Get Unstuck: How to Solve Plot Problems

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Whether you’re a “pantster” or a plotter, inevitably most writers get to a point where they’ve got plot problems. You might have written yourself into a wall, or your protagonist might be acting in out-of-character ways. Either way, you need to find your way out of the dead end. I know I’ve hit a plot problem when I feel like procrastinating or I’m not sure what to write. How do you remedy such a situation? First, identify your issue. Next, answer the questions that will boost your creative juices and solve plot problems.

Pansters and Plotters Have Different Weaknesses

For every bit of writers’ advice that says to plot out your story in advance, there’s someone else who tells you to write organically. From what I’ve observed, many people do a little bit of both. I do. It frequently comes down to what works best for your process and personality. Pantsers write by the “seat of their pants,” hence the nickname. They might have broad outlines, but they let characters and plot develop as they go. Plotters plan their story structure in advance.

Pantsers strengths are in organic story telling. The plot and characters often come naturally and spring forth from one event leading to the next. The reason for this, of course, is that the author doesn’t know what’s going to happen until one event leads to another. These stories and protagonists are often very believable because of this. The downside? Bloated or unnecessary scenes, a predictable ending, and the “B”word: boring parts.

Plotters frequently have twisty plots and unexpected endings. Lots of events happen, and the characters are always doing something. The downside is that sometimes characters take actions that are wildly out-of-character, because they must to fit in a plot point. They might not seem all that “real.” Transitions between scenes can be disjointed, and occasionally climaxes seem contrived.

Now that we’ve diagnosed common challenges for these different writing styles, let’s look for solutions.

Plotter Plot Fixes

No matter how you approach writing your novel, adding and increasing tension is the name of the game. Readers expect a crescendo of drama no matter the genre. When you accomplish this, you eliminate plot problems. Therefore, when you’re outlining, ask:

What needs to happen? How can I escalate the problems?

Then, if you’re having problems shoehorning what you *wanted* to happen with how your characters and plot are actually unfolding on paper, ask:

Based on who this character is, what would they do in this situation?

If you wrote a timid protagonist who suddenly is going after the killer without calling the police first, you’d better give her a darn good reason to do something so radically beyond her personality. Mining what would be a logical motivation will make your story richer.

Does my ending make sense given everything that already took place? If not, how can I change it or retrofit it?

As they say, writing is editing. Even if you’ve got a high-concept plot, you’ll want to look critically at the final product to see if the climax actually fits with all that came before it. If this same timid character saves the day, make sure you add in places where she started to increase her bravery. Some of us need to get the story out before we can be more analytical. If this is you, be tough with yourself. Ask the hard questions and come up with thoughtful solutions to your plot problems.

Pantser Plot Problems

I try to be a plotter, but I’m more of a pantser at heart. When I get into trouble, and again, I can usually tell because I’m not sure what to write, I read what I’ve already written. Then I ask:

What has happened? What would logically happen next?

I often get caught in the mindset of feeling like I have to hit a word count, or that I need to “move forward.” Sometimes the only way to move forward is to be very clear about where I’ve been. A novel is a large document. It takes a long time to write, and it’s easy to forget what you’ve already said. When I re-read, I almost always find the answer.

If your plot problem is that your story is sagging or feels a little boring, ask:

How can I make the problems worse? Or, how can I end this scene or story in a surprising (but reasonable) way?

Since all great stories are about overcoming steadily increasing problems, ask how you can put your protagonist into an even bigger pickle. Most plot problems can be overcome by finding a way to increase drama in a logical manner.


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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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