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Writing

How to Identify and Fix Problems With Your Plot

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 13, 2020 • 4 min read

One of the most frustrating experiences for a writer is reading through a first draft only to discover that there is a fundamental problem with the plot. Luckily, this is a fairly common occurrence, and the ability to identify plot issues is essential to crafting a satisfying story.

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5 Common Plot Problems and How to Fix Them

Whether you’re self-publishing a novel, trying to get a story finished in a month with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), or working on the latest entry in an ongoing series, here are some common plot problems you should try to avoid:

  1. The storyline is predictable. One of the most basic plot problems you’ll often discover when reading literary fiction is that the storyline is predictable or simply isn’t surprising. Maybe it’s because the bad guy’s motivations feel simple and reductive, or maybe it’s because the story structure too closely mirrors the story arcs of bestsellers in the same genre. It’s also possible that you’re telegraphing your plot twists too early. Perhaps your plot points are too similar to those in other popular films or bestselling fiction novels, in which case you should brainstorm new story ideas for those sections. Use writing prompts to help your imagination wander in new directions. Have someone you trust to read your draft and ask them if your novel or short story feels unoriginal. Then, reorganize your plot structure based on their notes.
  2. There’s too much (or not enough) action. When writing fiction, like a thriller, it can be tempting to fill your main story with nonstop action. On the other hand, when you start writing a fantasy epic, you may find yourself filling pages with explanatory worldbuilding or backstory for your main character. However, a successful plot usually strikes a balance between action and other key elements like character development and exposition. If there’s too much action, your reader is likely to be exhausted, but if there isn’t enough, they’ll probably be bored. In order to strike the right balance, make a plot outline before diving into the creative writing process. Following a three-act structure can help your fiction writing feel properly paced, ensuring that your rising action, turning points, and falling action all occur at the correct times. Though there are other methods to plot out a sequence of events in fiction (i.e. the snowflake method), familiarizing yourself with the three-act structure can give you a basic idea of how to balance the action in your main plot.
  3. The plot is too complicated. A great story can be burdensome to the reader because of too many minor characters, subplots, and loose ends. Before you introduce a new character or subplot for the first time, you should ask yourself what purpose that new element serves in your story. Does your new character serve as a necessary additional point of view? Will you be able to resolve this extra subplot in your denouement? If it feels like these new elements aren’t accomplishing anything besides increasing your word count, you shouldn’t be afraid to remove them from your story entirely. It’s okay if some of your minor characters don’t have complete character arcs—ancillary players can support a good story without having to dive too deep into their backstory. An essential part of novel writing is the ability to edit your own stories to ensure each element is absolutely necessary. Developing these writing skills will ensure that your plotting is crisp and lean.
  4. Decisions have no internal logic. Whenever a character makes a decision, the reader should be able to understand the internal logic behind it. The character should have a primary goal that informs their decision-making at crucial moments. If your main character seems to be making illogical decisions simply to move the plot along, the whole thing will feel false and unsatisfying. At each plot point, try to put yourself in your character’s shoes. What choice are they facing? What about their present circumstance or backstory informs their decision making? If you’re having trouble answering these questions, you might need to dive deeper into your character or clarify the stakes of your plot.
  5. The conclusion is unsatisfying. Nothing derails a good-plot like an unsatisfying ending. There are many reasons why a conclusion might not be satisfying. Does the ending feel too predictable or abrupt? Is the central mystery still opaque and confusing, even after a good amount of explanation? Are there too many loose ends that need to be tied up? Read the conclusions of some of your favorite novels in order to determine what makes them particularly effective. Oftentimes, if a conclusion isn’t satisfying, it’s because the groundwork wasn’t properly established in other parts of your novel. Even if it means going back to the first act, you should do whatever work necessary to ensure that your reader is fulfilled when they reach the final page.

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