InboxWednesday – Plots To Nowhere

Hey everyone, welcome to Wednesday. Hope you’re doing well. Let’s go jump into the inbox and see what’s up. Today’s question occurs 15 times in the inbox in various shapes and sizes, so I’m hoping this answer can serve as a proxy for all them.

My MS got rejected for a weak plot, I don’t know how to fix it, what do I do?

To start, we’re going to need to invent a plot. Let’s go with two, and we’ll make them dissimilar.

Our protagonist is a person with a past, and they’re trying to do everything they can to avoid trouble, but they get sucked into a giant-scale battle for the fate of all mankind with Galactic Overlord and douchenozzle Dale.


Our protagonist is a quiet, hardworking cubicle drone who is routinely taken advantage of for a variety of reasons, until one day when they’ve just had enough of co-worker Dale’s douchenozzlery.

I want to start off with a quick set up that plot is one of the three critical pieces of story structure (the other two being character and world), and it’s one of the most diverse parts of storytelling, because anything with a conflict can be a plot.

And we can take a step back to say that “conflict” is another word for “challenge”, since the actions of a plot do represent a challenge to the characters’ status quo. Whether that’s a galactic dictator or an office jerk, there’s something or someone that prevents the main character from achieving their goal, even if their goal is just to keep hanging out and having Cheetos.

When we talk challenge, we have to talk scale of the challenge, because disproportionate scale is a manuscript killer. A disproportionate scale is one where either the problem or the character it’s affecting is way too great or too small but not played for laughs – think about a kindergarten class trying to stop Godzilla, or Superman trying to keep a fly off his potato salad. So when we create a plot, you need to frame that scale relative to the world you’re building.

This is where I talk about world, and I don’t mean just the single literal planet. The world of a story is the stage it’s set on, whether that’s the office building or a galaxy or the local high school where dreamy Dylan is aloof and all Brenda wants him to do is share his feelings. The scale of the problem has to fit within the world, and it has to fit in the world as well as being significant to the characters who are going to be doing something about it.

So in our intergalactic Dale story, our world is actually several worlds, and our heroine is a captain on a ship. We’ll give her a crew for good measure and throw her smack into the middle of the battle between Dale’s forces and the scrappy revolutionaries, because if I call them rebels, I’m sure Mickey Mouse will show up to my office and break my legs or something.

In our cubicle coming of age story, we’ll make our heroine a data entry technician, and Dale can be the brownnoser who sits on the other side of the cubicle partition, the guy who always takes credit for everyone else’s hard work. The world is just the office, and maybe a local lunch spot so we can keep the story fluid, but we’re not going to fly across country or maybe even to the next county in order to make this heroine get her shit in gear and give Dale a beatdown.

Working with all that, we have the basis for story. We’ve got crude bozzettos we can fill in with other characters and some details where applicable so that we’re not just telling the A to B progression.

Which brings us to the other plot assassin: linear progression.

In simplest terms, linear progression is the simplicity and speed a character takes actions that resolve the plot. For instance, if our plot is to get across the room, then we have progress from our chair to walking across the room and getting to the other side. This is a short progression. Granted, it’s a really simple example, and we don’t need to fatten it with something like an earthquake or hostage negotiation unless the story is really supposed to be about those things.

Let’s look at both our Dale examples. We know that in the end the respective Dale is out of commission. The specifics don’t matter for this discussion, though we can assume they’re relative to their respective worlds. Office Dale isn’t likely to get disintegrated by a quantum rifle, and Intergalactic Dale isn’t going to lose his hold on the galaxy thank to his Powerpoint presentation being swapped for animated GIFs of clown porn. (Again, we’re not playing this for laughs, since comedy would allow us the stretch the seriousness of the plots.)

So long as we know the end results, we can reverse engineer the plot by asking, “How did that happen?” until we reach the starting point in Chapter 1. Like this:

Office Dale is fired, heroine is promoted
How did that happen?
Heroine swaps thumb drives with Dale when he isn’t looking
How did that happen? 
Heroine’s best friend gives Dale her number.
How did that happen?
Heroine and best friend conspire after nearly getting fired.

Etc etc.

In this way, we’re making a kind of outline from back to front, where all we need to do is keep in mind that whatever the plot, however we choose to answer these questions, we have to show the heroine as having changed from however she was at the beginning of the story. It doesn’t even need to be positive change, it can be negative – say she gets all vindictive, or our space captain loses her faith trying to do what she thinks is best. You don’t need to stretch either of those elements out into support structure for every beat unless you’re trying so show office culture to be inherently selfish, or space faith to be corrupt.

Wait, let me slow that down. It’s a big deal.

To show a character has changed, you have to take something you established at the beginning (a fear, a doubt, a talent, a skill, a lack of skill, something about the character) and demonstrate that because of the plot, that thing isn’t the way it used to be at the end of the story. A hopeful character being broken down, or a bitter character gaining faith are the obvious and extreme examples.

But it doesn’t need to be so extreme in order to be workable, it just needs to be believable, and the reader will believe whatever the context of the character and the world can support.

In our office story, so long as the heroine is shown to be quiet and not assertive, and that she doesn’t develop mutant powers in order to stop Dale from being a jiggling bag of crotch weasels, there’s plenty of credible ways to show she’s assertive, the most common being a scene where she stands up during the Johnson account presentation and delivers the performance of her career.

For our space tale, if our captain is not a fan of the no-win scenario, and a Vulcan isn’t handy to be killed off in the third act, then she’s going to have to come to terms with some kind of loss that may put her on a redemptive arc later in subsequent stories. Maybe she’s stripped of her command and has to become one of the pirates she always hated.

How long does that take? Don’t know. There’s no specific answer to give you, because there is no magic number. But I can tell you that if you collapse the progression, if you shorten it, the audience isn’t going to believe it’s a viable arc. It becomes too convenient, as if the character just walked over to the closet and found the box labeled “plot fixer.”

Stretch it too far, and you’ll lose the momentum and reader focus. I see this a lot in science fiction and fantasy, where the quest to go put the magic doo-dad in the special place (sounds super dirty, you’re welcome) gets spread out over all these planets and with these side characters that contribute really tiny value to the story, but they’re great evidence that the writer loves to show off how many different words they can puke and masturbate into existence.

Again, this isn’t the screaming of one editor that you don’t need to keep the pendulum either on anorexia or obesity, but hey, there’s a whole realm of story between all or nothing that you should totally go check out and mine and live in and do something with. (for the record THIS IS THE SCREAMING OF ONE EDITOR SO THAT YOU KEEP WRITING AND STOP GOING TO HUGE EXTREMES IN ORDER TO GET THE RECOGNITION THAT YOU CAN ABSOLUTELY GET WITHOUT THE TREND-CHASING OR SOCIO-POLITICAL SOAPBOXING)

Plot weakness is about the choices you make, because it’s not enough to just choose the specific words but also the idea you’re trying to develop via those words. Remember – Writing is the act of making decisions.

The value a plot point contributes doesn’t have to be equal sized, but we’re telling a story, not working on the brunoise of an onion. Be willing to challenge not just how complex the plot is (because complexity does not guarantee quality any more than bombastic line delivery guarantees acting, I’m looking at you later years Pacino) and take that further to challenge the specific contributions of each plot point and plot participant.

Oh, and if you have an office or intergalactic Dale in your life, don’t you dare let them stop you from creating.

See you on Friday. Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus


This may be my favorite post you’ve ever written.

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