Writer’s Log, July 15th: Plot Pitfalls

I firmly believe that anyone who claims to have mastered plot is either misguided or misanthropic, fond of watching perfectly nice new writers squirm and agonize over generating plots, assuming that the difficulties they have represent a deficit in talent. But nothing could be further from the truth. Plot should take everything out of you, at least if you’re committed to giving your work your all. And to suggest or even imply that great writers dream up fantastic plots overnight, casually turning over in the morning to jot them down while the children wait silently for their breakfasts, setting the pen down only when coffee arrives on a silver tray, is not just unhelpful; it’s downright demoralizing.

The truth is that great plots, by their very nature, resist reduction. If one could capture the story behind a work of fiction in twenty-five words or less, why bother to write the fiction in the first place?  Fiction requires patience and acres of wiggle room for development, and crafting a decent plot is not unlike weaving a web. It might resemble every other web you’ve seen, but when you get up close, you’ll see that each one is as unique as its author’s voice and vision. There might be superficial similarities worth noting among many successful plots, but when it comes to you and that 80,000 word snarling beast of a novel you’re trying to tame, knowing this is about as helpful as knowing Sit, Stay, and Down when throw into a ring with a lion.  

So why am I telling you this? For two reasons. One, I think it helps writers to know that everyone struggles with plot, and most of our plots develop in drips and drabs, not unlike stalactites that only grow strong after eons of dripping water (okay, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but that’s at least what it feels like). The point is that a fully mature plot rarely emerges before a fully mature story, so if you’re doing your job as a creative writer, it stands to reason that your plot might go through just as many iterations and tweaks as the story itself.

Two, as you’d probably guess from that opening paragraph, I think oversimplifying plot can actually be miseducative for new writers. Many, for instance, assume that plot is merely a series of exciting events strung together, ideally with some semblance of cause and effect interwoven throughout. But while it might seem like you’d be all set if aliens landed in the first chapter and gave birth to messianic firefighters in the next who were on hand by the third to put out the fires that the twisted factory owners created when they manufactured blight-inducing, combustive Shiny New Objects while twisting their waxed mustaches, simply stringing those events together would make for a woefully flat novel. Great plots do often involve dramatic and heart-stopping events, but just as often they don’t, and what actually takes place over the course of your novel pales in comparison to the significance of how it all unfolds. (Side note: A fun party trick is to reduce the plot of your favorite novels to one or two sentences.) A novel’s depth, in other words, is infinitely more important than its breadth.

This is where the web building comes in. After you figure out where your characters will be and where they’ll go and what they want, it’s time for the real writing to begin. This is when you add all those layers that make their experiences feel credible, memorable, and, somehow, inevitable. This is done through plot, yes, but also sublot, and relationship building, and dialogue, and subtext, and scene, and all those other juicy fictional tools that make us want to curl up with a novel and drink in its pages instead of flipping on the TV for 90 minutes of derivative action. There’s no formula for it. That’s part of what makes it so incredibly magical. And so frustrating, in practice!

But not unlike the experience of reading fiction, writing great fiction should not be something we expect to bash out in an afternoon. It’s not a one-night stand; it’s a rich, long-term commitment, and it often takes the same level of self-awareness, humility, humor, and love that long-term relationships do. So expect your plot to drive you crazy every now and then. Get into it, be tenacious, and buckle up for a rid that might take a thousand times longer than you want it to. But also know that such time will be a thousand times more enriching and gratifying than anything you might conjure up in an afternoon. The true rewards of writing are long and indefinite, and that’s exactly why you’ve come to it.

Art: Spider Web and Dew Drops, photographer unknown

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2 Replies to “Writer’s Log, July 15th: Plot Pitfalls”

  1. Good, strong, authentic, and insightful piece. How sad that more people have not left comments. As the author of numerous books, one nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by Random House, I appreciate the heart that went into your article.

  2. Thank you for writing this. As an unknown and unpublished author, it’s reassuring to know that what you have described is a normal part of the process and not an error I made while creating my own process. The more my characters develop and evolve during the story writing, the more I need to tweak my story arc and plot!
    I appreciate your insight and I am glad I stumbled across it.

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