How to Fix the Mistakes That Are Destroying Your Plot

Plot Development Guide for Character-Driven Writers

“Plot is what happens in your story. Every story needs structure, just as every body needs a skeleton. It is how you ‘flesh out and clothe’ your structure that makes every story unique.”

Caroline Lawrence

The author of The Roman Mysteries series was onto something when she said this. Creating your plot requires more than just picturing your story idea and writing it.

My stories have always been more character-driven versus plot-driven. I loved journeying with my main characters from the birth of their existence, through their conflict, all the way up until they found some resonance of peace or a “happy ending”.

Focusing on the story and the actual goings-on in my characters’ world was way more difficult for me. I didn’t like the idea of using my beloved characters as mere tools to get the action going, moving the scenes forward until they reached the ending resolution. I liked the internal struggles characters faced, not the external development common to plot.

Many writers are like me. They’re great at creating living, breathing characters, but hit a wall when they think about plot. They have an infinite amount of words decorating the pages on their character profiles, but struggle with conceiving the next action sequence.

Oftentimes, I think it’s easy for us “character-first” writers not only to overlook plot, but avoid it completely. We think things like, “Oh, I’ll just write about my characters and I’m sure the direction of my story will just come naturally.”

Sometimes, it does. Most of the time, you have to take the beast, head on and remember:

[Tweet “A good story is a healthy balance of compelling characters and an engaging plot.”]

You can decide to ignore that giant hole in the wall, or you can address it and fix it.

For the sake of your story and your readers, address your plot and fix the things keeping it from reaching its full potential.

Outlining Doesn’t Kill Your Story, It Improves It

Plot and structure are different, and both are essential to creating a story.

Plot is the series of events that make up a story, whereas structure is the mechanics and basic framework.

Writing a Story Outline

When you think of structure, you most likely think of the term ‘outlining’. Many writers will groan and argue that outlining wastes precious writing time or that it doesn’t give you as much creative liberty with your story, but it’s quite the contrary.

Outlining gives you even more freedom!

By looking at outlining as a tool rather than a blockade, it:

  • gives you a clear idea of where you characters and story are headed

  • keeps writer’s block at bay

  • allows you to refer back to major plot points and key ideas

  • prevents plot holes to sneak by under the radar

So, now that you have your story idea in mind, you need to get it on paper (or computer) by creating an outline. Your basic plot structure and outline will contain these elements:

  • Introduction/Exposition – Sets the stage for your characters and your story world

  • Inciting Incident/Rising Action – The conflict that sets your hero in motion. This can consist of multiple events.

  • Climax – The battle between the story’s antagonist and the hero.

  • Falling Action – Events leading to the conclusion.

  • Resolution – After-effects of the battle. It can be a happy or unhappy ending, depending on your story.

Basically, these are fancy terms for ‘Beginning, Middle, and End’.

You can’t start outlining until you have a basic understanding of what your story is about. To develop the premise of your story, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is your main character/protagonist?

  • What situation does your protagonist face that jump-starts his journey?

  • What is his goal, and what choices does he have to make to reach it?

  • Who or what is the antagonizing force that stands in the way of the protagonist reaching his goal?

  • What disaster does the protagonist face while he attempts to reach his goal?

  • What conflict results from the protagonist’s reaction to the disaster?

Great stories take planning

Armed with your premise, you can then make a rough sketch of the scenes in outline form. You can do this by making a list of everything you already know about your story and include new ideas that spring up along the way.

Your outline can look a little something like this:

  • Introduction

    • Characters and setting

      • scene one

      • scene two

      • etc.

  • Rising Action/Inciting Incident

    • Main conflict

      • scene one

      • scene two

      • etc.

  • Climax

    • Main conflict

      • scene one

      • scene two

      • etc.

  • Falling Action

    • Settling of conflict

      • scene one

      • scene two

      • etc.

  • Conclusion

    • Result of battle

      • scene one

      • scene two

      • etc.

Outlining is meant to be an intentional act of exploring and discovering your story. There are a lot of different ways to structure your outline, and a lot of them depend on the story you’re crafting. But it’s important to understand that outlines are not concrete, simply a guide to plotting your story and making sure there aren’t gaping plot holes.

The 5 Best Ways to Avoid Plot Holes

A plot hole is best described as something that distracts the reader’s attention from the story because of action or characterization that doesn’t line up with the expectations you, the writer, have built.

In the beginning stages of writing your book, you’re bound to cross a plot hole sooner rather than later. Within the first two chapters of the first draft of my book, Severed, I found one.

Yes, it can happen that soon.

Plot holes rear their ugly heads in many ways and in varying degrees. Some examples are:

  • Events that don’t make sense according to the direction of the story

  • Inconsistencies with characters’ personalities

  • Continuity errors

  • Unexplained changes in character or setting

  • Areas that break the flow of logic

We writers ask our readers to suspend disbelief all the time, especially if we plunge them into an unusual world built from our own imagination. Because we often ask them to take that plunge, we need to make sure we aren’t distracting them from our story with avoidable mistakes in plot development.

When plot holes arise, they have the potential to destroy your story’s credibility and pull your reader from the story. This is why they must be avoided at all costs.

But how?

In what ways can you avoid plot holes?

These steps will help you identify and fix any plot holes:

  • Know your story, inside and out. When you have a clear understanding of where your story is heading, you’re more likely to notice if something is out of the ordinary with your plot. When you don’t know what’s coming, it’s nearly impossible to plan ahead and detect gaping holes in your plot.

  • Put your manuscript aside for a week or longer. Revisiting your story with a set of fresh eyes can help you locate plot holes that were undetectable in the earlier stages of writing. It can also help you get excited to tackle the writing process all over again.

  • Refer to character profiles frequently. A character profile consists of the elements that make up your character, such as values, dreams, fears, quirks, etc. Many profiles also include physical descriptions. When you make regular references back to these sources, you can make sure there aren’t any easily avoidable discrepancies with your characters.

  • Take detailed notes in the editing process. After your first draft is complete, and after you’ve set it aside for a while, you’ll want to pick it up again and begin editing. Take notes while you edit, jotting down every plot hole and gaps in characters arcs you come across.

  • Have someone else read your manuscript. A completely new set of eyes will do wonders for detecting holes you may have overlooked. I remember allowing someone to look over my first draft, and it’s unbelievable everything I missed the first time around.

Oftentimes, minor inconsistencies like continuity errors can be fixed easily enough without having to rearrange or dramatically change pieces of your plot. But if it’s a huge hole, it’ll require more time and attention to fix. Even then you must decide whether or not the intended fix is the best one for the direction of your story.

Ask yourself if your new direction fits in with the 1) theme, or overall idea, of your story, and 2) your protagonist’s goal she wants to achieve by the end of story.

Fix Pacing Problems in 2 Easy Steps

Have you ever read a story that seemed to drag on without any form of conflict or action? It contained paragraph after paragraph of narrative or description with no end in sight. Or what about a story that moved so quickly, it ripped you through the pages in a whirlwind, leaving you dizzy and disoriented?

Both are prime examples of pacing problems. Pacing is the speed at which your story is moving. Controlling the pace of your story is up to you. Understanding the perfect flow is important to crafting a well-written story, and if you don’t understand pacing, your story can feel uneven or lack momentum.

[Tweet “Understanding the perfect flow is important to crafting a well-written story.”]

If the story moves too slowly, you risk your readers becoming bored. If the story moves too fast, they’ll have a hard time catching their breath. A suspense thriller shouldn’t move at a crawl just as a romance novel shouldn’t end rapidly.

An easy way to fix this is to balance the speed in which your story progresses, varying between speeding up and slowing down the pace.

1. Speeding Up the Pace of Your Story

Speed is important at the beginning, middle, and the climax of your story, because these are the areas you’re going to want to engage your reader the most.

Here are a few key steps in speeding up the pace of your story:

  • Action. These are the moments in your story where “show, don’t tell” applies. Action scenes aren’t meant for long, exhaustive narrative and description. Save those scenes for after the action is over. Examples of action scenes are chase scenes, fight scenes, and critical plot moments.

  • Short sentences and words. Substitute long-winded sentences with short, snappy ones that get to the main point of the action. To vary rhythm, you can add the occasional mid-length sentence, but keep them to a minimum.

  • Fast-paced dialogue. The best dialogue for speeding up pace is swift and tense. Involve arguments and confrontation. Think of it more as a tennis match, where the ball rapidly flies back and forth over the net.

  • Use nouns and verbs. Adverbs and adjectives have a place, but not during your intense, action scenes. Stick with active verbs and nouns.

2. Slowing Down the Pace of Your Story

On the other end of the spectrum, slowing the pace is necessary after following heart-racing action scenes to give your readers a reprieve from the intensity.

Here are some suggestions on how to slow down the pace:

  • Longer sentences. Moments of introspection and reflection are optimized best with longer passages. You can incorporate those adverbs and adjectives you’ve been saving and weave together beautiful, thought-provoking sentences.

  • Using narrative. Narrative is the blocks of words between dialogue that mostly contain description and layering details. The narrative puts emphasis on what’s being described, causing the readers to examine important details the writer doesn’t want them to miss.

  • Making fewer things happen in a scene. This is a way of slowing down time that causes readers to ruminate on particular aspects of the scene. That can be the emotions they are feeling, an event that’s happening, etc.

Your story depends on pacing to accurately convey your message to the readers. When you create a healthy balance of slowing down and speeding up the pace, your story and your readers benefit greatly.

Crafting High-Stakes Conflict

Stories have been recycled for hundreds of years, so it’s up to you to make a strong plot that seems “new” in the eyes of your readers. One of the ways you can do this is with conflict.

Conflict is the dramatic force that powers a story, capturing the attention of the readers and engaging them on another level. Conflict is the momentum and change at the story’s core, and it’s crucial for delivering information and building characterization. Without it, there is no forward movement or narrative drive.

Conflict manifests itself in many ways, but it usually falls under the categories of internal or external.

Internal conflict focuses more on the protagonist’s psychological battle between conflicting emotions or desires.

External conflict focuses on the protagonist’s outward battle with the antagonist, or any physical, outside force.

There are two important things to remember when you are thinking up engaging conflict for your plot:

  1. Make a plot twist

  2. Escalate each scene

Creating a Killer Plot Twist

One of the most difficult things to do as a writer is come up with a story idea that hasn’t been told before. As a matter of fact, it’s nearly impossible. With the help of plot twists, you can make your plot less predictable and more exciting to your audience. A great plot twist can take even the most basic, overused plot and turn it into something unique.

Essentially, a plot twist is described as an event the reader didn’t see coming. Something unexpected that pulls the rug from beneath their feet.

You can write the perfect plot twist for your story by doing these 3 things:

  • Discard the obvious. Think about the climax of your story. Is it something that has been done before by a multitude of writers? If it is, get rid of it immediately. Then allow yourself to think about the most unlikely outcomes, bordering on the impossible. Make a list if it helps, and come up with more than one.

    • If you need inspiration figuring out your plot twist, think about the book, or movie, Gone Girl. For a good portion of the story, the reader believes the main character is responsible for his wife’s disappearance, when in reality she disappeared on purpose and framed him for the entire thing (spoiler alert!). I don’t know about you, but I definitely didn’t see that coming.

  • Execute the plot twist cleverly. The main point of a plot twist is to catch the readers off-guard, but the tricky part is foreshadowing the event enough to make it plausible when it’s fully realized. You can do this by redirecting their attention elsewhere so they don’t pick up on subtle hints or clues.

    • An example of redirecting your readers and foreshadowing is by offhandedly mentioning a hint during a least likely scene, where their attention is elsewhere. Once the plot twist is realized, they’ll be able to pinpoint the moment you cleverly gave them a clue.

  • Consider your reader’s reaction. Write your plot twist according to the response you want to get from your readers. If you want them to be uncertain, then respond by creating uncertain, open-ended scenes with several possibilities and paths to take. It’s kind of like figuring out the ending of your story first and then writing the scenes backwards, all the way to the beginning.

Developing a great plot twist will set your writing apart from other writers.

The Best Ways to Escalate Your Conflict

[Tweet “A rule of thumb for writing fiction: in each successive scene, something more intense must happen than in the previous scene.”]

This is called escalation.

It begins with understanding your character’s desires and then taking them on a nail-biting journey where they face their biggest fears and doubt whether or not their goals will come to fruition.

You can escalate your conflict to a greater level using these 3 elements:

  • Fear. Ask yourself what your character fears the most, then make him face it. When you involve your protagonist’s deepest fears and force him to take them head on, you escalate drama.

  • Surprise. Create sudden obstacles the protagonist has to overcome on his way to achieving the final conflict. This can be an unforeseen event or a new set of circumstances he has to deal with.

  • Combining internal and external conflicts. When you develop both of these conflicts, it deepens the overall drama of your story, especially when both forces collide and make life for the protagonist even more unbearable.

These escalating conflicts set the characters in motion, all the way until the conclusion of the story.

Author Becca Puglisi put it perfectly:

“The one common thread in all of the books that are falling apart on my shelf? Characters—flawed ones with desires and needs who spend most of the story tripping over their weaknesses in an effort to get what they want.”

With each new conflict that arises, it chips away at your protagonist’s resolve, altering them either for better or worse. Your characters needs to experience immeasurable loss, even once they’ve “won” the final battle.

Why You’re Developing Weak Characters

Characters and plot are often classified as separate entities, but ultimately, you can’t write a successful story without either of them.

So what classifies as poor character development and what things do you need to avoid to achieve believable, authentic characters? What character flaws do you need to keep in mind?

Here are the top character flaws you didn’t know your story had:

  • Creating the “too-perfect” character. This person doesn’t exist in real life, so why would they in your story world? A character who is seemingly too perfect is unrelatable and difficult to empathize with.

  • Using cliches and stereotypes. Character cliches happen all the time in literature. The tall, dark, and handsome love interest is an example. To create unique and memorable characters, avoid the cliches.

  • Under-developed protagonist. Create an elaborate back story so you know your main character inside and out. When you spend a lot of time getting to know your character outside of the scenes you’re writing him in, you avoid making him one-dimensional and boring. Even though your readers may never know the full extent of your character’s back story, it’s important that you do.

Static vs. dynamic characters

Characters that never change, or remain static, don’t engage a reader’s interest. Think about how many times the regular human being changes throughout life.

It happens too often to keep track of.

These changes occur from circumstances we face and the people we encounter, and the same must ring true for your characters. You must allow the events in your story to drastically impact your protagonist on a life-changing level. In other words, you must make them dynamic.

Each character you have in your story is significant in one way or another, and plays a valuable role in your plot.

How do you avoid under-developing them, and instead make them people readers can champion?

By developing these three types of characters in your story, you can write them to their full potential:

Protagonist

Considering your protagonist is the character your readers are going to be following the majority of your story, he needs to be someone they want to see reach their goals by the end of the book. They don’t need to be extremely likable as long as they are believable and compelling.

Secondary Characters

These characters would fall under the category of main character’s best friend or family, people that surround the protagonist in the story. It’s important not to neglect them just because they aren’t leading the story. Each character needs to play a valuable role. These types of characters are important because they either help bring your protagonist closer to his goal, or farther way. If they exist just to exist, then save your story and omit them completely.

Villain

The antagonist of a story can take many forms. It can be an actual person, an idea, or even a sickness. They don’t necessarily need to be evil as long as they are the opposite of your protagonist, someone or something that challenges them from achieving their goal. But any compelling villain makes a worthy opponent to your protagonist.

If you actually believe in the characters you have developed and can stand behind them unswervingly, then you are off to a good start.

Hook Your Readers from the Beginning or You Risk Losing Them Completely

I consider myself an avid reader. I have a multitude of books on my bookshelf at home, and a worn library card to prove it. Yet, I’ll admit I have a rather short attention span when it comes to reading new books. If the opening paragraph or couple of pages don’t hook me right away, I’ll more than likely put the book down.

No reader wants to spend the first 30, 40, or 50 pages trying to get into a book they aren’t sold on. The opening of your book is crucial because it’s where your readers decide to keep turning the pages or set the book aside.

You’ll want to grab their attention and keep it as soon as possible.

Here are some ways you shouldn’t start your story:

  • Exhaustive narrative or background describing your setting. The skyscrapers loomed in the background of the busy interstate. Cars sped by and…blah, blah, blah. If your audience is impatient, big blocks of words and bulking paragraphs of narrative at the beginning of a story warns your readers that they are about to be bored.

  • Dialogue. If you haven’t even given your audience a little tid-bit of information about who your lead is, then throwing them right into the middle of a conversation probably isn’t the best option. If anything, you’ll lose them because they’ve yet to become invested.

  • Waking from a dream. There’s a reason you should avoid this one – it’s been done before, over and over again by writers and yes, even published authors. These opening scenes are really popular because waking up is something everyone does and it’s really easy to write about something so common. But the point of writing a hook is to engage your audience in something different.

Lets examine an opening line in literature and see what the pros did right.

“I’m pretty much f—ed.”

Andy Weir, The Martian

I had to stifle a laugh as I read this. It’s simple, straightforward, and honest. I like it a lot because of the abruptness and transparency of it. This is a man who is in trouble (stranded on planet Mars, actually) and he has no qualms admitting it.

As the reader, you wonder why he is “effed,” and you have no choice but to continue to read and find out.

[Tweet “Good openings give the reader no choice but to turn the page for more.”]

How do you pique your reader’s curiosity right away?

  • Make them wonder. Missing info raises questions in the reader’s mind that makes them want to continue reading.

  • Begin with the problem or close to the inciting incident. Don’t start too early. You could potentially bore your readers with too much background information without getting them invested first.

If you’re struggling to write an attention-getting opening line, there’s a couple of things you can do to get your imagination going:

  • Peruse through best-selling books at a bookstore and see how the pros begin their stories. I’ve found myself doing this on more than one occasion when I was struggling with a good, eye-catching way to start Severed.

  • Take advantage of writing prompts. There are lists upon lists on the internet, and a majority of them are quite interesting and out-of-the-box ideas. Pick out a sentence you like, and go from there!

  • Check out this list. If you simply Google, “best opening lines in literature”, it’ll give them to you. They’ll all different and unique, and they’ll give you a great idea of how, or how not, to begin your unique story.

Note: Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get your opening line right the first time! The beauty of the writing process is that you can go back and revise your work.

In Summary…

Your plot deserves attention. It deserves to be analyzed and fine-tuned according to the needs of your story.

A lot of times, as writers, we put ourselves in boxes. We say, “Well, I’m right-brained. It’s easier for me to be more creative than analytical, so I’ll just focus on all of the creative aspects of my story and the rest will follow.”

When you recognize the creative possibilities that go into developing your plot, you understand that you aren’t placing limitations on yourself or your ability as a writer.

What’s easier for you, creating plot or creating characters? Comment below and let us know what tricks you use when building your story’s plot.

4 thoughts on “How to Fix the Mistakes That Are Destroying Your Plot

  1. I’ve been a paid author for three years but don’t believe we ever stop learning. I thought this post was a great reminder, having got a little stuck recently on my current MS. I’m now writing two at the same time to keep my creativity flowing and this post reminded me that so long as I have interesting characters, plenty of conflict, layers of suspense and a good twist ending (which I haven’t decided on yet) I will be fine. I’ve realised I’m stuck because on one of my current WIP I haven’t got any idea of the ending- as I’ve always previously had so I’m going to concentrate on that before writing anymore and continue to plot away.

    Thank you.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I’m so glad you found this resource helpful. I often read through it to remind myself of the importance of plot. It’s so easy to neglect it when you focus more of your time and attention on characters. And I strongly agree with you. We are always learning as writers and constantly developing our craft. It’s quite a journey, but one I enjoy more than anything. Also, congrats on your book being optioned for film rights. That must be such a great feeling! Good luck with your current WIPs and I hope you find an awesome and unexpected plot twist.

  2. I have always enjoyed writing, and I have only recently finished my first book. I have been looking at options for publishing it, but I have had a really hard time because I’m really poor at the moment. My biggest obstacle is having the benefit of a good editor. Thank you for posting these ideas. It helps me out a lot. I am definitely a character oriented writer, and I have actually noticed this tendency before. I’d rather spend a chapter on what’s going on inside the protagonist’s head than get into the action. I now have the urge to go through and look my story over again, and that’s probably a good urge.

    1. Congratulations on your first book, Lily! I can totally relate with the desire to spend more time on my characters than on action. One of the main reasons I created AllisonEdits is to help other writers get their work in the best place possible before beginning the editing process, so I’m glad you found it helpful. I’m planning on posting some more resources soon and am excited to hear what you think!

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