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Plotting mistakes are easy to make! I’m sure there’s not a single writer in world that hasn’t made a mistake in their plot at least once. This is why planning our plot, or making sure our plot follows traditional plotting advice, is so important.
Below I’ve listed 7 plotting mistakes that are so easy to make! Tadah!
Bad Hooks and Starting Lines
Every book needs a hook, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. I’ve noticed lately a lot of writers are jumping straight into action, and this can work, in some cases.
Jumping into a fight scene however does something for the reader; it makes them question who we should really care about. Are we reading the good side or the bad side? How do we know!
If you’ve started with something dramatic—a car chase, someone running for their life, or an argument—are you guiding your reader to like your character alongside it?
Hooks don’t always need to be dramatic but they do need to include something tagged ‘Save the Cat’. In the Hunger Games this is done quite literally where the main character Katniss cares for a cat.
When we show our characters have a good quality we can relate to, right from the start, we show they are someone we should care about. This is a great thing to include in the first section of your book.
Let’s look at how some fiction does this right:
(Read Mosquitoland Here)
“I am Mary Iris Malone, and I am not okay.” This is the first line that author David Arnold uses to hook in his reader. Why does this work? Because it makes us instantly connect with the narrator. We’ve all had moments in our life where we felt this way, right? It also works as a hook because it makes you want to read on and find out WHY Mary is not okay. This is a great example of a hook that doesn’t start with action but leads with intrigue and a ‘save the cat’ moment.
The Way I Used to Be
(Read The Way I Used to Be Here)
Amber Smith uses an ingenious hook. On the first page the character tells us of an attack in the middle of the night. The writer doesn’t actually show the action though; they show the emotion behind the action. Immediately we are drawn to this person, we feel sorry for them and we want to know what will happen to them next. What will they do about it?
Using powerful emotions as a hook is a wonderful way to give intrigue and a ‘Save the Cat,’ moment. It is a way to connect us to the character on an instinctual level.
(Read 1984 Here)
Even classics use this trick to pull their reader in. This isn’t a newer method.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.” 13? Yes 13, what does that mean? There’s a first line hook to pull you in.
Because his world is so unique George Orwell uses this as his hook. He describes its strange quirks and adds sensory stimulation to his lines with smells and large imposing images. He even gives his character a weakness from the start, an ulcer above his ankle, and it’s the regime of the world that makes it harder on him. This is of course symbolism, but also gives us a reason to care about him and despise the regime, right off the bat. Straight away we want to bring this regime down with the main character! And it’s only the first page.
(This is one of my fave books ever, if you haven’t read this yet, you need to right now!)
Remember, when you’re crafting your hook it needs to escalate. If you add a fight scene, or something harrowing and you can’t write the tension up from there, you’re doing something wrong.
If the opening scene is the most drama and tension your entire book has, re-write, re-write, re-write.
Weak Goals or No Goals At All
If your character has nothing to fight for, throw your manuscript out the window.
No one wants to read a book about a character who does nothing, gets nowhere and doesn’t change. This should be obvious, and yet you still get newer writers writing the mundane breakfast scenes with no drama or tension.
Every single scene should be a fight—a goal that your character is aiming for. Just like in life, if we don’t move forward the world will move us forward and it might not be the way we want it to go. The same is true for your characters; if they don’t move the story forward, the story will move forward without them. Things will happen to them, not because of them.
This is absolutely a death sentence for your book.
Let’s look at a common complaint for readers. You know when a hero fights the bad guys, fails horribly, and then someone else comes along and saves them…you’re left with this feeling like, soooo what was the point of this character? That’s because the plot happened to them, not because of them. Someone conveniently showed up because that’s what the plot demanded. That’s not what the character demanded.
To avoid this, ensure your character ALWAYS has a goal in every scene, and an ultimate goal to reach by the end of the book. Make them find ways of achieving this goal, and don’t give them an easy out.
Low Stakes or The Wrong Tension
There has to be something terrible that will happen to your character if they don’t get their goal. Otherwise who cares?
What if their goal was to win the love of their life? What if they didn’t get them?
Er, ok, so what?
We’ve all experienced not getting something we want, why would it matter, really? They’ll find someone else later, or it wasn’t the right time for them, or some other sappy reason that will help them move on. This is a goal without stakes and without tension.
Now, what if losing the love of their life meant living forever with a curse? (Beauty & the Beast). Now we have stakes.
Another issue with tension is that it’s used at the wrong freaking time. You can actually look at beat sheets and see the best time for a reader to feel tension and what works psychologically for them. After all, books are a part of the ancient practice of storytelling, there’s things a reader intuitively expects. That’s why books that don’t follow these plots leave readers unsatisfied.
Knowing when a reader expects tension and when to dial it down, is just another tool for your writing toolbox.
For example, don’t escalate the tension right after the character decides what they want. That’s when we need to slow it down, show how the character is moving into their ‘new world’. But do add tension right in the middle of the book with a great pinch point reminding the reader your character has a scary reason to attain their goals. Light a fire under their little imaginary butts.
The ‘All is Lost’ Plot Line Isn’t Utilized Correctly
In traditional plot you have something called ‘All is Lost’, or the ‘Dark Moment’. This is where the reader MUST think the character has not reached their goal; all is lost. Or that reaching it will be impossible.
BUT, the worst thing you can do is give your character a really easy out AFTER convincing the reader it’s over.
Imagine you’ve read this entire book about a father who has to save their daughter, and this father is deathly afraid of drowning.
He runs into the room where she is kept, but oh no, she’s not in there. He’s too late, he will never save her, his life is over. He’s depressed and mopes around in the All is Lost Moment.
But then the daughter calls him and says “Hey dad I’m home safe.” The end…
The out-roar would be immense right? You’ve invested all this time as a reader to get to the conclusion and BAM, it’s solved so easy.
What if he found she wasn’t there, and he knew he would never get to her in time? Then he gives up, he hates himself, but has an epiphany. This epiphany gives him the answer; she’s hidden in the water tank at the back of the room. But oh no! He’s afraid of drowning.
Now he has to overcome his fear to save her.
Doesn’t that add a lot more tension without rescuing the situation easily? You still have the ‘All is Lost’ moment, but now you have the ‘Dark Night’ moment too; a dark moment to get through and over-come in order to ‘save the day’.
A lot of YA writers screw the ‘All is Lost moment’ up, by having other characters save their main characters. Another example would be Alice in Wonderland;
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice can escape the Queen and the whole world she has been through because, ‘it’s just a dream’. If the book wasn’t so strong until this point, I think that probably would have been its undoing.
Plot holes are easy to make. Crafting a plot before you sit down to write— or at least a half plan—will curb them dramatically and therefore, cut down your editing time, yey!
But let’s rewind because…
This phrase (plot hole) is thrown around but no one really takes the time to explain what a plot hole is.
A plot hole is something that goes against what came before it. So say your book has no magic in it, then all of a sudden somebody uses a spell, and it all goes back to normal. That would be a plot hole. A pretty easy one to spot.
A really popular plot hole that caused outcry for a while was in the movie Titanic.
This plot hole made fans so angry because Rose had enough room on her float for Jack to sit on. But it wasn’t really about the board, right? Because she could have told him she didn’t want him on the board.
The plot hole was this; up until that point Rose cared about Jack, and was in love with him, heck she would do anything for him. Yet now she let him causally drown when she had room on a board. Er, what?
Plot holes are when things don’t line up with our characters goals, with our world, and with the history we have built. This is why having a plot/plan in place helps us to avoid the obvious ones.
For the not so obvious—the small facts, like unique language and secondary character names— we can use spread sheets to keep our numbers and facts straight.
Another fun example:
J.K Rowling had a plot hole in the first Harry Potter book where 17 Sickles were quoted; this would actually be a Galleon. As 17sickles=a Galleon. Later this was edited, but it is a great example of a plot hole and what sort of things you need to be looking out for.
Character Arcs Not Weaved into the Plot
To master your plot, your character arcs must weave within them.
Imagine if your character grew into an evolved person before anything in the story had happened. Crazy right? That’s why plot should drive your character arcs.
And what do I mean by that? Well, we want our characters to change in some way. To do that they have to believe/be something we want to change, duh. So if we want them to be more loving, there has to be a reason they aren’t at the start of the book. We have to show they are not loving, and give them a reason to change this.
Queue the plot arc which comes along and slams the character around, forcing them to live life differently.
In the middle point of the book, or ACT 2 they realize that the way they were living before isn’t serving them in this new situation.
By ACT 3 they have changed; they have an epiphany.
This is how our character arcs weave into our plot. This is really just a quick rough example, but when looking at your own work, does your character change or stay the same? Are they always right? Does the sun shine out of their butt?
I hope not; I hope there is something they learn and a way that they change.
Sub Plots which Distract From the Plot
Your sub plots also have to weave into your plot. If you have a random sub-plot which makes no sense to your story, it won’t make any sense to your readers.
A sub-plot needs to meld with your main story, not be an extra bit of fun you’re writing on the side.
- Help your character to grow in ways they will need later on in the story
- Nudge the main plot along
- Give the reader/character extra information they will need to solve the main plots or goals problems
- Give us twists and turns that are unexpected and keep the reader on their toes
- & More
There is no real science to adding a subplot; it can come at any point in the story.
You can add a subplot later, and move us away from the main plot for a while, only to lead us back in some meaningful way.
They can be something that has always been a part of the story and stays with the story until the end. For example, you may write a mystery but maybe two of the characters are falling in love from the first scene.
Annnnd some sub plots randomly enter and leave again, but leave the character with a lesson. A take-away, something that drives the main plot forward.
In order to realllly know if your subplot is actually serving your story and not destroying it, use this quick checklist.
- Does my subplot even make sense to the story? Or is it just for fun?
- Does it support a theme?
- Does it raise the stakes?
- Does it give the character a change within?
- Does it give the character a reason to fight for the main plot?
- Is it more exciting than the main story?
If you answered yes to 1 & 6, maybe this subplot should be another novel you write. Like a sequel or an entirely different story!
Plot is great but don’t allow the expert advice to be the be all and end all. Remember, you will know in your gut when something doesn’t feel right. Follow it.
If you want to try out something super fun haha (because I’m a geek that way) Download my plot point worksheet and the next time you watch a T.V. show, movie or read a book, see if you can recognize each of the points. It even includes an example to help you play along! You just need access to the secret section on this website that gives you a whole bunch of worksheets!
Enter your info to play along
Backstory: Me and my boyfriend have a habit of doing this. At first he couldn’t spot foreshadowing if it hit him in the face, but now he can spot the ones I miss! It’s great practice, good fun and will strengthen your story telling like crazy.
Are you making any of the following mistakes? Have you made them in the past? Let me know below!