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Monday, September 26, 2022

10 Signs Your Plot is Weak (And How to Fix it)


Weak plots are surprisingly common in unpublished writing. But if you can't identity that your plot is weak, then you have no chance to fix it. And of course, once you do identify that it is weak, you may have no idea how to fix it.

I've been teaching about plot a lot the last few months, and I have shared before how as a "young" writer, I had some major struggles with plot. 

Unfortunately, I couldn't find resources that taught me about it in a way that clicked with me. I got it, but then, I didn't really get it. As a result I have literally experienced nearly all of the signs listed in this article at some point or another. So if you experience any of them, never fear--though it took a lot of study and time for me to be able to identify these signs and learn how to strengthen plot, I did it. And you can too. (And hopefully for you, I'll be able to help cut down the time.)



1. The Protagonist Lacks a Specific Goal

Many newer writers don't give their protagonist a clear goal, and then make the character too passive in the plot to boot. The protagonist isn't trying to reach anything, and they don't have any plans to get anywhere. They then have to deal with all the problems of the plot happening to them, without trying to make anything happen on their own. They usually aren't responsible for any of the problems, plans, or decisions being made.

I think on some level (if only subconsciously) the writer is trying to make the protagonist sympathetic

Usually these writers still care a lot about their protagonists, and have spent a decent amount of time fleshing out their characters in most other ways. They may even still have an arc for the character (though for some reason it's not as effective as they imagined 😉).

In some cases, the writer may have actually given the protagonist wants or dreams, but . . .

- They are wants or dreams that aren't relevant to the plot. 

- Or wants and dreams the protagonist doesn't actually take any action to get.

- Or wants and dreams that seem to have no antagonistic forces in the way.

- Or wants and dreams that are never turned into specific, concrete goals.

As I stated in my principles of plot series, the first element of plot is a goal. Because until there is a goal, we can't measure what is a progress and what is a setback, and whatever happens doesn't really matter, because we aren't striving for anything. Like the Cheshire Cat says, if you don't know where you want to go, then which way you go doesn't really matter. 

Many say your protagonist needs to have an overarching goal for the whole story--that can be very helpful, but in some stories, I feel that the goal may change at the act level. The protagonist may have one goal for the beginning, but get thrown off course and then have a different goal for the middle, and then as they finally understand what is going on, they get a different goal for the end. And with that said, some stories have both--an overarching goal and act goals (in fact, probably most strong stories).

And while it may feel counterintuitive, giving your protagonist a goal to strive for actually gives him more potential to be sympathetic. The more the character wants something and the harder he tries to get it, and the more difficult the antagonistic force, the more the audience will sympathize with him (generally, and simplistically speaking). When he has to make decisions, plans, and carry them out, he bears some level of responsibility for the problems that come up because of that, and that can make him more sympathetic. (For example, it's sad if his best friend dies from beyond his control. It's sadder when the protagonist's choices unintentionally lead to his best friend dying.)

Still, many writers are hesitant or even resistant to giving their protagonist a goal. I think this is because they have a narrow idea of what a goal is and the kind of the protagonist needed to get it. Not all goals are lofty and aspirational. And not all protagonists are innately motivated go-getters. 

For more help on this, check out: "Why a Strong Plot Requires a Significant Goal" and "The Primary Principles of Plot: Goal, Antagonist, Conflict, Consequences."


2. The Antagonist has a Vague Master Plan

Writers often spend more time fleshing out the protagonist and the plot itself, than on the antagonist. If the protagonist is a "good guy" and the antagonist is the "bad guy," it can be easy (and tempting) to simply make the antagonist "evil." He just wants to "take over the world" or something. He may be a wicked villain who has this terrible, bad plan but . . . it's unclear what that plan actually is. 

And even if he does have a seemingly specific goal (i.e. become the ruler of the land), he doesn't seem to have a plan (again) of how to get there.

As K. M. Weiland states, in some stories, it works great to give the antagonist a mysterious master plan that the protagonist has to unravel. Yet, she also gives this warning:

"Too often a 'mysterious master plan' is just a filler phrase the author uses to cover up the fact that she really has no idea what the antagonist wants, why he wants it, or what his plan is for getting it. The author is just as clueless as the protagonist."

Similar to the protagonist, if we don't have an idea of what the antagonist is trying to do and how, then it's harder to measure when the antagonist is making progress or experiencing setbacks. However, it's easier to overlook this issue, because it's the antagonist, and the story is centered on the protagonist.

Even if the protagonist and his allies don't actually know what the antagonist is ultimately hoping to achieve or how, rather than keep it vague, have the characters come to a conclusion of what they think it is, and have them believe they are right. In a reveal or twist, you can then show how they had it wrong. This is almost always more effective than keeping it vague.

With that said, it's important to note that not all antagonists can think for themselves, and in such cases, this may not be so relevant, but often, even if the antagonist is something like a twister, it's helpful to know its "plan"--it's anticipated path.

Some say the story is only as good as its antagonist. Take the time needed to flesh out yours. Remember, the antagonist's goal and/or plan needs to be directly opposed to the protagonist's goal and/or plan. They can't both foreseeably succeed. And the antagonist should be pushing the protagonist to his or her limits, which helps create the character arc.

For help, check out "The Primary Principles of Plot: Goal, Antagonist, Conflict, Consequences," "The Tertiary Principles of Plot: Plan, Gaps, and Crises," and "7 Considerations for Your Antagonist's Motivations" by K. M. Weiland.



3. The Story Keeps Circling the Same Conflicts

This one may sound a little odd at first. Isn't there often an overarching conflict in stories? How can that be a bad thing?

The key word here is "circling." The second keyword is "same," which should maybe be the key phrase, "the exact same."

Many of us have been taught that conflict = plot. But this perspective can actually lead to weak plots. Conflict is only one element of plot.

In reality, conflict that doesn't actually have any consequences, is just cleverly disguised filler

It may seem like big and exciting things are happening--there may be a car chase, a shoot-out, passionate arguments, or tumultuous relationships, but if nothing in the story is actually changing because of them, then they aren't actually moving the plot forward. Their outcomes aren't bringing the protagonist closer to her goal, or, alternatively, pushing her further away from her goal. They aren't giving her new difficulties to deal with.

In the manuscript, this usually shows up as a sort of circling sensation. Often the story keeps coming back to the same sorts of conflict, but nothing is actually getting anywhere. For example, the character keeps arguing with her ally, but it never leads to anything--no new ideas, goals, plans, or any sort of action. We have one heated argument, and then a few chapters later, we have another heated argument, and then a few chapters later, another heated argument. But the situation is actually in the same place it was with the first argument. 

If this is something on the sidelines or banter, you may be able to get away with it. But if this is a focal conflict of a story, act, or scene, it's not going to be effective.

Conflict only matters when it affects outcomes--when who "wins" and how influences what happens next or at least what happens in the near future.

Often what is going on here, is the writer doesn't know how to progress the plotline--whether it's the primary plotline or a secondary plotline or what have you. 

To fix this issue, you need to come up with meaningful consequences to attach to the conflict.

Perhaps the protagonist and her ally are arguing. If the protagonist "wins," then they will break into a suspect's home to search for clues to a murder. If the ally "wins," then they will go to the corrupt police and ask for help. From there, we can attach more consequences. If they break into the suspect's home, and he discovers that they have, then he may try to murder them. But, if they go to the corrupt police, the police may try to make them into scapegoat suspects for the media.

Now, who wins the argument matters because it affects what happens next. It leads them on one path or another. We can't come back and circle the same conflict, because it's done and over with. And if the protagonist and ally do argue again, it will be a different kind of argument that will lead to different consequences.

But it's not circling and circling the exact same issues.

If you have this sensation in your manuscript, also double-check that your character has a goal with a plan, because conflict without those can create similar feelings. The consequences don't matter if we aren't striving to reach a specific goal in a specific way. And progress can only be measured when we lay out the plan to get there.

For help, check out "goal" and "consequences" in the primary principles of plot as well as "progress," "setbacks," and "turning points" in the secondary. And, if you want more, "crises" in the tertiary principles.


4. You Can't Answer the "So What?" Question

You have a protagonist with a goal. 

You have an antagonistic force in the way of the goal.

You have riveting conflict.

But the audience is left wondering, "So what?" and "Why do I care?" Why should they keep reading the book?

Like the last section, this is a consequence issue, and in particular, this is a stake issue.

There isn't anything at stake, or, the stakes aren't specific and concrete enough.

People often define stakes as "What the character has to lose," but I've found that definition isn't very helpful for me. It led to vague answers and me mistakenly thinking I had clear stakes in the story because it was obvious the character had a lot of things to lose, cause, I mean, just look at his life!

Instead, I think it's more helpful to think of stakes as potential consequences. It's what could happen if a condition is met, and it fits in an "If . . . then" sentence. Make sure the protagonist's and antagonist's goals and conflict have stakes tied to them.

What will happen if the protagonist gets her goal?

Example: "If Sally raises enough money through her lemonade stand, she can pay for her therapy dog to get surgery."

What will happen if the protagonist doesn't get her goal?

Example: "If Sally doesn't raise enough money through her lemonade stand, her dog can't get surgery and will die."

What will happen if the antagonist gets his goal?

Example: "If George sabotages Sally's lemonade stand, then his will make more money, and he'll be able to get a scout badge." (I'm totally just making this up)

What will happen if the antagonist doesn't get his goal?

Example: "If George doesn't stop Sally's lemonade stand, he won't make as much money and he won't get his badge, leading his father to send him away to military school." (This is getting dramatic.)

You can pile and layer on even more stakes to make the situation more intense. Suddenly a neighborhood with two lemonade stands feels like a battleground, even if the conflict doesn't involve punches, guns, or death.

I've written a lot on stakes already, so if you need help, check out "How to Write Stakes in Storytelling," "6 Tricks to Layer on Stakes," "How to Write and Raise the Stakes More Effectively."


5. Adding More and More and More and More Worldbuilding, Characters, Plotlines, Viewpoints, and Ideas

Sometimes when the writer doesn't know how to develop or progress what they already have in the story, they instead introduce new elements. Sometimes a new plotline will start, and then later, another new potline, and then later, another. Or, another viewpoint character is added, and then another viewpoint character, and then another viewpoint character. Or another . . . I think you get the point.

This is actually a similar problem to the "circling" mentioned above. Because the writer doesn't know how to further develop or progress what they already have in play in the story, instead of circling the same stuff, they try to fix it by adding more and more new stuff. 

I think in some cases, this stems from what we've been taught by some instructors. People who say things like, "If you have writer's block, just throw a bomb into the story," or "If you need to make the plot exciting, just kill someone off," or "If it gets boring, have some bad guys show up." 

This advice may be fine and well for some writers with some stories and in some situations. It may very well be that discovering there is a bomb when you are writing, is exactly what you need. Or it may very well be that a character dying will give the plot what it was missing.

But if you find yourself adding, adding, adding, without anything actually really moving forward, you have a problem. When you keep throwing in new things that don't relate to what is already in play, you may eventually find yourself with the same problem you had before, only worse. Not only do you have one concept you don't know how to progress, but a dozen. And they may not even connect, build off, or feed into each other.

This can often be fixed through the same methods discussed in the circling problem. 



6. You're Hyperfixated on Fixing Cosmetics

I think a lot of us were taught to write stories "backward." Meaning, many instructors taught us how to write great sentences and appeal to the senses and have cool similes and metaphors, and focused more on that than on what content is necessary to make a good story. But it's not all one side's fault. Often newer writers are very married to their content, and anyone who tries to tell them about story structure or theme or plot elements gets pushback. They feel it is stifling their creativity and sucks the fun out of writing. Understandable.

Or maybe I'm mostly just talking about my own past experiences. 😉

When you don't know how character (arc), plot, theme, or story structure actually work, you can spend months or even years trying to make your story better, but all you're actually doing is moving things around or changing surface elements. You may think if you can just get each individual scene to be entertaining, that the plot will be fine. It won't. You may think if you just brainstorm a ton of interesting superficial stuff about your protagonist that he will be a strong hero. He won't. You may think that if something exciting happens in every chapter that the story structure will be just fine. It won't. You may think if you just put in a few monologues or insightful passages that the theme will be moving. It won't. 

Those changes are surface level--they don't fix the bones, brains, or heart of the story.

Okay, I admit, I'm being a bit harsh. There are many storytelling things we have learned subconsciously and there are many writers who are naturals. You don't have to be an expert on absolutely everything to write a great story!

But if you find yourself trying to write a better plot by working and reworking the same lines, the same paragraphs, the same two scenes, you probably have a weak plot, or at least a plot that you don't know how to write yet.

Start with the basics, and get studying (and practicing). Try to be open to re-vision--a new vision of your story (as a fellow writer, Joshua Townshend, recently said to me). It might be painful at first (especially if you've invested months into the surface stuff, because that will likely be changing), but once you learn the bones of story, you'll find the surface stuff will be easier to write and rewrite, and everything will be stronger for it.

For plot, a good place to start is the basic principles.


7. The Protagonist Suffers No Costs or Only Passive Pain

In most stories (though I think there is room for rare exceptions), the protagonist should suffer costs on their journey to try to reach their goal. Whatever we choose to do in life, there is a cost. Doing good things is hard because it often requires sacrifice and self-discipline of one sort or another. Doing bad things is hard because it leads to moral deterioration. Doing nothing is hard because you have to live with the fact you did nothing and became nothing. Whatever you do, there is a cost.

In plot, the protagonist should be working toward a goal that has an antagonistic force she has to (try to) overcome. This conflict should naturally cost something--valuable time, resources, physical or mental wellbeing, the "death" of one's old self, for example. If the protagonist never has to pay a toll for a shot at reaching a goal, there's likely a problem.

Chances are the antagonistic force isn't a true, formidable antagonistic force. An antagonist is more than just a nuisance or heckler. It's someone or something directly in the way of the protagonist's goal. There should be no foreseeable way that the antagonistic force and the protagonist can both get what they want. One of them has to "defeat" the other.

If the antagonist is directly in the way of the goal, and there are still problems, then the antagonist probably isn't strong enough, big enough, bad enough, or clever enough. The antagonist should be a difficult challenge for the protagonist--more than a worthy opponent. A stronger adversary. It should force the protagonist to struggle for victory, to make some kind of sacrifice for a chance at victory.

"Passive pain" is a term I use to refer to random "costs" that happen to the protagonist. In reality, passive pain is more like bad luck than a "cost." It's not really a cost of the journey. For example, the protagonist's love interest may die randomly from a heart attack, or the protagonist might discover someone online stole his identity. Passive pain does have a place in storytelling, usually during the setup to help create sympathy.

But there need to be real costs in the journey. Pains that come because the protagonist has chosen to go on (and stay on) this path to the goal. It's much more interesting when the love interest dies because of a choice the protagonist made to continue this journey. It's better when the protagonist bears some responsibility for the costs and sacrifices made.

If there are no real costs in your story, chances are the plot is weak.

For more on this topic, check out the heading "costs" in "The Secondary Principles of Plot: Progress, Setbacks, Costs, and Turning Points."


8. You Don't Make Good on Threats (De-escalation)

In some stories, the writer makes big threats that turn out to be empty or simply just don't happen to the degree that was promised. I think this starts to happen because the writer wants to make the story more exciting, often by creating hooks. So they throw in dire stakes . . . but then realize they don't actually want the story to go that direction--perhaps they don't want to be that "mean" to the protagonist, or maybe this is something they added in later and don't want to revise the story to suit it, or maybe they just aren't sure how to write the consequences they promised would happen. They may lessen the blow or just not deliver on it at all. 

This may work on occasion, especially to create irony, but if this happens over and over, it creates a sense of de-escalation.

A story should follow this basic shape:

It gets more intense as it heads toward the climax, which means it should escalate, not de-escalate.

De-escalation is a disappointment.

It's like the basic structure is backward:



This is a problem of writing setups that don't have proper payoffs. The writer is making promises to the reader, putting down stakes for the reader, but then is breaking those promises or weakening the consequences.

Stakes are potential consequences. If the consequences turn out to be different than expected, they still need to be just as, if not more, effective. We want to make good on our promises. Don't make promises you can't keep. (Also, don't be afraid to be mean to your protagonist--how else will they arc?).

For more on this, check out the quaternary principles of plot.


9. It's Easy to Undo Decisions or Actions

As the story escalates, the protagonist should be making harder decisions and taking bigger actions that have more significant consequences. They should be put in crises, where they have to choose between two paths forward and each has stakes and ramifications. Does she choose to go to the suspect's house to look for clues he is the murderer and risk becoming the murderer's next target? Or does she report to the corrupt police and risk becoming a scapegoat?

Each option will entangle her more deeply into the main conflict.

Once the character decides, we need to make good on the risks. She needs to face the consequences and costs of her chosen path (generally speaking--there is room for exceptions). The consequences and costs are such, that the protagonist can't go back and "undo" them. She can't make the murderer forget she was in the house. Or, she can't make the public forget that the police are now saying she's a suspect herself. She can't go back to how things used to be. That state of being doesn't exist anymore.

If your protagonist can easily undo her decisions or actions, then the stakes and ramifications aren't big enough. Aren't formiddable enough. Or aren’t being followed through.

Some in the community call these crises and their subsequent turning points a "point of no return" or a "door of no return." Once the character steps over the threshold, there is no going back. No option to "return" to normal. Once Katniss volunteers to take Prim's place, she can't undo that. Once Allison in The Umberella Academy uses her powers on her daughter (or sister), she can't undo that.

And if the character does have the opportunity to try to undo something or make something right, it should come at a significant cost--which may lead to another crisis and turning point, or a door of no return. For example, in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the protagonist's goal is to right a costly mistake he made in his ghost story, but at the end of the series, he discovers the only way to do that is to sacrifice one of his most meaningful abilities, which will alter his life forever.

For more help, check out “turning points” in the secondary principles and “crises” in the tertiary principles.


10. You are Turning Context into Subtext

Context is everything the audience needs to understand what is going on in the story--where and when it takes place, who is involved, what is actually happening, and why (the motive) behind it.

Some writers try to hide one or more of these basic necessities from the audience to try to make the plot more interesting or mysterious. This usually results in there being a bunch of teasers or a lot of false tension. It also creates vagueness

Subtext is what is conveyed "between the lines" of the story. It's what the audience is meant to fill in and complete--something they can participate in, as they watch or read the story.

When you try to hide the basics that are necessary to follow the story, you are likely making the context into subtext. 

I'm not saying you can never do this. There are always exceptions and a time and place. But if you are doing this a lot, and for the wrong reasons, it's probably because you need a better understanding of plot.

Check out these articles for more explanations and solutions: "Context, Text, Subtext: Understand How Each Works in Storytelling," "Context Should Not Become Subtext," and "Vague vs. Ambiguous: Which are You Writing?"


Interestingly, though not altogether surprising, many of the problems listed here can be solved by making sure there are significant consequences. This is perhaps the basic element that is most often missing from plot. The other is a goal, period.

Make sure there are consequences. And make sure there are goals.

And antagonists.

And costs.

And . . . 

You get the idea.

Oh, and while you are trying to fix your plot, make sure to avoid these attempts--those things don't fix plot. (And you'll see some of them overlap with this post.)

Right now, I'm trying to fix one of my own plots. We'll see how it goes. 😉

P.S. Between the time of me writing this and posting it, I just thought of another sign: relying too much on coincidences . . . maybe I will address that in a future follow-up post.


Read Related Resources from Others

Plot: Strengthen Weak or Unfocused Plots by Dorian Scott Cole

Strong vs. Weak Plot: How to Make a Weak Plot Stronger by Go Teen Writers

5 Signs of a Strong Novel Plot by Think Written



3 comments:

  1. An excellent article, to the point, clear and oh so right. An old hand at the writing game I always wondered why one of my favourite novels had not sold. I am usually lucky; my books sell but this one did not. I could never figure out why, a great novel (in my opinion) but no one wished to read it.
    A republication a year later, a new cover and blurb and a new editor made no difference.
    The book was released again three years later, with another new title, blurb, and cover and this time round sold well. The difference? I changed the character's relationship with the protagonist. No longer were they unwitting fools dragged into something but knowing participants.
    A little thing. I know. But sometimes a little success needs the "Little things". Just as a matter of interest and not salient but I do not like the novel as much now as I once did. The changes detract from the story rather than enhance it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Raynayday! Sorry for the late response (life has been busy lately!)

      Thank you so much! And thanks for sharing your experience. I'm going to assume that being "in the know" and having a stronger sense of a goal helped tighten it up and draw the readers in more--even if they were little things. Also, interesting how you don't like the story as much--I feel like I can relate to a degree with one of my WIPs.

      All the best,

      September

      Delete
  2. Thanks September. Hope all is good with you and yours.

    ReplyDelete

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