Plot Problems

I meant to post this last week, but time got away from me before I could finish the thought.

I decided to do a little research on plot development recently. Of all the things in my writing, getting excited to write past the set-up and inciting conflict portion of my stories seems to be the most difficult thing. Many of the “plots” I come up with that seem to work on paper often get discarded after I write the opening because the emotional threads don’t pull through in a way that makes sense. It gets discouraging and I’ve been trying to pin down why plotting–even for just a simple short story–feels like pulling teeth for me.

I hopped over to Wikipedia and decided to look up the plots for a few Michael Crichton novels, as he is one of my favorite authors and one that I actually read on my own as a teenager. I wanted to see how his stories worked and what drew me into them. Part of it was the prose and Crichton’s voice (which I didn’t find in the plot summaries), part of it was the science, and part of it was his brilliance in escalating the conflicts among multiple characters until the very end. There are a few things I don’t like about Crichton’s style, however. Though I’ve come to expect it now, Crichton opens many of his books with characters you will never see again (this bugged me after I got attached to them). I like getting attached to one or two (or maybe a group of five or so) main characters who share loyalty and have noble goals. Crichton’s characters tend to be sophisticated but self-interested cogs that are there to drive the plot forward and not much more. It gives his plots that cold techno-thriller flavor that focuses on the world problem caused by technology, man, and nature colliding in some way rather than the characters themselves.

But I like writing characters. A lot.

Remember the post I wrote on writing prompts and how many of them focus on story elements rather than how to write a story? When I first wrote a novel all the way through (and revised it three major times before setting it aside), what I did for a “plot” was create a bunch of story elements–scenes, emotions, theme paintings–string them along in “chronological order,” and revise around the edges to try and make those elements stick together. This made for a lot of contrivances, and ultimately I felt like I was working on an impossible patchwork quilt that wasn’t making any sense, getting any easier, or making the mechanics of storytelling any clearer (in fact, I felt more lost the more I worked this way). I think a part of the problem was that I looked at storytelling as a progression of idea upon idea rather than conflict upon conflict. I worked so hard coming up with a whole bunch of great scenes and ideas in my head all involving the same characters that I thought they all belonged in the same story. The main conflict wasn’t clear, or it was convoluted (too many ideas without distinguishing which one the story was ultimately following).

On the other hand, with my latest story, Maladaptive Bind, I wrote down one random line that popped into my head: “He kept me in a box underground for a week,” and I wrote a few hundred words simply exploring who this person was, what happened to her, and why. It literally wasn’t until chapter 3 that I decided this story was going to have a speculative element (chapter 3 is where the element is introduced), and I went back just a little bit to build in some foreshadowing. It wasn’t until chapter 4 that I decided she was going to be explicitly Mormon. (I’m very much a “discovery writer” and not a meticulous “plot architect,” as you can see, which are two ways of approaching story structuring rather than labels on how well one can execute structure as I’m discussing here).

I’m going to reference David Farland’s Million Dollar Outlines again in this post because it really has been a great resource in helping me demystify and distill the mechanics of a plot. At one point, Dave mentions that starting a story with a conflict is more effective at hooking readers than exposition or beautiful descriptions or anything else. Conflict is the key ingredient in plot-building. I think I discovered this the hard way–by trying to squeeze out a conflict that would string my scenes together instead of using conflict as the backbone around which I built scenes.

The best way I’ve discovered to churn out an interesting and well-structured story? Starting from scratch. It’s okay to have a great scene or two in your head that you really want to turn into a story. Pick ONE scene, one conflict, and start your story there. In fact, if the scene you imagined doesn’t fit the conflict you’ve planned for your story, discard it. I find it easier to discard scenes or emotional elements that don’t work than to tailor the “perfect conflict” to fit the scenes or emotions or moral-political-points-what-have-you I want to convey. I spent (wasted) a lot of time agonizing over how I was going to come up with the perfect conflict that incorporated this-tender-moment-scene with these-three-major-themes and that-important-idea-with-five-persuasive-commentaries and failed miserably. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t come up with a conflict that would serve every point I wanted to make and every great idea I wanted to keep in the same space, and I ended up with a patchwork mess.

Dave also describes something called try-fail cycles that I find work well in building the “Middle” (in the Beginning–Middle–End structure) of the story. The main plot has one set of try-fail cycles. The hero has a goal; on his first attempt he fails and things get more complicated (or he makes progress but at some important cost); on the second attempt he fails again and things get even more involved and complicated; finally, on the third attempt (the climax) he throws everything into a “last-ditch effort” and succeeds (but still at some great cost), the goal is met, and the plot is resolved. Sub-plots are basically smaller, more immediate try-fail cycle sets that pop up and get resolved along the way. For example, say your main character has just been captured by an orc party and he must escape before he can get back on the trail to hunt down the evil overlord who wants to take over the world–three attempts at escape with success on the third. Easy-peezy, right? Conflicts drive stories, not ideas. I think I’ve heard the Writing Excuses team discuss try-fail-cycle-like things in one of their podcasts, but it didn’t click for me until I read Million Dollar Outlines.

There are lots of things one could discuss about plot, but if you struggle with messy patchwork structures like me, my best advice is:

1. Start from scratch.
2. Pick a great conflict rather than a great idea/character/setting to write about. If you have a great idea/character/setting, tailor it to an interesting conflict or discard it. Incorporate what fits as you go.
3. Have ONE clear main conflict (but you can include many conflicts and you don’t have to open the story with the main conflict).
3. Use try-fail cycles to keep tension and raise the stakes, both in the main conflict and in subplot conflicts.
4. If you keep your story focused on conflicts rather than ideas, you’ll trim the “fat” (boring, lost, and irrelevant scenes/emotions/sidetracks), produce a more cohesive story, and find plenty of opportunities to bring out some of the things you care about personally.

Here are the plot-demystifying resources I’ve found most helpful:
Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland
Writing the Paranormal Novel by Steven Harper
Writing Excuses with Dan Wells, Howard Taylor, Brandon Sanderson, and Mary Robinette Kowal.

Go check them out!

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Sarah E. Seeley is a fantasy and horror author, and an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association.
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