Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Some Common Plot Problems

Below are what I believe to be some of the commonest mistakes people make when planning novels, based on my reading, my own writing, and my work as a ghostwriter. I would be interested to hear your thougthts:

  1. Character and plot are separate. This can lead to either characters who have no reason to play, or plots with cardboard cut out characters.
  2. Too many strands. Trying to do too many things at once leads to all sorts of problems. Most dangerously, it means that you no longer have a single story arc, and the pacing can end up very strange.
  3. Things just happen. The Deus ex Machina ending is the most obvious of these, but it can be smaller scale too. Random problems springing up out of nowhere aren't as bad as random solutions, but both suggest that the things that are happening aren't happening as part of any overall series of events.
  4. Repetition. Do you have your characters doing essentially the same thing over and over again? Do you have your characters doing essentially the same thing over and over again?
  5. Cliffhangers splitting scenes. I'm all in favour of a good cliffhanger, but it's possible to misjudge it. Sometimes, people will produce a dead scene with nothing in it, just so that they can have a cliffhanger leading to the next. This does not rachet up the excitement, it bores the audience for a scene and then makes them think "oh, a cliffhanger."
  6. Starts, but not ends (or rather starts, but not-). A symptom of the too many strands thing more than anything, this is where you start plots or subplots, but then don't do anything with them, perhaps because something more interesting has come along. Now look, you'd get irritated if I left my socks lying around like this...
  7. A lack of memory. If your character does something, or behaves in a certain way towards another, then having them turn around and behave completely differently later on requires an explanation. It is also difficult to have them being, for example, quite popular one moment, and then having a bit of the plot that relies on them being an outsider.
  8. Too many characters. Not every new action requires a new character. In fact, most don't.
  9. Characters who do not respond in character. If you have outlined a tough, take no nonsense female cop, for example, having her faint or scream like the heroine of a bad romance novel simply isn't on.
  10. Big surprises. There is certainly a place for revelations in a good plot. In fact, at least one definition suggests that plot is about managing the release of information. That strikes me as a different thing, however, to everyone being someone's long lost relative, or to putting in big surprises at the end that actually undercut most of what you have done.
Now, this is all very grumpy, so I would like to add the caveats "unless it's funny" and "unless you really want to." And yes, I have done most of these things at various points.


Theresa Milstein said...

Helpful list.

I try not to repeat myself. I mean, I try really hard not to repeat myself.

I'm guilty of a few of these plot problems.

Mesmerix said...

This is excellent advice. I've been guilty of each of these mistakes at one point or another. Thanks for sharing!

Christina said...

Really good list. I think you've covered it.