole way through for the first (even, let’s be honest, the third) time. It’s only then that you can really look back and see where pieces need to be moved or added to pull the picture into place. If you’re halfway through and already feeling like you’ve drifted off course, don’t panic. Make notes if you can see where things might need to change in what you’ve already written, but don’t feel like you have to go back and start unpicking it all immediately (though of course it’s also fine to do that if that’s how you work best). Sometimes you need to get it all on the page before you can truly see where the plot lies. FYI, I’m pretty sure Eliot was confirming his pantser status when he came up with that whole thing about the end being where we start from.
It’s all a matter of time
Sometimes the pieces are all technically in the right place – it’s the gaps between them that are causing the problem. Setting those key beats too far apart can see you lose momentum, but not having enough quiet space in between can mean you don’t allow yourself room for the characters to develop and breathe before the plot carries them on.
Choosing the time frame covered by your novel is not a simple matter of saying ‘It starts on this date and ends on this one’ but also of deciding how much of that you want to set down on the page. Will you be relating events in as close to real time as you can, letting us live every moment (brave, but it can work!)? Or are we joining our characters at certain important days or weeks within a longer time period, perhaps even to the extent that that spacing and placement of those moments informs the novel’s structure (as in One Day or The Time Traveller’s Wife)? If you’re struggling to see why your plot is lagging or bunching up, think carefully about the time period you’ve chosen – was there a specific reason you wanted to set it over the course of an hour or a week or a summer or a decade? Do you still need to? And would there be anything to gain from switching up the chronology – would that exciting event that happens near the end actually make a brilliant prologue?
The plot itself is all good – but it needs a better agent
Even if you feel you’ve got the unfolding of your story exactly right – things in the right order, the pieces balanced and leading logically to one another – your plot might still feel lacking. In that case, it could be worth considering going back and looking at the way in which you’re setting out this story – might it be better told with two narrators, two different chains of events (or the same chain divided between them to show us conflicting versions)? Or is there another time strand to include which might shed light on or recast your current plot in a different and more interesting way? Sometimes shifting perspective rather than rearranging the elements of your story itself can pull things more tightly into place, or open up a path between your beginning and end that you hadn’t realised was there. And somehow, those always seem to turn out to be the perfect ones.