We’ve all been there: basking in the glow of a finished manuscript, only to read it over and realize something is wrong with the plot. Finding ourselves unable to identify the problem only makes matters worse. But take heart! Here are some common plot gaffes and sensible ways to revise without starting over.
1. THE PLOT ISN’T ORIGINAL ENOUGH. Go through your pages and highlight anything that you’ve read in another book or seen in a movie. In the margin, write where you’ve seen it. Then list these sections and make a note for each one about how it could differ from its lookalike. A mental patient escapes by throwing something heavy through a window. Too much like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Instead, the patient walks out with a visiting grandma after convincing her he’s an old friend. Quick notes like these can help you detach from unintentional imitation.
2. READERS ALWAYS KNOW EXACTLY WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN. This may be because you’ve chosen a plot point that’s overused, or because you keep giving away the answer in advance. Readers know the villain is going to whip out a picture of the hero’s son and blackmail her by pretending to have kidnapped the little boy because you showed the villain taking pictures of the child and driving away from the schoolyard. You could be less obvious by only showing the antagonist sitting in the car watching the boy on the playground, and no more.
3. THE PLOT IS BORING. Take each page and imagine what different writers might do with the same plot. Choose extreme examples. Would a comedy writer have the cab driver and the villain coincidentally be childhood friends with unfinished business? Would the mystery writer have the taxi pass a clue on a street corner that makes a new connection for the hero? Would the horror writer have the cab driver channel a ghost? Or, imagine the most surprising thing that could happen in a given scene. It doesn’t matter if these ideas don’t fit your story. You’re not going to use them. But often, after thinking of wild ideas to make the story more interesting, you begin to come up with workable ones that are just as stimulating, but better suited to your book.
4. THE PLOT IS ALL ACTION AND THE FRENZIED PACE NUMBS READERS. Let them breathe. Give the readers a little downtime now and then in your action story. Look back at your favorite action novels. Notice the conversations, summarized passages, meals, introspection and releases of emotions that are set in between the car chases, shootouts and confrontations. List them. Then give the readers a chance to breathe in your own manuscript. Find the dramatic respites that come from your characters’ needs, flaws and strengths.
5. THE PLOT IS TOO COMPLEX. Often, a complex plot can be trimmed into a sleek one by cutting out some steps. Does your protagonist have to visit her father in the hospital twice—once to bring him flowers and talk about Mom, and then again to find he has taken a turn for the worse? Couldn’t he take a turn for the worse while she’s still there the first time? Does your villain need to have three motives for revenge? Would one or two be interesting enough? To find the messiness in your overly complex story, summarize it out loud to yourself. When a section takes too long to explain, make a note. When you find yourself saying, “Oh, wait, I forgot to mention that …” you’re probably in need of a plot trim. When deciding whether or not to simplify the plot, ask yourself over and over again,
“Why does she do that? Why didn’t she just do this?” Making a plot less complicated doesn’t have to make it less clever.
6. THE PLOT IS TOO SHALLOW. Sometimes as writers we get caught up in the action. The symbolism. The metaphors. The witty dialogue. The great character names. The slick descriptions. Sometimes we ride these skills over the surface of the story and forget what’s really important. If you or your first readers (friends, family, agent) complain that the novel feels insubstantial, step back and ask yourself these questions: Why am I bothering to write this story? Why does the outcome matter to the characters? How do the characters change? How did my favorite book affect me the first time I read it?
7. SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF IS DESTROYED. Readers need to buy into the reality put forward by what they’re reading. You may go too far with a plot point or not far enough with preparing your audience for that plot point. If something that sounded right when you outlined it is coming off as farfetched even to you, look back at the stepping-stones that led to the event. If your murderer turns over a new leaf at the end of act two, make sure you’ve given her reason to.
8. TOO MANY SUBPLOTS MAKE THE PLOT OVERLY COMPLEX. If you start to feel weighed down by your numerous storylines, start cutting them. List the subplots (shopkeeper with a crush, neighbor’s dog that tears up the garden, accountant who threatens to quit every day), and then list under each title all the ways it’s necessary.
Only subplots that are so vital that you could not remove them without destroying your novel get to stick around. Be bold.
9. THE SEQUENCE IS ILLOGICAL. Sometimes the sequence set down in an outline starts to show its true colors when you’re writing the chapters. If you feel the order of scenes or events in your story is off, list each scene on a separate index card and, in red ink, write a question mark on every card that doesn’t feel right where it is in the story. Shuffle the cards. I’m not kidding. Mix them up completely. Lay them out again in the order you think they might work best, giving special attention to those with red question marks.
Something about these scenes tricked you the first time. This time, really look closely at the proper place for those tricky bits.
10. THE PREMISE ISN’T COMPELLING. If you fear that a mediocre premise is your holdup, take out a sheet of paper. Make a list on the left-hand side of everything that’s dodgy in your present premise. Then write a list down the right-hand side about all the things that work great in the premise of a similar favorite book, play or movie.
See where you might make the stakes higher, the characters more emotional, the setting more a part of the overall plot. Remember: The premise should make your readers curious.
11. THE CONCLUSION IS UNSATISFYING. Once again, write a list of what bothers you about your conclusion, and next to it, a list of what worked great about the end of your favorite novel. Do you have to create more suspense before you give the readers what they’ve been craving? Do you need to make the answer to the mystery clearer? Does the villain need to be angrier, or perhaps show remorse? Unsatisfying conclusions are usually lacking something. Whatever that is, make your story’s ending have more of it.