Five reasons your plot might be stalling – and how to kick-start it again

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.

Darren O’Sullivan: The Three Steps of a First Draft

As an author who is lucky enough to do the odd panel, I get asked a lot of questions about how I got started. I completely understand why. Only four years ago I was a student at the Faber Academy, and Colette McBeth was answering the exact same question (in fact, I may have been the person to ask it). I was mesmerised by what she said, fascinated by her journey, and as I sat in the audience, listening to how she believed a first draft shouldn’t be perfect, I let myself dream of the day I would have my own story to tell.

Now I’m working on my sixth novel after being picked up by HQ two years ago.

The journey from then to now hasn’t been plain sailing: there have been a lot of rejections, tons of despair, and with my debut, Our Little Secret, I had to cut the best part of 70,000 words to rework it, even after an initial cull and rewrite. I literally have twice as many binned words as in the actual finished novel! It may sound pretty traumatic to have to throw away so much work, but in fact it’s been a blessing in disguise – and the most important learning curve for my writing process.

Now, when I begin a first draft, I go through three stages.

1: Ask What if?

Before I write a single word, I work on who the story is about and I get to know them. After a week or so, I have a good idea of who the character at the heart of the book is – but at that point I don’t think about the hook or the twist or even what’s going to happen (or what has happened) to them. Instead I ask, What if?  I throw situations at my characters; I drop them at the deep end of that situation and see how they react. A lot of the time the character begins to do things and say things I wouldn’t have considered.

This is, for me, one of the most important aspects of creating a story. Adding those immeasurably valuable two words to my thought process removed the crushing doubt and allowed me to have fun (well, as much fun as a person can have after cutting 70,000 words of course). In the What if lives endless possibility, unlimited creation, a universe of avenues to explore and new situations to develop. And it removed my super ego – because how can you be definitively right in a world with so much possibility?

And from that initial What if, I begin to write, building the scene and the world the character is in, until I hit a dead end. Then another What if usually kicks the story along. In my fourth book, Dark Corners, which is coming out in April 2020, I knew before I began to write that Neve Chambers had a secret she had been holding onto for over twenty years. But I didn’t know what it was. I knew she had moved away from where she grew up and lived in London, but I didn’t know why. I knew she had a challenging relationship with her father. But I didn’t know what had caused it. Then I asked the question. What if she had to go back to the village she fled when she was younger? What would happen? What if she hadn’t been back since the day she left, and what if the place she fled was so small, so wrapped up in its past, it hadn’t forgotten how she’d abandoned them in their time of need?

Once I had asked these questions, I wrote them down where I could see them, so I could reference them whenever I was building a scene.

2: Get it on the page

After the What if, the second part of my process is about getting the story down. I try to have an idea where I want to go, a few notes made in my journal, but it’s not essential. What is essential is to get it down on paper. I write breathlessly and my first drafts are scrappy. But that’s okay (thanks, Colette). Character motivations aren’t always clear, the plot will have holes everywhere. But at the start this doesn’t matter.

I aim to write the first draft in ten weeks. Some days I get to write from 9am until 3pm. Some days I have to write a bit in the morning, and then again once my little one is in bed for the night. But ten weeks is the target – it’s quite quick, I’m aware, but if you break that down, it’s just 1500 words a day, six days a week. All that matters is getting it down, getting it out of my head and asking the thousand What ifs along the way.

I lay out what I have on my office wall, using post-it notes to colour code the POV; plot points, as they are; and the questions I have yet to find the answer for. Then, the real work begins as I try to turn the messy, issue-riddled story into something a reader might enjoy. What I don’t do in this first draft process is get in my own way. I don’t stop when doubt tells me it’s shit. I don’t realise the plot is sticky and try to fix too soon. I focus on the only thing I can control at this point, which is the act of being at my laptop, putting down the words. Sure, a lot of the words won’t be the right ones but don’t they say, don’t get it right, just get it written?

3: Begin again, out loud

I often find it’s only once the first draft is done that I truly understand what I’m trying to say. For example, in my third book, Closer Than You Think, it wasn’t until I finished the first draft that I understood quite how close the killer was to the protagonist at all times. This detail wasn’t in my plan, and I didn’t know it was happening until the conclusion was wrapped up. Knowing this altered how I understood the story I was trying to tell, and consequently became a hugely powerful thread within the book.

So once the first draft is down, I begin again. I read the story out loud, a red pen in one hand, a green in the other. The red cuts the repetition and pointless words, the green is used to find the places where I can answer the questions I’ve posed for myself and add new details I can only see when I hear it spoken.

And once I’ve completed my three phases, I hand it in, to begin again with my What ifs once my editor has made their comments.

But there’s also the fourth – and most important – step.

4: Protect the love of writing

Writing a book, as we all know, is bloody hard. It’s a sometimes insurmountable summit and although I’ve condensed my process to a three step guide, there are dozens of side steps and backward steps. There is research and waking up in the middle of the night with ‘incredible’ ideas that turn out to make no sense once morning comes. There are sales figures and reviews and deadlines. It’s hard. But I make it a daily practice to remember my time before I was a published author, when I was sat at the Faber Academy, scribbling down every piece of information my tutor and other authors shared. I make it a daily practice to remember the reason I write. I didn’t want a six figure advance (in the beginning, I didn’t even know authors could get six figure advances!). All I wanted was to tell a story, finish it, and feel empowered to try and tell another. When no-one cared about my books, when I had no deadline, no reviews, no sales figures, I wrote because I loved it, and I protect that feeling every single day. And that, for me is the most important part of writing a book. I remind myself how much I adore writing. And that way, the 90,000 new words I need to produce in a new world I have dreamt up doesn’t seem so hard a mountain to climb.

 

Darren O’Sullivan is the author of three bestselling novels: Our Little Secret, Close Your Eyes and Closer Than You Think. His fourth novel, Dark Corners, will be published next April. He’s represented by the Madeleine Milburn Agency. Darren is a graduate of our Writing A Novel course.

You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, or visit his website

Applying for Writing A Novel? Here’s how to stand out from the crowd

As the end of the year approaches, we’re looking forward to January and the new term, when we’ll be welcoming the next set of students onto our six month Writing A Novel course. The course is now in its tenth year, having launched the careers of over a hundred authors, and we’re really proud of it. As applications start to come in, we asked our tutors to tell us what it is they’re hoping to see when they sit down to read through them – and what makes them want to offer someone a place in their class.

Our tutors on the daytime version of the course, Sabrina Broadbent and Shelley Weiner, are looking for originality and determination. Sabrina told us:

In the writing sample, I’m on the lookout for latent signs of that rare thing ‘an original voice’, which is hard to define yet unmistakeable when you read it. It often emerges out of risk, nonconformity and difference. Unusual dialogue is a good sign. Irreverence and wit also. With the letter, I’m usually thinking of what a good writing group needs – insight, humility, self awareness, commitment, a range of viewpoints and experiences.

Shelley agreed that the letter tells her a lot about how prepared an applicant might be for the challenges of the course:

The prose extract is important but, more than a piece of finely honed fiction, I look for freshness, a sense of urgency, an eye for the quirks and oddities in life. The letter should be articulate and coherent, expressing the potential student’s passion, realism and determination: passion for the crazy endeavour of long-form fiction, realism about the challenges involved, and determination to see it through.

 

Our tutors for the evening version of the course, Richard Kelly, Sarah May and Richard Skinner, are also looking for promise in both a potential student’s writing and their ability to contribute to the group. Richard Kelly told us:

What I love to find in an application is a sharp and original idea, some well-made sentences, and an overall sense of the writer’s readiness to share and exchange – which is the making of a great class.

 

Sarah May doesn’t expect an applicant to come with their novel fully-formed – it’s the raw material which matters most:

What am I looking for? Passion and potential in the writing sample. These outweigh polish and perfection every time. The covering letter needs to demonstrate commitment and an ability to work collaboratively.

 

 

And Richard Skinner, who created the course in 2009, agreed that polish isn’t everything – talent always shines through.

Of course we’re looking for good writing but, as long as a less polished piece has that certain something in it, that thing we’re all looking for but can’t name, then we’re interested.

 

 

Applications close for this iteration of the course on 31 December 2019. If you’re thinking about applying and want to know more, you can always drop us a line at academy@faber.co.uk or on 0207 927 3868.