Posts Tagged ‘plot’

Rest assured that this is not just a rant, though it is a personal opinion post. There are plenty of writing-related things that annoy me, so I’ve restricted myself to those. I’ve also limited my list to things I noticed in traditionally published books, so some agents and editors apparently weren’t bothered by the things that made me cringe.


1.  Quirks.

I keep reading about the necessity to make our main characters recognizable, identifiable, etc., and having a personal habit or quirk is touted as one way to go about that. But please. Use those quirks in moderation or you will annoy your readers and make them hate your characters rather than identify with them. Here are a few quirks I’ve encountered that have been used enough to become cliché:

Rolling the eyes . Some characters do it so often that I end up rolling MY eyes. Even worse is when more than one character does it. In a book I read recently, it seemed that someone rolled their eyes in every scene. I still enjoyed the story, but it was distracting enough that it inspired this post.

Raising one eyebrow. That may be a unique talent, but it has been overused in books. And every time I read it, I feel challenged to attempt raising a brow of my own. I can’t actually do it, and I know I can’t, so it’s really annoying to read about characters doing it so easily.

Twirling her hair around her finger. Lots of people do that, so how original is it?


2.  Deus Ex Machina.

God directly intervening to solve a problem the protagonist couldn’t possibly have figured out, especially when the protagonist doesn’t show any signs of a close relationship with God, is cheating. I want to be able to figure out what happened based on clues in the story, not witness a miracle (actually, I would like to witness a real miracle), but unless the story involves miracles as an integral part of the action, don’t end with one.


 3.  Explaining the ending.

Ending with page after page of people talking about what happened earlier in the book, even explaining things to minor characters who appear out of nowhere asking personal questions they are not entitled by manners or relationship to ask, is unbelievable. It is obviously a means for the author to reveal what happened in the book—in case the readers didn’t, or couldn’t, figure it out. This is a violation of the basic writing mantra of “show, don’t tell.” A good resolution will tie up loose ends, but shouldn’t have to explain the story.


4.  Stupid protagonists.

If the main character repeatedly makes bad decisions, doesn’t use common sense, or behaves like an idiot for no apparent reason, in my opinion she/he is stupid. (A time or two is excusable, as no one likes perfect characters.) We all do dumb things occasionally, but unless it’s a comedy I want protagonists to be people I can respect—even if I don’t like them. When stupidity is the basis for the story conflict, it feels weak and contrived. A good plot won’t need contrived behavior to keep it going.


5.  Poor editing.

I love words. I adore sentences that flow smoothly through my mind, leaving a vivid picture behind. But when words are misspelled, or the sentence structure makes it difficult to understand, I’m drawn out of the story and into reality. If I wanted reality, I wouldn’t be reading. So let me enjoy the world you’ve created—edit your work carefully. If you need help editing, get it.


What type of things pull you out of a story? What is your number 1 reading-related annoyance? What type of character quirks do you think are effective, and which ones do you consider annoying? Can you think of any “stupid” protagonists that are not annoying? Do you have any quirks?


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In fiction the main storyline is the central focus, but there may be secondary plots involved, too. These subplots can pertain to the main characters or minor characters, and may be entwined with the larger plot. For example, the hero may be running for political office while also dealing with his wife’s alcoholism. Or, the heroine may have a brother who is involved in illegal activities that she is unaware of but which eventually cause conflict she must deal with.

Subplots should support the main plot but also be able to stand alone, with a beginning, middle, and end of their own. They may run through the entire story, or be resolved earlier. Often they’ll merge with the main plot at the story’s climax.

Subplots can enhance a story in several ways:

  1. Create tension or conflict
  2. Develop characters
  3. Help resolve the story’s outcome
  4. Give the story added depth
  5. Reinforce the theme
  6. Introduce characters or conflict to be featured in a future book
  7. Affect the pacing

Often subplots are incorporated into a story by using multiple viewpoint characters in alternating chapters. For instance, in the romance genre the heroine’s viewpoint is generally the primary one but the hero’s viewpoint is also used, giving depth to both characters. In many suspense stories, the author will focus on the protagonist’s viewpoint but include chapters from secondary characters’ viewpoints in order to create tension by revealing events the main character isn’t aware of.

Short stories typically don’t have more than one or two subplots, if any. Novels will have several that are of varying importance to the main storyline, but all subplots should support the main plot rather than overshadow it.


Can you think of any ways using subplots can be detrimental to the story instead of enhancing it? How many subplots is too many?


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Sometimes I get so caught up in the details of a particular scene, or involved with developing one character, that I lose sight of the big picture.

Losing My Perspective

This is especially frustrating when writing the first draft since events later on may change portions of what I’ve already written. It’s tempting to go back and revise earlier chapters or scenes to take into account things that happen later, but in most cases this isn’t the best approach for a first draft. You can lose momentum, or you may come up with an idea you like better later down the line–meaning you have to revise the beginning yet again. One way to minimize this problem is to put off the editing process until the entire story is down on paper.

Get the bare bones of the story down before you start editing, then set it aside for a while. When you go back to it, you’ll be able to read it more objectively and clearly see errors or plot holes in what you’ve written. Knowing how everything fits together will help you layer in details, foreshadow events, leave clues, develop subplots, and clarify what’s going on.



The Big Picture


Do you wait until the first draft is complete to make major revisions, or revise as you go? How do you keep track of things that you change later in the story, such as details about the backstory, or name changes? At what point do you start checking the grammar and punctuation?

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All week I told myself I’d clean the house, and all week I put off doing more than absolutely necessary to keep the place livable. At 6:00AM on Friday, I actually started cleaning. By 10:00AM I’d done 3 loads of laundry, scrubbed the bathrooms, cleaned the kitchen—including the oven and microwave—and vacuumed the floors.

Why did I finally do what I’d intended to do all week? I got motivated: my daughter said she was coming home for the weekend. I wanted everything to be perfect for her visit.

Motivation is what causes someone to take action, or behave in a certain way. Sometimes the motivation is intrinsic, coming from within. The person gets pleasure, or a sense of satisfaction, from completing a task or achieving a goal. At other times, the motivation may be extrinsic, which means something external induces the person to behave a certain way. Without motivation, there is little reason for people to take action, or to react to what others do.

In fiction, as well as in life, motives aren’t always clearly defined. There may be more than one motive involved, or a deeper one than what the person reveals to others. Figuring out a character’s motives may motivate readers to keep turning the pages, but if they can’t imagine the main characters behaving the way the author portrays them, they won’t relate to the story.


What are some common motives for the way characters in your favorite genre behave? Does knowing the motivation behind their actions affect the way you relate to the “bad guys” in a story? What motivates you to read a particular book? What motivates you to write?

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In my previous post I enthusiastically promised an absolutely awesome video experience, which apparently was an effective hook as several people mentioned they’d be looking forward to watching it. It’s finally ready for viewing:



While turkeys obviously enjoy their rituals, there usually isn’t much going on that would interest a casual observer. Just like a novel that has a plot with poor pacing, little conflict, or a weak story line, watching the toms court their hens can be pretty boring.

In fact, some people would not consider my turkey video worth posting, much less “awesome.” You may have found it disappointing, too, after the buildup in my earlier post. And, many of you probably expected the video to relate to writing since that’s the focus of this blog. Surprise! However, there are at least 39 other turkey courtship videos on YouTube today, so I must not be the only person in the world who loves turkeys. Just goes to show that there’s probably an audience for whatever writing genre that you love, too.

When we talk about our projects to others, whether it’s in the form of a query, jacket blurb, or oral pitch, we’re trying to entice them to take a look at more of our work. When the finished product fails to live up to the hype, though, we may be rewarded with a rejection or a disappointed customer. (On the other hand, if we don’t present our work in an enthusiastic, positive way, no one else is likely to get excited about it either.)

Once someone decides to take a look at our work, we need to hook their interest and then hold on to it. We can start with a great opening, but to keep readers turning the pages we have to make sure the rest of what we’ve written lives up to their expectations. If we’ve promised suspense, there better be something suspenseful happening and it should be building up to a major climax. If people are expecting a romance, there needs to be some serious emotional involvement between the main characters. In nonfiction, whatever we’ve promised to show the readers needs to be evident.

If we fail to deliver what we’ve promised, we’ll disappoint our readers and lose our credibility.


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 Conflict is a key component in a good story. It may be internal, meaning the character faces a mental or emotional dilemma, or external, meaning there are obstacles the character must deal with. Often there is more than one conflict, and the character must overcome them to move the story forward. These conflicts create “rising action,” and lead the character towards the climax of the story.

A story without conflict won’t stimulate growth in the characters, and won’t hold a reader’s interest. Conflict increases suspense, heightens tension, and reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the characters.

The type of conflict appropriate for a story depends on several things, including the target audience, the genre, the purpose of the story, and the requirements of the publication you’re sending it to. If your target audience is Christian women, the story will need a different type of conflict than if the audience is adult men or young children. If you’re writing a thriller, the main conflict will probably involve violence; if it’s a romance, the conflict will affect the relationship between the main characters.

No matter what type of story you’re writing, the reader will expect the conflicts to be believable. They’ll also want them to be important. Few people will care about the minor conflicts facing a character—such as what to wear, where to eat lunch, or what brand of toothpaste to buy. Those types of things don’t move the story along and don’t help the characters grow.

Dump the characters into the middle of a dilemma or event that makes them struggle, help them figure out how to get through it, and then pile on more conflict. Use layering to fill in the background information and clarify the cause and effect relationship of what’s happening. Keep the tension building and the action rising toward the story’s climax. After the climax, the falling action will culminate in the resolution of the loose ends.  

There is an excellent article on conflict and plot at:



Do you think a story can have too much conflict? Can a story still be interesting without any major conflict?

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An outline is a summary of the story you are going to write. It can be brief, with just the main plot points and important characters listed, or very detailed. Some people use outlines and some do not, and I think the important thing is to do what works best for you. That said, some of us don’t know what works best until we try several methods for ourselves.

In this post, I want to use the analogy I mentioned last week, comparing walking in my yard to writing a novel, in order to help explain the pros and cons of outlining.

The first picture shows my novel idea hiding in the undergrowth at the edge of my yard. It’s a beautiful but undeveloped story, surrounded by a tangle of raspberry buses, sassafras trees, scrub oaks, and plain old weeds.


My Story Idea


To see it clearly I need to get closer, but every time I make a move, the story scuttles away. I’d like for it to head down the road, giving me an easy route to follow, but my story has its own ideas.


The Trail or the Woods?


I have a choice of racing blindly through the woods in the general direction I last saw it moving, or creeping up on the story a few steps at a time. The first method (no outline) is more exciting, and will lead me down paths I don’t anticipate. I may end up with a great first draft, but I’ll probably need to do some major revisions to get the scenes to tie together smoothly. There’ll be some dead ends to clear up or get rid of, unforeseen obstacles to overcome, and some characters may get lost along the way since I haven’t taken time to think out their purpose in the story. The final result may be worth it, but I won’t know until I reach the end, wherever that may be.


The Rough Draft


By taking my time and thinking ahead (outlining), I feel sure I can guide the story towards an open spot I know is further inside the woods. I can get to know the characters better, and add in scenes that clarify what’s going on as I journey towards the climax I anticipate. I can leave clues (foreshadowing) to guide others along the route I’m following, leading to a satisfying resolution of the plot.

By loosely following my plan, I can keep the story from straying too far from where I think it should go. If I stumble onto a different, more interesting path along the way, I can always change my mind about where the story should end up and how I want to get there. But at least I always have a general idea of where I’m headed.

An outline should simply be a guide to help us reach our ultimate destination.

The End of The Story 🙂



Do you prepare an outline before you start writing your stories, or simply follow wherever they lead? What type of outline do you think is most useful–basic, detailed, a timeline, storyboard, notecards, or what?

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In fiction, characters experience struggles, or conflicts, that they must deal with and attempt to overcome. Some conflict is internal, between the character and his or her own conscience. Some is external, occurring between the character and someone else, or with an outside force such as nature, society, technology, or the supernatural.

The plot depends on conflict to hold the readers’ interest and to move the story forward. As the conflict builds, the story escalates in tension and eventually reaches the climax. The events after the climax decrease in tension, and resolve the story’s main conflict.

Without conflict of some kind, the plot will be flat and uninteresting. No matter the genre, there won’t be a climax without the rising tension that conflict creates. Whether it’s a romance, a thriller, a literary work, or science fiction, readers want to experience the thrill of the struggle, either internal or external, and see how the characters overcome it.

(Encarta dictionary): Conflict

LITERATURE  plot tension: opposition between or among characters or forces in a literary work that shapes or motivates the action of the plot


Edit November 17, 2009: Agent Nathan Bransford has a helpful blog post about conflict: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/03/on-conflict.html


Do you prefer stories that focus on internal conflicts or do you prefer those that deal mainly with external conflicts?   

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Deus ex machina, according to the Encarta dictionary, is a noun that means:

1. unconvincing character who resolves plot: an improbable character or unconvincing event used to resolve a plot
2. god who resolves plot: in ancient Greek and Roman theater, a god introduced to resolve a complicated plot

As writers, we must try to come up with believable endings for our stories. That doesn’t mean we can’t have something extraordinary happen. What we must avoid doing is bringing in someone or something that wasn’t previously involved with the story simply to fix whatever problem the characters face.

During the climax, if our characters are not able to solve their own problems it’s tempting to resort to a supernatural event or outside interference to save them. That’s fine if it fits with other events, has been foreshadowed, or can be explained within the context of the story. If it’s a clumsy, contrived intervention, the readers may feel like we’ve cheated—and that makes it a “deus ex machina.”

The falling action after the climax leads to the resolution (denouement) of the conflict, and if the reasons for what happened seem believable, readers will accept the ending even if they don’t like it.

Do you feel cheated when the ending of a story uses a deus ex machina? Can you think of stories or situations where using one might work effectively?

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Flashbacks are scenes from the past that are inserted into a story to help readers understand what’s happening in the present, develop characters, or increase tension or conflict.  Flashbacks are also helpful in memoirs and creative nonfiction as they can summarize important past events without having to tell the full history of what happened.

Length and Placement

Flashbacks can range in length from a few sentences to a few pages, depending upon the needs of the story. Since they contain backstory, you might want to treat the scene as a prologue, or begin the first chapter with it to avoid interrupting the action occurring in the present time.

Inserting flashbacks after the story begins takes events out of a logical, chronological order and can be confusing for readers. It also may break the flow of the story’s action or mood, so be careful not to place a flashback in the middle of an intensely emotional or active scene.


Tense Changes

Developing a clear transition from the present to the past and back can be difficult. If the story is mainly in past tense (he said, they went, etc.) use past perfect (he had said, they had gone) to show the transition into the past. Since the past perfect tense can become repetitious, you may want to convert to simple past tense after you’ve established the flashback is taking place. When the flashback ends, you’ll also need to clearly indicate that the scene is switching back to the current time period; another sentence in past perfect as the flashback ends may work as a good transition.


Ways to Show Flashbacks

Besides using a prologue as a flashback, or starting the story with one, you can insert bits of the past into the dialog between characters, as part of a dream the character has or talks about, through the character’s memories inserted as part of the narrative, or presented as letters the characters reads in the present time. Sprinkling a little of the past throughout the story may be less disruptive than inserting an entire flashback scene.


Done well, flashbacks can add depth to the story and convey important details. As with any backstory, though, you’ll want to avoid turning them into information dumps. Be sure they are vital to some aspect of the story, and keep them close to the scene in the present that they are meant to clarify. If the flashback can be omitted and the story still makes sense, you should probably leave it out.


If you’d like more information about flashbacks, take a look at this excellent site: http://ezinearticles.com/?Writing-the-Flashback-in-Fiction&id=2615798



Do flashbacks taking place within a story annoy you? Do you prefer them as a prologue? How else can writers reveal something from the past?

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