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5 Ways to Tighten Up Your Plot

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There are many different successful writing styles that get books to fly off the shelves, but most successful fiction books need one thing to really work: a solid plot.  In my opinion, calling an author a tight plotter is one of the highest compliments.  A few authors that are great at this are Stephen King, Suzanne Collins, and George RR Martin, among others.

With a tight plotter, we’re hooked into the story, we encounter some crazy obstacles along the way (that totally make sense at the end of the story – I’m waiting on this one with Game of Thrones, Mr. Martin), and we solve whatever we’ve come to solve, while tying up most loose ends in ways that push the plot forward.  I like to think of it as a complex puzzle that doesn’t fully make sense until you put in the last few pieces – that’s some classy plotting.

How can I tighten up my plot?  Of course, I can’t give any in-depth advice about this without actually reading what you’ve written.  However, a few things generally always apply.

  1. First of all, make sure you actually have a plot.  This is a post in itself, so I’ll point you to a couple of experts in the meantime.  See Nathan Bransford’s Do You Have a Plot? and Mary Kole’s Writing a Hot Plot.
  2. Kill Your Darlings!  What does this mean?  (And why do I hear it so often???)  This means that there may be a few extra secondary characters just hanging out in your story that don’t really do anything for your main character or your story line.  If the character is present in your story, their presence should matter.  Does this character affect my main character in any important way?  Does this character move the plot forward?  If your main character has a best friend and a sister that fill the same role, perhaps that character can be combined.  If you have an evil neighbor named after that teacher you hated just to spite her, perhaps that character should be cut.
  3. Are the stakes high enough?  Obviously the stakes will be different depending on the genre.  However, are your stakes high enough for the reader to care?  If, in Jurassic Park, the story was just about whether or not the dinosaur theme park itself was viable, that’s not particularly exciting.  When suddenly our main characters’ lives hang in the balance, that changes the stakes.
  4. On the other side of the coin, are the stakes laughably high?  Remember to work within the confines of the world you have built.  It’s okay for your characters’ goals to seem a bit unreasonable (like Katniss surviving the Hunger Games or Scarlett O’Hara getting her family through the Civil War alive), but not laughably unreasonable (like Katniss learning to fly or Scarlett becoming president during the Civil War) – unless you’re writing parody or satire, of course.
  5. Cut out extraneous scenes.  How?  Go through your story scene by scene.  Does each scene push the plot forward and/or show readers something they must know in order for the story to work?  If this scene doesn’t fit those criteria, why is it in my story?  If you can’t answer the “why,” the scene might be ripe for the chopping block.

These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg.  What else can we do to tighten up plot?  What can we add/take out/change to make our plots tighter?

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About Christi

Writing in SoCal.

11 responses

  1. Great points! Thank you 🙂

  2. Thanks Christi. I’m writing a plot-driven story now and could use all these helpful resources . Plot is always the toughy. My characters are easy; they respond to the problems I set before them, but plot is the killer for me.

  3. I think every writer has to root around and weed out the parts of the story that screams out our own particular hobby horses. Writers out there – you know what I mean. That part of the story that is totally you standing on a soap box making your point. We all do it and sometimes we’ll need to help of others to see. I recently finished a book in which the author had an issue with gays. There was nothing in the entire book to indicate or lead up to the fact that the lead character had this issue – just bang – there it was. As a reader, I was subjected to repeated references to the authors discomfort – coming out of the character’s mouth. Hmmm – this did absolutely nothing to forward the plot. It was completely unnecessary. It was totally about the author and it was obvious. This all goes with your point that everything in the book must forward the plot or it shouldn’t be there – and that includes the soap box.

  4. LOL at #1 . . . that’s what was missing with the first novel I wrote 🙂 I had to teach #2 to my 13yo tonight–she’s writing a novel & doesn’t want to cut anything. Meanwhile, I’m about to cut the first 50 pgs in my WIP!

  5. Great post Christi! I’m in the process right now of trying to do a kind of advanced edit to tighten up/heighten my plot. I can tell you, it isn’t easy. After you’ve read your story soooo many times, it becomes very difficult to even “see” it any more. Coincidentally, I killed off a “darling” today and feel great! I liked the articles you linked to as well.

  6. Like many, I’m trying to draft my first book. I love this post and already know which ‘darlings I need kill’! I’ll definitely be reading through your posts for more tips. Thank you!

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