Plot Pitfalls

Plot is such a slippery little sucker. It should be simple enough – plot is just what a story is about, after all – but it never is. So today I’m going to briefly outline what I think are the two most common plot pitfalls, but – as always! – I encourage you to share your own reflections and battle scars below.

Plot Pitfall #1: No matter how hard you try, you can’t come up with an interesting story arc to save your life.

This is a very common problem, but it’s actually one problem disguised as another. The reason why you can’t come up with an interesting story arc is because story arcs are rarely interesting when they’re distilled into their bare events. Take any great classic – oh, say, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for instance – and break it down into the broadest brush strokes: Boy meets girl; boy and girl fall in love; their parents don’t like their choices for reasons that make no sense to them; they try to run away together; their plans fail; they both end up dead. The end.

Gripping, isn’t it?

Your plot, when described alone, will never be as interesting as your story or novel, though you can punch it up however you want in order to get the attention of an agent/editor/Romeo/Juliet (this is what editors do when they create back copy on a book, incidentally). But in all honesty, if your plot were interesting enough on its own, you wouldn’t need to write a story or novel about it.

It’s useful, however, to eventually be able to identify what your plot is, and for some of us this happens sooner rather than later. Still, I would strongly discourage you from distilling your plot into events alone. A good plot is a series of events that lead to major consequences in your characters’ lives, consequences that affect them indelibly. My favorite distillation of the difference between a sequence of dramatic events and a plot is quite simple. The former goes something like this: The king died, then the queen died. The latter, on the other hand, goes something like this: The king died, then the queen died of a broken heart. (This is not my example, btw, though for the life of me I can’t remember where I read it. Feel free to scold and inform me in the comments.)

Plot Pitfall #2: Your plot refuses to stay put.

Oh boy, this is such a doozy. Just when you think you’ve got a nice, well-behaved little plot underhand, it slips out from under you, usually when you’ve just begun to dive into it. This will always be frustrating, but I hope that it happens to each and every one of you. Because if your plot doesn’t shift with your writing, then you’re probably controlling your writing a little too tightly. Remember that writing comes from the mind and the heart, things that are powerful, reactive, growing, and underexplored. And if you’re writing with all your heart and a fully engaged mind, your work with be powerful, reactive, growing and revealing. That’s the best possible scenario, and plot can
adjust to accommodate.

The bottom line is that while narratives seem to follow a logic line, they are rarely created in a linear fashion. So while you do eventually want to wind up with a sequence of events that it wouldn’t take a doctorate in abstract expressionism to decipher, don’t worry if you lose your hold on plot every now and again as the writing unfolds. Plot is there to serve you, after all, to give your readers something relatable to hold on to as you take them into the tantalizingly unfamiliar and rich terrain of your unique voice. That, after all, is the ultimate reward, and the authority that you listen to first and last.

And here’s the clincher, which I’m forced to sneak in at the end so I don’t make you hysterical right from the outset: it’s entirely possible that you never find your way to a plot that sticks. That’s fine. The point is to get your writing out there, not someone else’s. I promise you that you are perfectly capable of coming up with a good plot if you want to, but if it’s not coming despite all your efforts, and if those efforts are painful and draining, you might need to reevaluate your priorities. Maybe you are a poet, or a potter, and not a novelist. Who cares? Well, actually, I do; what I wouldn’t give to have a few more unapologetic poets and potters out there in the world. As always, the work of your writing – of your artistry – shouldn’t involve the kind of suffering that diminishes you. Challenge should always contribute to growth, and if it’s not, go have an ice cream, get some rest, and come back to it in the morning. Your truth will always be there.

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