Thursday, November 11, 2010

Top Ten Plotting Problems by Alicia Rasley

ROBERTA: Today JRW welcomes Alicia Rasley to talk about plotting problems-my biggest nemesis! Alicia is a teacher, writer, and editor. She blogs at edittorrent and has a brand new novel out this month, THE YEAR SHE FELL, published by Bell Bridge Books. Welcome Alicia! Congratulations on your book and thanks for stopping in to help with our plotting!


10. Backstory Blunders: The past is prologue, for sure, but you can tell too much too soon, if everything about the characters' past is explained right up front in Chapter One.

9. Boring Beginnings: If you have to rely on your readers' patience while you get the story set up, you're likely to lose most of them. Start where the protagonist's problem starts, or just before that, and feed in the backstory later. This is the MTV era-- people don't like to wait. Be especially wary of books that start with the protagonist on a journey, thinking about what awaits her at the destination. Editors frequently mention that as an example of a boring opening. It helps to decide what your major story questions are and make sure those are posed in the first few chapters-- at least one should be posed in Chapter One.

8. Limping to a Conclusion: You don't want the reader to think you ended the book just because you ran out of paper. Make the ending a conclusive one, reinforcing the themes of the book and the progress of the protagonist.

7. Sagging Middle: The middle has to do more than just fill up the space between beginning and end. It should be a time of "rising conflict" where the protagonist is tested up to (and perhaps beyond) the limits of his ability-- a time to develop the internal and external conflicts and show how they influence the protagonist's actions. It should set up the great crisis/climax/resolution that will bring the novel to a close. So when you're starting the middle, think of how the protagonist can be challenged. What external plot events can make his internal conflict impossible to ignore any longer? How can that internal conflict impede his/her progress towards the goal? If there's an antagonist, how does the antagonist's reaction affect the protagonist's progress?

6. Tumors and Parasites-- The cast of thousands: Secondary characters are distinguished from major characters-- the protagonist(s) and the antagonist usually-- by their lack of a story journey. That is, they exist to make things happen in the plot, but their own conflicts and issues shouldn't be part of the story. (If they're that interesting, let them star in the sequel.) Every person with a story journey (described progress towards a significant change in their life) dilutes the impact of the major characters' journey. In some books (family sagas, for example), this can work. But in most protagonist-centered popular fiction, tracking the secondary characters' lives and loves is going to waste time and confuse the reader. Watch out for long passages in a secondary character's viewpoint which dwell on his problems and not on the protagonist. And keep count of how many subplots you've got-- make sure each one supports the main plot in some way.

5. Plodding Pacing: Pacing is primarily a function of how many cause-effect related events happen in the book. But that doesn't mean that effective pacing depends on shoving a lot of events into the story. Selection is key. What events are essential? What supporting events are needed to set up those essential events (aka "turning points")? Are all the events of the plot related causally-- that is, does the discovery of the letter in chapter 2 set up the release of the imprisoned protagonist in Chapter 4, and eventually the capture of the villain in the climax? Make sure every scene has at least one event that affects the main plot-- that way the readers can't skip without missing something important.

4. What a Coincidence!: Coincidence is fun in real life. But it's death to good fiction. Fiction is about cause and effect, and there's no cause and effect when the central elements of your plot happen by coincidence. It's often hard, however, to identify coincidence in your own story, so be ruthless. Look at the chain of events. Which would be unlikely to happen unless you the author made it happen? How likely is it that in a city of 7 million, your judge protagonist would just happen to get the embezzling case of the man she thinks was responsible for the hit-and-run killing of her mother? Not very. To fix coincidence without losing the event, make it happen because of character decision and action, and watch your characters grow into strength and purpose. That judge doesn't just happen to get the case; she seeks it, determined to avenge her mother's death. Now that's a lot more fun than coincidence, because the conflict is now not just an accident, but the result of this character's need for vengeance over justice.

3. Conflicts about Conflict: Conflict is the fuel that powers the plot and forces the characters into action. Without it you might have a nice slice of life portrait, or a great character sketch... but you don't really have a story. Problem is, conflict is volatile, and many of us avoid it in our plotting as we avoid it in our lives. But just as children need discipline to grow, characters need adversity to change. And fiction is, at base, about change. Popular fiction is usually about change in the protagonist. No one changes without a good reason to change-- that's where conflict comes in. Quite simply, you have an authorial duty to provide conflict for your characters so that they will learn to change-- and that means determining how they need to change. Linking conflict to character change will revitalize your story, and avoid the problems of serial conflict (where what looks like the book conflict wraps up in Chapter 3, to be replaced by another conflict) and incoherent conflict (where the conflict has nothing to do with who this character is or what she needs).

2. Structural Weaknesses: Many a good story is sunk by a weak structure: a hidden protagonist (the readers can't tell early whose story this is), meandering setups, misrepresented conflict, rushed climaxes, incoherence between the protagonist and the plot (the main character doesn't have much to do with the main plot, or this person would never do what the plot requires him to do). Much of this derives from a misunderstanding of the purpose of structure. It's not a prison, chaining you to a "formula", it's a map to help you and your readers explore the issues you're developing with this story. Learning structure can teach you when to modify it and when to branch out on your own. The key to structure, in my opinion, is understanding the concept of the story questions-- the question or problem your opening poses, and the events which combine to create the answer.

1. Whose Story Is This, Anyway? The Plight of the Protagonist: The biggest single plot problem I see in my judging, editing, and critiquing is actually a character problem: the passive or undermotivated protagonist-- that is, a protagonist who is not truly involved in causing the plot to unfold. Beware of the victim-protagonist (bad things happen to him, and he suffers a lot), the passive protagonist (he witnesses the plot events, but he doesn't participate), the bumbling protagonist (he acts, but stupidly, without learning from his mistakes). The central character doesn't have to be likeable (though it helps) or (god forbid) without faults, but he does have to be motivated enough to act and encounter obstacles and change in response to plot events. Ideally, the protagonist should be involved in nearly every event, and his decisions and actions should drive the plot. You might make a list of all the major plot events, and beside each note the protagonist's contribution. Is each action or decision or choice motivated? (The motivation doesn't have to be laudable, but should derive from who he is and what he wants.) Does each action have some effect on the plot? And finally, does each action-event dynamic contribute to an ultimate change in the protagonist?

Here's a final thought that might help you plot: One primary purpose of the plot is to force the protagonist to change, usually by recognizing and overcoming some internal conflict. Know your character, and you'll figure out your plot. Conversely, know your plot, and you'll find the character who needs that sequence of events for internal growth.

ROBERTA: Alicia will stop in today to answer comments and questions. But first please I've asked her to tell us more about THE YEAR SHE FELL.

ALICIA: Hi—the book will be out in a couple weeks. I'll post on my blog and website a link to buy it. But for now, here's the publisher link:

Here's my blog, where we talking about editing and writing:

And the website:

The Year She Fell, by Alicia Rasley
Bell Bridge Books, November 2010
Book Video trailer

It's set in West Virginia, and involves the richest family in town and the three sisters who must deal with their prominent family's legacy and tendency to bury important secrets. What might interest writers is my point of view technique— there are five sections, each narrated by one of the major characters, so five different voices.

For the first time, I was asked to create a "reader's guide" with questions that book clubs might like to discuss. That was an interesting experience! I think we authors like to think that we answered all the questions and didn’t leave any ends untied. So I had to get beyond my natural defensiveness and really think about what issues the book had raised but never settled. The main issue is family secrets and whether sometimes discretion is better than openness. Several members of the Wakefield family are keeping secrets, and they'll always say their deceptiveness is for the good of the family.

I hope you'll enjoy the story and the mystery it unfolds. It goes on sale November 15.

While you're at my website or blog, check out all the articles and posts aimed at writers of fiction.

All my best,



  1. What genre is your book? Is it a murder mystery? Does the reader know the family's secrets or do you slowly reveal them? Sorry--you gave such good advice I think some vital information about your own book was omitted.

    My question-concerning my own plot is: The weakness of the victim/protagonist, aren't all protagonists in mysteries usually victims? Amateur slueths must have a plausible reason for getting involved in solving a murder, especially when they're being framed, so even though they are not the murder victim, they've been victimized in their lives or professions in some way. What is the weakness factor?

  2. Thanks for this lesson, Alicia. I think my WIP is in big trouble! I'm really going to have to learn to plot in advance. ;^)

    I'll look for your book - the story is intriguing.


  3. Good list, Alicia!

    I realized there's something of a split between #8 and #7. As writers many of us wrestle with that sagging middle (OMG, how will I ever fill all those pages so I can get to the end?). But as I reader, more and more I find I'm enjoying a book with strong characters and compelling pacing--and then the writer seems to run out of steam at the end and just wraps the story up as quickly as possible. You can almost tell by looking at how many pages you have left. Only an eighth of an inch? The ending must be rushed. And that's disappointing.

    How do you keep the ending strong? Do you cheat and write that before the middle, just so you're still fresh and enthusiastic?

  4. AH, perfect timing! Thanks, Alicia! I just hit 35,000 I'm hitting the beginning of the middle of the middle...

    I'm actually drawing a graph-line at the top of my word chart showing where I am in the book. It's really helpful to see --kind of like on a Kindle--where I am in the story.

  5. "Make sure every scene has at least one event that affects the main plot -- that way the readers can't skip without missing something important."

    Love this! This quote is going on my bulletin board.

  6. Welcome Alicia,

    You had me at Tumors and Parasites.

    I'm sending my son -- who is writing his first novel in college - this link and hoping he reads it.


  7. E.B.= It's women's fiction, and I know-- I can never talk about my own book. "Trust me, it's good," isn't really very helpful. :)

    The family doesn't even know the family secrets, so the sisters have to figure out what their mother is hiding.

    Well, as for your own question, victims in murder mysteries are usually dead, so that's not a problem. The sleuth has to have a reason to investigate, and what the reason is might determine the sub-genre actually. The sleuth in a cozy mystery like Miss Jane Marple usually doesn't need a personal reason to investigate. "The victim was the cousin of my goddaughter!" might be enough.

    But anyway, there's a difference between a character in conflict or in trouble (getting framed for a crime) and a victim-- it's all in the reaction. A victim (like the murder victim :) just lies there and accepts it. "Okay, I didn't do it, but I'm so weak and powerless and the prosecutor is so powerful. And the real murderer is probably someone rich, and there's no way I'll ever get out of the frame. So I'll just pack up my possessions and go plead guilty." THAT's a victim.

    A character in conflict (which of course we want) reacts to the conflict by doing something to try to prevent or alleviate the conflict. So if Mary realizes she's being framed for the crime, she reacts by escaping from the police, by investigating on her own, by solving the mystery. That's not a victim. That's a protagonist. Something bad has happened, and she's in trouble, and she does something about it. :)

    And if that empowers her to later solve the problem in her life or profession, all the better. But "conflict" isn't "victimization." That's presenting a rather Malthusian view of life-- either you're a victim or a perpetrator! Well, no, most of us aren't either. We're just people who get into trouble and try hard to get out of it. :)
    So think about how your sleuth reacts to try to get out of the trouble you put her/him in.

  8. MaxWriter, well, if you don't want to plot in advance (and I understand!), you might just concentrate on building a character who will respond in fun ways but also has some internal conflict that needs fixing. Think about creating the character who will incite interesting events, and then see what happens?

  9. Sheila, I know what you mean about the ending!

    I think first of course we should treat the ending as important, not just a wrapup, not just a pro-forma thread-tying, but the actual right ending to this set of events.

    But also I think sequence can matter. What needs to be finished in what order? Like generally (and this isn't a rule, just the way I tend to write), I have the interactional/romantic conflict fixed first, because I want the two of them to work together to fix the external conflict in the big climax scene. And then I want to show the internal conflict resolve in the resolution scene (the very end). I think it's important to think of these as separate scenes, not all wrapping up at once.
    So in the dark moment/crisis, the heroine can decide to trust the hero, thereby resolving the big romantic issue.

    Then together they can go after the bad guy in the climactic scene and resolve the external conflict.

    Then in the resolution, she can resolve her internal conflict of abandonment by choosing to let go of her dream of finding her lost mother, and instead turn to the future and agree to adopt the teenaged girl left orphaned by the murder.

    That is, if we think of each of the conflict-resolves events as a separate scene (in whatever order seems to work best), there's no limping to conclusion, because everything that needs to be settled is given sufficient importance. What do you think?


  10. Hank, that's a great idea! I think that the reader has an unconscious sense of "where I am in the story," and of course a conscious sense too, either with a Kindle version or a physical book. She can tell how much is left! And so she can sense if this middle is sagging too much, or if the ending starts too early.

  11. Melissa, an editor told me that, and I realized I had to make all those great "sitting and thinkin" scenes actually DO something. :)

    And my books suddenly made more sense, I think.


  12. Thanks for a wonderful article and a lot to think about!

  13. Thanks for the explanation. I guess I can't envision a protagonist not doing anything, so I guess I don't have that problem!
    Good luck on the book, it sounds...dysfunctional!

  14. Terrific points, Alicia --

    Another variant on "whose story is it" is when the author falls in love with multiple viewpoint and we're 60 pages in and still don't know who is the protagonist (aka 'whose story is it?") For me, there has to be one, though I've had writers argue with me and say that there novel has 3 (or 4 or more...). Leaving me to scratch my head and wonder.

  15. Hallie, I know what you mean. I've gotten three chapters into reading a book without really knowing who it's about. I guess that's what the back blurb is for?


  16. Alicia, thanks so much for visiting with us. We love having you here!