What To Do When You Hit A Plot Snag

by Lillian Csernica on June 24, 2013

There you are, sailing along, achieving your process or productivity goals, when suddenly you crash into that iceberg of despair, the Plot Snag.

You’ve written yourself out on a limb.  You don’t know what to do next, who does it, why he or she does it, and where to go from there.

You’ve painted yourself into a corner.  Simple logic plus the conditions you’ve set up in your story dictate a few limited possibilities, none of which will take you to the ending you want to create.

You’ve discovered a logic flaw that will require considerable rewriting to repair.

Somebody in your critique group points out that your Crucial Gizmo a) can’t exist in the world of your story due to lack of materials and/or technology, or b) wasn’t invented until fifty years or more after the period of your story.

Your main character is making decisions and acting on them in a way that might advance your plot, but does not ring true in terms of characterization.  If an author has to treat characters like puppets just to push the story along, there’s something wrong with the story.

Let’s not even talk about that dreaded sin, Author Intrusion.  The writer who thinks that’s any solution to a plot problem needs to sit down with the works of the Masters and abandon all such shabby tricks.

So what do you do?  Read back through the story and find the point where the plot started going in the wrong direction.  It might have been a line of dialogue.  The main character mulls over some new information and makes a decision that takes him or her to a place that not only doesn’t advance your plot, it tangles up the story.  Maybe there’s something wrong with a particular character’s motivation, and that causes complications that interfere with the desired course of the story.  Once you’ve identified that point of divergence, then you can start steering the story back on course.  Don’t think you have to throw out everything after that point of divergence.  Some of what you’ve written might still be useful.

I mentioned the works of the Masters.  Let me offer some comfort and inspiration from these fine authors:

Stephen King, On Writing“There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

James M. Frey, the How to Write A Damn Good Novel series: “You can kill the spell of identification just as easily as you can create it—if you lose the readers’ sympathy for the character.  You can lose reader sympathy by having your character commit acts of cruelty to another character with whom the readers identify more strongly or for whom they have strong sympathy. You can lose reader sympathy by having the character make dumb choices—acting at less than maximum capacity. The idiot in the horror story who responds to creepy noises by going into the attic armed only with a candle is an example. You can lose reader sympathy when a character seems too ordinary, is stereotyped, or doesn’t struggle hard enough. The reader wants to cheer a fighter, not witness a milquetoast wallowing in, say, self-pity.”

Nancy Kress, Beginnings, Middles, and Ends:  • The shape of an effective scene is this: First, it orients us in time and place (How much time has passed since the last scene? Are we in the kitchen or outside on the patio? What does it look like?) The scene introduces a question we want answered (What will the heroine decide to do now? How does this new piece of information change things?) Finally, it finishes on some sort of slightly rising note: another question or a heightened emotion or a new complication or a change of situation—something to keep us reading into the next scene.  (This quote comes from Nancy Kress on How To Get Out of the Slush Pile)

Jack Bickham, Scene and Structure  “Writers write.  Everyone else makes excuses.”

Lawrence Block, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit:  “One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly.  I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or ten pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want.  I’ll have lost nothing–writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”

The Plot Snag is just a speed bump on the road to completing your story.  It can be annoying and inconvenient, but it can also be avoided by planning ahead.  That can mean a full scene by scene outline, or it can mean a few notes jotted at the end of one work session to keep the next session on track.  Remember, rewriting is your friend!


Filed under fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Writing

3 responses to “What To Do When You Hit A Plot Snag

  1. I’ve hit a few plot snags. Usually, I don’t have to go too far back to figure out where I went wrong. Maybe a chapter or two.


    • That must be a relief. I just hit a characterization conflict that blew up two and a half chapters. I think I’ve figured out the damage control. Historical fiction has its pitfalls!


  2. Pingback: Determing the best POV and tense for your novel Part Two: Working Backwards | Page by page

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