Revision 06.1.2: Don’t String Your Plot Along


Picture this plot, about a princess in a science fantasy novel (okay, it’s the easiest genre to dummy up a plot in):

  • The Evil Overlord attacks the kingdom and she must flee the city into hiding (okay so far).
  • Her party reaches hiding in the desert.
  • The oasis runs low, threatens to go dry.
  • She figures how to tap a new well.
  • Events now show there’s a traitor in their midst.
  • They find the traitor, who hangs himself to escape their anger.
  • They must find new hiding place.
  • They travel to the mountains.
  • There is no shelter, so they build cabins.
  • Now they’re running low on food, but they find a source.
  • Then strange threatening tribesmen show up.
  • They make friends with all of them.

Notice the metronomic rhythm here: problem encountered, problem solved, problem encountered, problem solved, one after another. This is bead plotting. The plot is excessively simplistic, actually just a series of short story plots. There is only the thin thread of threat by the Evil Overlord (and the continuing characters) to link them together. What you want instead is more like a crescendo than a metronome: a series of problems piling up one on the other without immediate solution.

Bead plotting is one of the basic deep plot flaws. You have to go back to square one on the story to complicate it. You will not save scenes as much as pieces of scenes out of the original. For example, one possible fix here would be something like this:

  • The Evil Overlord attacks the kingdom and she must flee the city into hiding.
  • They want to reach the mountains but must pass through the desert.
  • Events now imply there’s a traitor in their midst.
  • They reach an oasis but it is dry.
  • They dig a new well, get a little water, but someone sabotages it: definitely a traitor among them.
  • Short on water, not trusting everyone, they have to make it to another waterhole.
  • They find it, but a strange threatening tribe is camped there, and now they’re running low on food, too, and the traitor seems to be making trouble with the strangers.

Notice how here problems dog them in packs. Several pile up, and when one is solved another worsens or a new one shows up. They haven’t even gotten enough water, let alone to the mountains, and the tension is much higher.

When they get to the mountains, hoping the hostile part of the tribesmen, that were kept in control by the friendly part, haven’t followed them, they need shelter and food both and still need to root out the traitor before he does more damage or gives them away to some patrol of the Evil Overlord. The same solutions may work, but you’ll bring them in differently. Notice the use of partial solutions to extend the problems or allow them to erupt later: they get some water, but not enough to get out of the desert; they pacify part of the tribe, but others still want to loot them.

Check your plot by making a simple chart of when problems are brought up and when they are solved. Look for too regular an alternation. You need some to start in Act One and go nearly to the end. Some start then and end in other places. Others start later.

Almost as bad as bead-plotting, and the too-simple solution, is leap-frogging, where you introduce problem A, then B, solve A, introduce C, solve B, introduce D, solve C: again, the pattern is too predictable once it gets going. Don’t plot or pace by regular repeating patterns: it’s formula writing, and I mean that as a Bad ThingĀ®.

One response »

  1. Very good advise, Holly.

    When I wrote the first draft of my novel, I realised I was doing this: looking at every single problem at a time. So when I revised, I tried to ‘mess things up’. I took my two main plots, which happened one after the other in the first draft, and mixed them, so that they would happened at the same time.

    Messy, sure, especially when you’re trying to keep things straight and give the impression the plot is actually evolving. Honestly, I don’t think I would have been able to handle it if I hadn’t written the first, simpler draft, but I think the story is much better now.

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