So obviously, for this post, I couldn’t go line by line on a novel. That’s too much, for you to read or for me to critique with everything else I have going on (In addition to Pitchwars stuff, I had client work and was helping a CP with her outline, and I have another CP’s novel waiting in my inbox for a hole in my schedule!). So I decided instead to share the method I use, in hopes it might help you think about what to look for, then some solutions to common problems.
The same caveat applies here-This advice is a tool, not a prescription. I fully believe writing is a process you have to learn in your own way and at your own speed. Much like math, sometimes pieces won’t fall into place for you until you understand other pieces better, or have a better grasp on the basics, and that’s OK. I literally couldn’t stand outlining at all when I first started writing (Way back over 15 years ago!), much less look at it from this angle. We’re always growing, take what works for you, and combine it with anything that helps you. (I also assume if any term is unfamiliar here, you know how to google it. This does get a bit on the technical side.)
The TL;DR version-Outline events, find your major plot points, make your character’s emotional/mental progression change by each of these points, then topple each point to make sure the combination causes the next.
First, if you have an outline that reflects the final novel, great, you’ve got the tool you need. If not, read through and just list what happens as simply as possible (This is a good guide for that). If you have a synopsis, use that. Whichever method you choose, you need a list of some form of your main events.
Got that? Good. Now identify at least 3 major plot points: Places where your character can no longer go backwards, emotionally or mentally, from where they are. Some novels have 5 or more, particularly longer ones, few have less (It’s possible, but if so, it probably is very episodic feeling. If you can hit the reset button between chapters, that might need taken back to the drawing board.) Physical only changes are less useful without the emotional ones that come with them; Destroying the safety represented by their childhood home is very different than burning down their workplace. But if, in destroying their office, they’re setting themselves free of their fear, that can work. Include the ending in this as well. If you’re using the three act structure, these usually fall at about 25%, 50%, 75%. They’re the separation points for the acts, typically.
Once you have those, bold them in the summary/synopsis/outline. Take your beginning, whatever the status quo is for your MC when you start, and look at where they are, emotionally, at each of these points versus the start. These should, each time, change how the’re acting/reacting to the world. Focus on your character’s growth here. They need to first react to the change in their life. Second act-Act instead of reacting. Third act-They’ve screwed everything up by acting, and become determined to fix it, acting more cautiously/with more information. At the end, they’ve won, with costs, and are finding a way forward into a new normal.
We’ll go over the last one more in detail later this week, but for now, I want to focus on acting and reacting and the pacing between them, because it’s the biggest problem I’ve seen in manuscripts. Not just in pitchwars, but in my internships. Most of the time, your inciting incident isn’t something your character has chosen, or at least, what they thought they were choosing is something different. They spend the next act trying frantically to figure out what’s going on, who they can trust, whether that guy really likes him or if he’s imagining it. Most of the time, characters are overwhelmed, and to a certain extent, the reader is too. I often, in my own writing, deviate from the above formula to move the character from reacting to acting somewhat sooner, making the pacing on the first chunk faster.
Why? Because I want to get to the character making choices and acting on them sooner, rather than later. Then it’s a matter of making sure each plot point falls like dominoes, one into the next, each choice causing another, each action causing the situation to get seemingly better or worse, before the whole thing comes tumbling down, and it forces the third plot point. The tension throughout this part needs to increase. Your character needs to be forced to their limits so they can break at the next act. Your stakes need to be defined by this point, and well. If we don’t know what they have to lose, we don’t care if they lose it all.
In most cases, the third plot point is where the proverbial Darkest Moment comes in. Everything’s so broken, so hopeless, that they feel like they have no way to succeed, and they have to dig deep. It’s the moment where everything they’ve done up until this point means THEY ARE THE ONLY ONE who can push through this. I’ll do a post later about characterization and growth, but for now, keep in mind, your main character should not be able to replaced by their beginning self here, or anyone else. Whatever strength they need here, whatever reserves of belief, love, or intelligence, has to be built BY the previous events.
This directly cascades into the ending… which I’ll save for next week.
Now, there’s a LOT of problems middles can have. Most common are meandering/soft middles. Your characters need to shift from reacting to acting faster, and then they need to have pressure on them from the stakes to propel them into making those choices. Sometimes this is also the result of not setting up your characters properly. Here’s the thing: Despite pulling these elements all out separately, they lean on each other like a house of cards. If one part is out of place or built in a way that is unstable, the whole story can collapse into a mess. This is where I really recommend finding good critique partners or freelance editors who can see where your pieces don’t line up and what you can do to solve it.
Some things to look for:
- Do you really need all those points of view?
- Is that red herring or subplot adding to the tension or distracting from the core story?
- What is driving your character here? We’ll get into this more on the characterization post, but think about character motives and intentions for your plot points. If they could be swapped for any other person, or the beginning version of themselves, then you have some major work to do to make them a full protaganist.
- Look for spots your character thinks to themselves too much. Internal monologues can be just as bad as external ones.
The opposite problem is rushing them. If you go through your plot points and are still well below your word count, that’s easily fixed. Writing short, to me, is easier to fix.
- Add sensory, especially in the first half and on action scenes. I always, always have to add sensory after I’ve finished the first draft and decided what details are important in the story.
- Look for places your dialogue is too on the nose, and find ways to make it more diagonal without losing the reader.
- Is your plot too simple? If at each plot step, you can think of a way the story could stop there and it would be resolved, your story is too simple and your stakes aren’t high enough. Revisit both.
- Always think: How can I make this harder on the characters? How can I push them to maximize their growth.
PHEW! I know that was a LOT of info, so ask away! Moderation’s always on for your first comment here, but once you’ve had it approved, the rest of yours will show up automatically. I’ll be at the dayjob for a chunk of the day, but I’ll answer as I can.
More good resources on plot:
Connecting actions in your plot (Though imo: Doing it for every single moment of a story would get obnoxious REALLY fast. Keep your head out of the weeds, but this can be helpful for those major plot points/key scenes.)
A simplified story structure– If you find all this too overwhelming, start here first, then drill down into this.
Stakes– The best explanation I’ve found for keeping stakes relateable as the tension increases