Stories Come Together: A Tip For Fixing Plot Problems

Stories come together. This is something I believe. 

I believe it, not because I have faith in myself as some kind of innate-novel-crafting master, and not because of any fairy-fiction magic (the book isn’t alive; it doesn’t craft itself). Stories come together, for me, because I have a process that works. And knowing this gives me the confidence to move forward with a new project, even if it’s not all meshing at the start.

It must be lovely to be a Type A plotter–someone who can envision their whole cogent, heart-felt, purposeful story from start to finish before even punching that first word. Such people scare me. I prefer not to think of them.

As a pantser who writes character-driven fiction, my stories tend to come into being haphazardly over a few drafts. My first draft is sometimes like a Rorschach test–I squint at elements of my plot until I see a shape–“Oh, I seem to have written in a secondary romance plot! Well, sort of. I can fix it up and fill it out.”

The problem with pantsing, or writing as you go, is that it often creates a long series of events rather than a cohesive and meaningful story–something all tied up nicely with a ribbon. And there is a difference. A well-crafted plot has drive and purpose from start to finish, and when you read it a second time you find a thousand clues you missed on your first go-around. This is what I aim to produce, even if I can’t map it out before I begin.

So, the trick is taking that first mess of words, and turning it into a finely-tuned narrative.  I know I can do this, because I have done it before. But in the beginning this faith in a solid final draft felt rather Easter-bunny-esque. Which is why I wanted to share my number one tip for making it all “come together,” just in case anyone reading this is experiencing a similar struggle. 

Ready? Here it is: alternate between your writer’s mind and your reader’s mind. Come at any and all problems from both angles. 

What’s the difference? As a writer, you are creating something out of nothing. You can chuck a scene that isn’t working. You can invent a new character to fill a void. You can add or remove secondary plots. As a writer, you are the god of your little kingdom; you can do anything you want.

Being in the writer’s mind is awesome for its limitlessness, but sometimes I find the lack of parameters in itself a burden. With the ability to do anything, it feels as though there are too many options. I become overwhelmed. 

So, I shut that part of my mind off, and I take a look at the story as if I were a reader. But not just any kind of reader: I tap into the part of me that likes to figure out the story, search for clues and develop theories. I transport myself back to 2005 when I was watching episodes of Lost over and over again, analyzing even the smallest details, convinced that I could piece it all together in time: the polar bears, the Dharma Initiative, Kate’s secret. 

As a reader, the text is set. It can’t be a mistake–especially not if we love the world we’re in. And, as a reader, authorial intent doesn’t matter. Sometimes there are theories that can be backed up by the text, even if they were never dreamed up by the writer. Texts live and breathe, and readers bring something new to them. So it really isn’t important what you meant to put on the page–just look at what’s there.

Read your manuscript like a reader. Read it like you’re the redditor who put forth the theory in that Varys in Game of Thrones is secretly a merman. Read it like you’re the Star Wars fan who can explain why the Kessel Run should be measured in parsecs. Read to over-analyze, to hunt for deeper meanings, to explain the seemingly inexplicable. 

When I was working through the second draft of Division of the Marked, there was one character who was just not working. I didn’t have a good grasp on his purpose in the story, and I was debating if he needed to be removed or fundamentally altered. But then I read through my manuscript and paid very careful attention to everything he said and did.

And I found several bits of dialogue and a few unconscious gestures that hinted at something I hadn’t intended in the writing: my problem character was secretly in love with a friend. And as soon as the thought came to me, it seemed so obvious. Suddenly that character made sense, and I was able to go back and more deliberately craft his dialogue and actions with purpose. 

You see, examining the text you’ve already produced is channeling a different kind of creativity. It’s like working backwards once you’ve found yourself stuck working forwards. You look at a scene in which a character does something out-of-character, and you dream up a theory as to why they might be acting that way based on the text. Then pitch that theory to your writer’s mind. If you like it, if it serves your story, go back and write it in. Layer in the necessary evidence. If not, pop your writer-hat back on and consider inventing something entirely new, or cutting the scene altogether.  Toss the manuscript back and forth between your writer’s mind and your reader’s mind until everything is neatly tied together.

In the end, readers will never know if you went back and added your easter-eggs, or if your easter-eggs were unconsciously written in and then expanded upon in later drafts. And you don’t have to worry that you’ll look closely and find nothing. Any text can be analyzed, any character can have secret depths. It’s like looking up at the clouds and assigning them shapes–it’s not so much about the object itself, it’s about the person who’s looking at it.

So, even if you’re a pantser, have faith. Stories come together. 

unsplash-logoSam Truong Dan

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