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Head in a spin. How to finish your novel with The Novelry writing coaches
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Writing Skills

What To Do if You’ve Got Too Much Plot

Kate Riordan. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Kate Riordan
December 3, 2023
December 3, 2023

Does your novel have too much plot? Is your story waning beneath the weight of all your plot twists? Don’t worry. It’s a common ailment, but our writing coach and bestselling author Kate Riordan is here to diagnose the symptoms and offer a few treatment plans to give your novel back its heartbeat.

This article will help you:

  • Write fully rounded main characters who drive your plot
  • Create characters with agency who drive action
  • Give your characters very human choices
  • Consider internal dilemmas as well as external stakes
  • Help your readers suspend disbelief through characters with authentic motivations

Sound good? Then read on, writers, the doctor will see you now...

A plot twist too many

Newcomers to The Novelry sometimes ask why our writer coaches focus on story development rather than prose. Surely we need to see the actual writing? In fact, focusing solely on the story at first draft stage is sensible and helpful for both writer and coach. Our Story First Method ™️ cuts through to the heart of the matter and focuses the mind (and our coaching sessions) on what is crucial in this early, tender stage of the game. Hint: it’s not your choice of adjective in that line on p.43.

However, for those who are new to planning and synopsis-writing, our nimble one-page planning method can feel quite daunting. And for some, this necessary exercise only seems to highlight the woeful lack of detailed plot. A writer might read through what they’ve done, cringing at how thin their story sounds, how little is actually happening, and how any action they’ve managed to dredge up seems so terribly mundane and unoriginal. For many at this stage, knowing their coaching session is fast approaching, the solution seems obvious: add more plot. This is done in various ways.

First come the extra characters. Then a subplot or three. The body count might start to rise. Occasionally, when desperate writers call for desperate measures, a secondary character who was previously minding his own business suddenly turns out to be the Mafia boss.

As a writing coach at The Novelry with three years’ standing, I see plans like this from new writers all the time. I think of them as ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ stories, and I totally get how they came about. When I started out, I felt much more confident in my sentence-level writing than I did in my ability to come up with a coherent and compelling plot. After all, I was already a journalist, which implied some sort of facility with language (or so I hoped). But plotting felt scary. My first go at long-form fiction was based on an Edwardian true crime because I felt like I needed the reassurance of a real-life ‘story’. The skeleton of plot it offered took the pressure off; I didn’t have to make it all up from scratch.

So, having been there myself, I completely understand the compulsion to ‘put more in’. It feels safe for the new writer battling imposter syndrome to weave a convoluted but comforting tangle of ‘stuff happening’ through their novel, because then no one can accuse them of writing something dull. This tendency doesn’t just apply to newly formed novel ideas, either. Stories that have been worked and reworked, perhaps over many years, have a habit of spreading and morphing as the writer’s tastes and inspirations develop, like a kind of literary mission creep.

It feels safe for the writer battling imposter syndrome to weave a convoluted but comforting tangle of ‘stuff happening’ through their novel, because then no one can accuse them of writing something dull.

But whether your story plan is decades in the making or something that came to you in a dream last week, my advice is the same: it’s not your plot you want to make more complicated, it’s your characters.

Character equals plot

Fully realised characters gift you story. It’s true. When you take time to really get to know your cast, they will hand you plot on a plate.

Even if very little backstory makes it to the page, you—the writer—needs to know that backstory. You must know what your protagonist’s fondest hopes are, what keeps them awake at 3 a.m., what kind of relationship they had with their mother growing up, and what their guilty pleasures are. When you really know this person, inside-out, you’ll know what they’ll do in any given situation. You’ll instinctively understand what they want (or think they want) and what they need (even if they don’t know it yet), rather like an old friend you’re supporting through tough times.

For further help on this, I can highly recommend our guide to character development , this blog on writing a three-dimensional character using psychology by Dr Stephanie Carty and these writing exercises for character development.

Once you’re armed with this caliber of character knowledge, you’ll find writing your story much, much easier. When I prepare to write a scene, I have a rough idea of what ‘plotty’ thing I want to achieve (reveal a secret, have an argument break out, hit someone with a horrible dilemma), but it’s thoroughly knowing my characters that fills out that scene with a specificity of depth and truth. That’s the stuff that makes a scene start writing itself—and ultimately crafts a story that is immersive and believable.

Remember this can work the other way round, too. Say you’ve had a brilliant, hooky idea which requires the main character to do something audacious or extraordinary. To make this convincing, you need to work backwards with your character homework. What sort of person jilts someone at the altar, or chooses to study psychopathy? What makes one person a commitment-phobe and another fascinated by serial killers? Perhaps the first person’s mother left when they were young. Perhaps the second person narrowly escaped the clutches of an infamous killer? These are simplistic examples, but you get the idea, and see how it’s possible to retrofit a protagonist whose actions in your story will consciously or unconsciously make total sense to the reader.

how to plot a novel
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Agency creates action

Ensuring your protagonist has agency is key, and it’s one of the most difficult things to get right. For more on this, take a look at this article by our founder on character agency in fiction and why it matters.

Certain genres make it trickier for the writer, too.

Dual timeline novels can end up feeling unbalanced because the modern protagonist is little more than a conduit for the writer to travel back to a more interesting past. And then there’s the historical heroine who, for reasons of period verisimilitude, is mainly confined to the house, sipping tea or blacking grates. But, give her a rich inner life—hopes, ambitions and maybe even some murderous intent—and she starts to feel much more compelling to a reader.

Too much unwieldy plot leaves no room for characters to have any agency of their own. They end up like leaves in the wind, buffeted from one action-packed scene to the next, and leaving the reader curiously unmoved. When Elizabeth Bennet refuses Mr Darcy’s proposal in Pride and Prejudice, she is flexing her agency muscles. Another sort of woman would have said yes for her family’s sake, or because she’d clocked the size of Pemberley, but Lizzy’s pride forbids it. This puts the romance’s happy ending in jeopardy and makes things much more interesting.

Too much unwieldy plot leaves no room for characters to have any agency of their own. They end up like leaves in the wind, buffeted from one action-packed scene to the next, and leaving the reader curiously unmoved.

Remember that advice to create a protagonist who is uniquely ill-suited to the situation you’re going to put them in? The key word there is ‘uniquely’. Those Nabokov’s Rocks you’re going to throw at your character need to be bespoke; hand-carved just for them, and for maximum impact.  

Motivation will suspend disbelief

I firmly believe that, if your character feels real, you can have them do almost anything, and the reader will happily follow. This is particularly important in genres like crime and suspense, where you need characters who are otherwise grounded in reality to do dramatic or even heinous things that are totally out of the ordinary. If your protagonist doesn’t feel like a real person with believable motivations, then the foundations of the whole enterprise start to shift underfoot.

A premise that tips into the preposterous (‘no one would do that!’ or ‘that would never happen!’) seriously risks losing the reader.

The solution is a three-dimensional protagonist the reader has fully engaged with before the drama ratchets up. Reduced to a single line, a huge bestseller like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl sounds a bit daft and sensationalist: ‘wife fakes her own death to get revenge on cheating husband’. But that’s not the reading experience at all. By the time Amy Dunne embarks on her complex plan, we know her innermost thoughts on her failing marriage and the courtship that led to it; her strange, intense relationship with her parents as their only child and muse; even her scathing thoughts on ‘cool girls’. We might not warm to her much, but boy do we believe in her.

 

Character arc over circumstances

When you plot without paying heed to your characters, circumstances can end up dictating everything. This is connected to the point about agency. To craft a more satisfying read, consider mixing in plenty of human choices. And having agency is not always a positive thing, remember. What about all those self-defeating and contradictory choices your character might make? It’s not just human nature, and therefore convincing; it can also provide your character with their arc.

Recently I spoke to a writer who, wanting a redemptive end to his wartime story, needed two key characters to be apart for a number of years so they could be reunited in the final pages. We discussed various possibilities for this—closed borders, mislaid post. There were plenty of external reasons that could have done the job well enough, but then I wondered: what if they simply fell out, though a combination of misunderstanding, immaturity and stubbornness? As a solution, it immediately felt richer and more interesting to write. It also made their making-up at the end more powerful and poignant. And, crucially to the concept of character arc, both characters had to change over the course of the book for that rapprochement to land. In contrast, a human-shaped plot vehicle is incapable of change, and change is ultimately what readers read to the end for.

 

The enemy within

Lastly, if you’re still tempted to resort to a mafioso antagonist to raise those story stakes, try going back to your protagonist to deepen and complicate them first. Real people are full of contradictions, after all. How many times have you heard someone say, ‘he’s his own worst enemy’? Well, perhaps there’s a solution right there. If you’re in a spin trying to come up with an effective antagonist who doesn’t feel as though he’s parachuted in from The Godfather, maybe the answer lies in your hero or heroine, quite literally. As John Yorke puts it in his excellent craft guide, Into the Woods, ‘cowardice, drunkenness, lack of self-esteem—all will serve as internal obstacles that prevent a character reaching fulfilment.’

Think of recent hit Yellowface by R.F. Kuang. The inciting incident isn’t the star author choking to death (plot), it’s the decision of her less successful friend to steal her manuscript while her body is still warm (character). The narrator’s corrosive jealousy and ambition drives the whole story.

In conclusion…

A tortured hero is always more compelling than a torturous plot!

For more insights into literary techniques, coaching and a supportive writing community, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry – the world’s top-rated writing school.

Someone writing in a notebook
Kate Riordan. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Kate Riordan

Kate Riordan is the bestselling author of six novels, and has been a Richard and Judy Book Club choice. Her novels are published by Penguin Random House.

Members of The Novelry team