Edit My Novel

avoid plot pitfalls in 7 steps

by Cara Lockwood

When crafting a story, you want to make it water-tight, but how do you keep your plot from being riddled with holes? Here are a few tips to keep in mind to make your plot believable and compelling: 

  1. Characters must act consistently towards their goals.  Characters need goals to motivate them to do things. Whether it’s the detective hoping to solve the mystery or the broken-hearted divorcee who secretly wants love. If, midway through the story, a detective abandons his suspect to fall in love with his neighbor, readers will cry foul. If their goals change mid-story, give us a credible reason for this change. 
  2. Characters can make mistakes, but they can’t make dumb decisions. Characters can – and should – make mistakes, but they can’t make dumb decisions. A woman alone in a house, won’t go down into a dark basement by herself just to check out a strange noise, because that would be a dumb decision. But, if she thought her daughter were down there and in trouble, she might fly down the stairs. Put yourself in the situation. Would you do what your character is doing? If not, why not? 
  3. Characters shouldn’t ignore the obvious. When trying to make a complicated plot, sometimes the downfall of a good story happens when characters ignore the obvious. If a reader can pick up on context clues and figure out the murderer well before the detective, this is a problem.
  4. Let your characters experience conflict. No one wants to read about a character who has everything go right for her. Where’s the fun in that? Let your characters struggle more and spend more time fighting each other, and resisting emotional resolutions (as all of us so often do).
  5. Show us, don’t tell us.  This is the major rule of thumb in most any novel. If you have characters sitting around telling us the plot, rather than living it, you’ll lose readers, and you can create holes. For instance, why would a bad guy sit around talking about his grand scheme in front of the spy who wants to thwart him, thereby giving the spy a chance to escape? 
  6. ​​Pivotal plot points can’t happen by accident. Coincidences may happen in real life, but in fiction, they can sink your plot. No one wants to read about a hero who sits around and has things magically fall into place for him as he passive waits for love to come to him, or for his enemy to stumble into a comprising situation. People want to read about characters who are proactive and who make things happen, ideally by battling through conflict. If your story has an accidental coincidence that moves the plot forward, think about ways to make that not an accident. Take, for instance, a romance, where two strangers meet by accident at a coffee shop and fall in love. If one of them actually planned to be there and had an ulterior motive for meeting that so-called stranger, then that makes for a more interesting story. 

  7. Tie up loose ends, and don't forget subplots.  No reader likes loose ends, but as most authors work tirelessly to tie up the main plot points (the murderer has been found and caught!) sometimes, they let subplots fall by the wayside. Don’t let subplots (a romance, or a relationship with family) go unresolved.

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