Plot problems. Every writer has them. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been writing.
There have been many times when I’ve called my friend and editor Silvia Lopez in a frenzy, trying to work out what’s wrong with my characters and why they’re not doing as I want them to. Or I can’t quite connect the dots between two scenes. It’s a lot harder to identify plot problems in your own writing —because you’re just too close to the project—but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a go.
Sometimes, to fix a plot problem, all it takes is a little perspective. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the most common plot problems writers face—and how to fix them.
You’ve just got a pie out of the oven. You turn it out of the aluminium pie dish…and the middle is soggy. It looked so crusty on the outside! But it just hasn’t cooked properly 😕
That’s what you present to your readers when the middle of your book is weak. It can lead to them giving up if your story is too confusing, too contrived, or too boring.
Or—even worse—you get bored because you’re not invested in what you’re writing. You might miss the motivation to work on your project and never finish it because the emotional investment you need to see it through to the end just isn’t there.
The easiest solution to this is to know what direction your story is going in from the start. What’s the big problem that your characters are trying to overcome? What obstacles could get in their way? Quite often plotting can be easier when you work backwards.
Plotting can be easier when you work backwards.
Always remember that your obstacles should get bigger as your book goes on, too. Bigger doesn’t have to mean literally, although if you want your monster to get bigger or more powerful they totally can. Sometimes it could be as simple as the emotional toll the situation takes on your character and those around them.
Not knowing what to do with your middle
This is similar to the one above, but it goes one step further: your middle isn’t just weak: it’s non-existent.
You have a beginning, maybe an end, but no bloody idea how to get to it.
You’ve become a headless chicken, running around your coop (writing room) and wishing that someone would put a stop to it all.
While most people don’t talk about it, the middle is actually the hardest part to write. It’s where the stakes must increase at a pace that fits your genre and the style of your story. Get it wrong and your book ends up with a case of mistaken identity.
The solution here is twofold: know what your ending is, and know what’s getting in your character’s way. If you know what’s stopping your character from getting what they want, you can work backwards to come up with bigger and bigger obstacles to make their goal harder to achieve.
This is what happens in life—quite often the biggest obstacles we face come right before a big, positive change in our lives—so if you don’t do this, readers will be left unsatisfied.
Not knowing what your ending is
If you don’t know what your ending is, how can you know if your characters are going in the right direction? Not knowing what your climax and/or end scene is can mean that if it comes out of nowhere and surprises you, it may well surprise your reader, too. You’ll have to do a shit tonne of editing that could’ve been prevented if you’d had at least a vague idea of where you were going in the first place.
The solution to this one is to work out your ending before you start, or, if you’ve already started, start thinking about your ending now. What does your main character really want? How can you force them to face their worst nightmares to achieve it? Those are the questions that will lead to the most satisfying ending for your reader.
Not understanding characters’ motivations
Three-dimensional characters are at the heart of every great story and imperative to every writing career. They’re what readers get attached to and what they remember.
But if you don’t know them, how can you know that their actions—and reactions—are realistic and believable? How will your readers understand where your characters are coming from and why they do the things they do?
Every character you create should feel human to you. If they feel human to you, they’ll feel human to the reader. Even your
villains opponents will be more three-dimensional because you’ll understand why they want to see the world burn.
You’re also less likely to use limiting language like calling your opponent a ‘villain’, too, because you’ll know that, just because they do bad things, that doesn’t make them—or mean that they think they are—a bad person. They might well be bad by typical moral grounds, but as a writer, you’re not here to judge. You’re here to tell their story.
Underestimating the link between characters and plot
Modernist stories are driven by characters. Traditional stories are driven by plot. But it just isn’t that black and white anymore. We need a balance of both to truly grip our readers.
Characters and plot are closely linked. And the more closely they’re linked in your story, the more powerful, memorable, and believable your story will be. Even if you’re writing sci-fi. Since your plot is so much more powerful, your reader will form a deeper connection with your characters because their reactions to the plot will feel so much more human.
You see, the emotional connection we form with characters has nothing to do with genre. Our emotional connections with characters tie in with the strength of the emotional reaction they trigger.
People love Baby Yoda because he’s so damn cute; they want to look after him…even though he’s a green alien that, when fully grown and Jedi-trained, will be able to kick their ass.
Teenagers can relate to Gossip Girl because everyone knows the bitchy girl who seemed to get everything she wanted, and they like her being brought down a peg or ten.
Marian Keyes’s Anybody Out There? is so powerful because we go through the five stages of grief with the main character, and it’s fucking painful. I stayed up until 4am reading that book because it was so emotional that I didn’t want to stay in the world for too long. It was emotionally exhausting me because the character’s grief was so palpable. And I read that before I’d ever lost anyone I was close to; if I were to read it now…well, I’m not sure I could without a puddle of tears forming at my feet.
Never, ever underestimate the importance of the link between plot and characters. The stronger that link is in your story, the more likely readers and reviewers are to connect with your story and characters. That will keep them coming back to your writing again and again.
When it comes to your saggy middle, consider what you’re trying to do with your novel. Sometimes all it takes is to know a few key points when planning your novel; it doesn’t have to be anything crazy. So long as you have a focus or direction you’re working towards, that can be all you need to keep going.
What are your top tips for solving plot problems? Let us know in the comments!