Monday, August 26, 2013

Writing Tips - Common Plot Problems & Cures

Diagnosing plot issues in your manuscript can be daunting. What are the problems? Where to find them? How to fix them? All valid questions. Enter the book, Plot & Structure - Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish by James Scott Bell.

According to Scott, "The Truth is that craft can be taught and that you, with diligence and practice and patience, can improve your writing."

Scott gives six suggestions for becoming your own plotting coach:

1. Get Motivated.
2. Try Stuff.
3. Stay Loose.
4. "First get it write, then get it right."
5. Set a Quota.
6. Don't Give Up.

So, delving into Scott's book, we discover a chapter on Common Plot Problems and Cures. What a great break!

PLOT PROBLEM: Scenes Fall Flat

CURE: Make sure your scenes have tension. Tension can be from action or you can use inner tension by having the characters worried. Always have an undercurrent of tension in every scene. Even the calm ones. Something should always be about to happen.

PLOT PROBLEM: Mishandling Flashbacks

CURE: Is a flashback scene absolutely necessary? Always ask yourself that question. "A flashback is almost always used to explain why a character acts a certain way in the story present."says Scott. If you can use tidbits of that information and drop them in the present scene, it's always much better. Never use flashback scenes as information dumps. Make sure they work as a scene.

You can use flashback scene alternatives such as black flashes, as Scott calls them. He goes on to say, "These are short bursts in which you drop information about the past within a present moment scene. The two primary methods are dialogue and thoughts."


A tangent is getting sidetracked from your original plot with an idea or scene that comes to mind. What do you do with these extra scenes?

CURE: You can follow them to see where they lead. Let them flow naturally from your mind to your fingertips as you record. You might end up with a new plot twist for your novel. However, if after finishing the new scene, you don't see if fitting in your plot, keep it. You might be able to use it later or as fodder for another novel.

PLOT PROBLEM: Resisting the Character for the Sake of the Plot
Have you ever heard a writer say, "my characters took over the story"? It happens.

CURE: Do a thorough character background check on your characters. Know their likes, dislikes, dreams and what drives them to do what they do. Know how they'll react depending on a situation. Let your character tell you their story. Keep thorough notes on each character's story. Use them in your writing. You'll have deeper understanding of your character and your reader will really get to know how and why your character acts they way they do.

As you write your novel, have you ever gotten to the point where the words won't come? You feel like your story is dull? You don't know what to write next? It happens. But there's a cure for that.

CURE: Go back into your story. Look for any place that might seem dull or doesn't get to the point. Keep going back until you find that point in your story where you felt good about writing it. Then, look at all the other material and see if you can rewrite it. Maybe change a character's motivation. Change the scene. Strengthen the dialogue. Scott also suggests doing a "180". It's possible your plot needs to go in the opposite direction. Try it, it might work.

What happens if you can't find anymore words to write? Your imagination has shut down. It happens to a lot of writers. Here's what Scott suggests to do:

CURE: Recharge your battery. Take a day off. Come back refreshed and full of exciting new ideas. Or you can relive your scenes. Try to imagine yourself as your characters. Live their life. Check out your scene endings. Do they make the reader want to read on? Scott suggests the following places to stop a scene:
1. At the moment a major decision is to be made.
2. Just as a terrible thing happens.
3. With a portent of something bad about to happen.
4. With a strong display of emotion.
5. Raising a question that has not immediate answer.

Lastly, Scott suggests recapturing your vision. What does it mean to you to be a writer? What are you writing for? Turn your words into a mission statement that you can read from time to time. Inspire yourself. As Scott says, "If you stay true to your own awe, your books cannot help being charged with meaning. That's not just a great way to write. It's a great way to live."

Was this information helpful for you as a writer? Did you learn something new to help kickstart your plot?


  1. I always get stuck in the middle!

    1. Have you plotted your novel completely through to the end? You might want to consider that so you know what comes next. If you write by the seat of your pants (pantser) you might want to consider some "what if" questions when you get stuck to nudge your story along again.

  2. Interesting points! Sometimes when I get stuck, I watch a movie or TV program on a totally unrelated topic. The change in focus often helps me to look at the plot from a new direction.

    1. Great tactics to clear your mind and get the imagination flowing again. Thanks for posting.

  3. These are good tips! Andrea @ visiting from SITS.


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