Every writer knows crafting a great story revolves around plot–one of the essential elements of storytelling. But do you know what exactly plot is? In the following excerpt from The Nighttime Novelist, author Joseph Bates explains what plot is and gives examples of common plot problems.
What is Plot?
Plot begins with a big-picture arc that includes (1) want, (2) what stands in the way, and (3) eventual resolution and then becomes more complex as we find new ways to explore and complicate that arc: paralleling internal and external arcs, putting major and minor conflicts in the protagonist’s way, introducing secondary characters and subplots, and so on. And as we begin adding these new layers of complication—as our imaginations run more freely and our fingers fly across the keyboard—it can be easy for our novel, which started out tightly focused, to become cluttered, in a state of perpetual distraction.
Common Problems When Writing Plot
If you feel your novel has begun to lose its forward momentum as a result of a plot that’s got too much going on, you’ll want to do what you can to get it back on course, beginning with looking at the following common plot problems and seeing which might be affecting your storytelling:
- Mistaking inaction or digression for suspense. The suspense required of an effective plot is about teasing the reader, true. But an effective tease isn’t about intentional delay or digression, suggesting the character really needs to know something, or do something, and then having the character purposely not do or discover what’s needed. Every scene in the novel must be active, even if the action is primarily emotional or mental, and each scene must seem like an attempt to solve the problem or question at hand. If you’ve set up that what the character needs to do is discover who rented the car that was found by the side of the road, and what the character does instead is go eat waffles, then the only suspense you’ve created is directed back to the author … as in a reader wondering, “Why are we wasting time eating waffles?”
- Mistaking character quirks for character deepening. Quirks only feel real if they also feel relevant to the story in some way. It’s great that your police sergeant enjoys classical music as well as NASCAR, is addicted to reality television, builds model airplanes, was a cheerleader in college, and operates HAM radio on the weekends, but perhaps be should be more concerned with that homicide …
- Mistaking minor characters and subplots for the main character and primary plot. This is something we’ll discuss in more depth in Overactive or Inactive Supporting Characters and Overactive or Inactive Subplots. But the simple rule of thumb is that minor characters help us see the protagonist and subplots help us better understand the main plot. If some plot points don’t lead back to these arcs, how might they? And if it seems they can’t, maybe it’s time to trim.