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Plot Problems Solved

I like to be surprised. Fresh implications and plot twists erupt as a story unfolds. Characters develop backgrounds, adding depth and feeling. Writing feels like exploring.
~ David Brin

BrinNew writers tend to overthink plot. They outline and organize. Overthink and under-do. It’s safer to outline than to write. Feels easier too. Except that it’s not.

Tell me a story

Tell me a story. That’s all. The plot will work itself out. Unless you are telling an epic tale worthy of Tolkien or a mystery intricate enough to stump Agatha Christie, plot can take a backseat to good old fashioned storytelling.


As David Brin says in the above quotation, writing can feel like exploring. It is one of the joys of the craft – learning the story as it unfolds under your fingers. Start with a character, a voice, a need. Start with a setting, a conflict, a hero or villain. Explore the character or setting. What’s he like? What’s the town like? The haunted house? The deserted space station?

As the author you have to know more than anyone else — more than your main character, more than the villain. You learn by exploring the edges of your story. You don’t have to dive right into the action (though you can!) You can warm up by writing about the restaurant where your hero likes to go for breakfast.


Nothing is wasted. Don’t feel like it’s a waste of your limited writing time to write on the periphery of your story. You never know when you will be able to recycle a scene and incorporate it into the body of the story.

In that same vein do not be afraid to use a trope as a placeholder for later development. A classic love triangle, a son avenging his murdered father, a woman seeking revenge on her cheating lover… there is a reason these are time-tested plots. They were good enough for Shakespeare; they will certainly serve their purpose for you.


Your characters will tell you what they want, and what they want equals plot. Character + desire = plot. So write some scenes! Write a scene with your main character. You have a main character, right? What does she want? If you’re not sure, than write a scene where she’s hungry and decides to make a sandwich. It’s that simple. What she does now will tell you depths about her.

Does she go to her kitchen and make a brie and apple slice sandwich on homemade French bread? Does she find a slightly stale bagel thin and some baloney with a dark edge where the package wasn’t sealed properly? Does she get a bowl of cereal because she’s out of bread? Does she grab her car keys because she never cooks, not even a peanut butter sandwich.


You have a flow going with your character now. Respond to what your brain is giving you. This is a “Yes, and….” moment. Don’t stop to edit. Don’t re-read it (not yet). Just respond to the narrative and keep writing. Plot is happening. You’re writing about one woman’s epic struggle to get lunch in Boone, Idaho, and that is the heart of the scene, and scenes are the bones of your story, so keep writing. Keep “Yes and”ing until you run out of steam.


Now relax. You’ve gotten good work done, and you can take a break. Your story needs to sit for a bit, resting like bread dough. And your brain needs a break, too. So relax and let your story develop in the back of your mind. What happens next? What’s the next thing your hero wants now that lunch is done?

Don’t sweat plot. The first draft is called first for a reason. The second and third draft will give you the depth and structure of the full narrative. Right now you are just walking around inside your character’s head. Be content with that. It’s the stuff of great stories.


Fiction Engine

gearsA novel is a machine. This is never more evident than during editing. Scenes come together like the gears meshing inside an engine.
And for the writer, when the first draft is long done, and the story has lain fallow for a time, coming back to the story is like lifting the hood of your trusty car. You are now ready to edit!


When I was younger I did not care for editing. I thought that inspiration fell upon one from heaven and words flowed like a deep river. Poetry taught me the error of this thinking. I learned to love not the rush of creation but the workman-like editing. I realized that this is where true creativity happens.
So it is with fiction.

A novel is a fiction engine. You have characters, plot, motive, conflict. Bring these pieces together in just the right way and they can create an amazing machine. If you assemble your machine well enough, the reader turns the key and drives your novel away to another realm.


This concept has been on my mind these last few weeks as I edited a friend’s novel. All the elements are there, all the ingredients for a pot-boiler of a story. What it needs now is rewrites! Editing is the place where you go back to the first chapter and plant the seed that blossoms in the last chapter. Or maybe the second to last chapter…  but the important part is planting the seed and making sure that it gets a little bit of attention through the book and then at the end, it pays off.


A page of Bram Stoker’s notes for Dracula

I realize that writers who are also planners — those odd people who create more than a Post-it note sized outline — might not need this step as much as I do. Planners probably know that Jordan is a good guy who ends up helping the hero finish the job when they start writing. Me, I just know that there’s this guy named Jordan, he runs a laundry service, and he knows something about the murder. He’s impatient, overworked, and easily annoyed. That’s enough for me. I’ll learn his story as the chapters unfold. As I’ve said elsewhere, this is not the fastest way to write, but it’s the best way I know how, and more importantly it’s fun.


The novel is a simple machine. Simple machines, like one-speed bicycles, work well, work consistently, and motion is the fuel for simple machines. That is why people say (attributed to John Gardner) that there are only two plot lines: A stranger comes to town or a person goes on a journey.

Plot is the engine block of the story, and all the little bits that orbit it (damn, I’m mixing metaphors!) are the parts that make it move. You have a through-line in the novel — Character A wants to get Z. Z can be anything — the girl, the money, the killer, the promotion, the stolen diamonds.


That’s all just fine, but who is A? What’s her biggest flaw? What is her foundational behavior? By that I mean, when things are really bad, when she’s stressed to the breaking point, what does she do? Does she lash out or retreat inside herself? Does she blame others or herself? People all have this core self that only sees the light when things are in turmoil.

Once you know the answers to the questions you can plant seeds of the behavior throughout the story. I like to use stray thoughts that flash through the character’s mind. You can build/reveal cool backstory this way. For example Jordan, our laundry guy, maybe he helps the main character because she reminds him of an old flame. A quick little bit of dialog in that first scene sets up the thread: “Cindy? What are– Oh sorry, I thought you were someone–  Never mind, whatcha need?”

As you work through the revision with this mechanism in mind, you might find 2-3 places for more Cindy background, and even better you may realize that you can collapse two really minor characters into one and change her into Cindy! Suddenly your story is stronger, your characters more motivated, your reader just that much more engaged.


rube goldbergThe novel is a machine, but it shouldn’t be a Rube Goldbergesque machine! The story should use only as many characters and plot points as needed, otherwise the story becomes a mess of people and places. Your readers (if any of them stick around) will need a field guide to characters and Cliff Notes on the plot: Sir Harvey, who was really the Duke of Wellington’s third cousin, had his own plans for the cursed ruby. He and his paramour Lilly Black planned to buy a casino, but Lilly’s husband, the craven John “Jeb” Black, had learned of the plan and wanted a piece of the action…..  Fascinating subplot, lovely writing, no doubt, but does it really help move the story forward? If you cut it, what would happen?

Keep the plot simple and sleek. Yes, life is messy, but this isn’t life. This is an artistic rendering of life. In the same way that dialog is not simply real speech transcribed, your novel’s plot should not be lifted from real life. Two or three principal characters, one or two main goals, a handful of minor characters/plot points and that’s it. Your plot and characters should fit in a shoe box.
Keep your simple machine simple, and it will not fail you.

Listen to the World

So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it. ~Jiddu Krishnamurti

flower budGood dialog is essential to good storytelling. Characters need to express themselves, react to their environment, argue with each other, complain, cajole, compliment, question….  in other words:
act human.

Good dialog opens the story like a flower budding – everything expands, opening ideas and implications for the reader.


In order to write good dialog you have to listen to the world and listen to the whole of it — not just the words but the meaning. Not just the meaning but the inflection. Not just the inflection, the intent.

When you can absorb all the layers, you are on your way to reusing it for your own writerly purposes. You need to fill the well first.

Eavesdropping on family and friends is a dangerous habit that can lead to trouble. Cultivate instead the art of listening to strangers. Sip your latte and listen to the girls at the table next to yours. Maybe it’s a mundane conversation; maybe it’s disjointed, half-hearted. Maybe it’s almost nonexistent — maybe they are on their phones.


It is important to note that simply transcribing real world dialog is a bad idea. A really bad idea. Have you listened to a conversation? Really listened? It is filled with pauses, repeated phrases, verbal nods (“yeah”, “uh-huh”) and filler.
Example phone conversation:
“OK I’ll see you later,” said Macy.
“Do you have the letter?”
“What?” Benny sounded distracted.
“I said, Do you have the letter?”
“OK, bye.”

Condensed for the page:
Macy started to disconnect but then asked, “Do you have the letter?”
“I said, Do you have the letter?”
Benny mumbled that he did and disconnected the call. 

In the same way that readers should not have to read actual dialect transcribed on the page, they should not have to suffer through real-time conversations. Readers are smart; they will understand implied agreement between characters without you having to spell it out. Trim conversations as mercilessly as you do other parts of the story, otherwise your prose will stall under the weight of lifeless dialog.


conversationFor all that, there are gems to be mined from real life conversations. You might learn new slang or a different phrasing for a common saying. If you can, try to watch people talking, too. Using dialog tags (“said Alex”, “Deena said pointing her finger”) are important to orient readers during dialog blocks. And physical movements are crucial to impart meaning and nuance. For example, saying, “That’s fine,” said Macy. tells you a basic fact, a building block of the story. One character has assented to a request. But what about this instead: “That’s fine.” Macy didn’t turn her head when she spoke. 

Two ways to convey the same bit of dialog. The second one gives you another layer into Macy’s feelings and possibly her relationship to the other character. She could have many reasons for not turning her head — the reader gets to chew on that until more is revealed.


It is the writer’s duty and privilege to decide how to convey each bit of character to the reader, and dialog and the words that frame it are the prime way to do this. In the example above I first wrote Macy didn’t bother to turn her head when she spoke. I changed it – took out the editorializing (the word “bother”) because I realized I was coloring the reader’s perception of poor Macy. She hadn’t done  a thing to deserve such scorn! To say that someone didn’t bother to do something is quite different than simply saying they didn’t do something.

How dialog tags are used depends on the point of view (POV) of the story. In a first person story where the narrator (the I of the story) is mad at Macy, it could be entirely within character for the narrator to say that Macy couldn’t be bothered to turn her head. She says this from her narrative perspective — she can’t know what Macy is feeling; this is her interpretation of the moment.

In a third person narration it depends on whether you’ve limited the POV to a single character (this is my favorite POV, by the way). If you have access to Macy’s point of view, then saying that she couldn’t be bothered to turn her head is likely something that she herself is acknowledging. It is, in other words, a conscious act.

Which is all to say that you can have a first person narrator assign meaning to other people’s actions — the 1st person narrator can say that Macy couldn’t be bothered to turn her head when she spoke. It is simply important to realize that’s what you’re doing; you’re having your character give meaning to another character’s actions. Meaning that cannot be confirmed or denied.

People talk constantly; characters are no different. Learning to use dialog to effectively set the mood, illustrate character, advance the plot, and create tension will help you become a better writer. Harness the power of conversation to drive your story, flesh out your characters, and build your world.

DREADful Storytelling

Dread is a great role-playing game (RPG). Sharing similar roots to my beloved Dungeons and Dragons, Dread is a 21st Century twist on the RPG genre. DreadI wanted to talk about it here because it’s one thing to be a player in a role-playing game; it is another beast entirely to be the Game Master.

Running a role-playing game is equal parts writer, actor, and referee. I’ve talked about how Dungeons and Dragons inspired my writing journey, but this is a whole other level.

Dread doesn’t have dice. No armor class. No stats. You give your players a character questionnaire with particularly worded questions (to elicit certain avenues of response — these questions are a bit like “When did you stop beating your wife?” In fact — that would be a great Dread question.)

The pass/fail mechanic is handled using wooden “tower building” blocks – you can probably name the popular branded version of this game. That’s truly the only prop that you need to play Dread.

Gaming aside, why bother with Dread? It is one of the most story-driven games I’ve had the pleasure to play. We played a pre-generated scenario (but they tell you how to craft your own!) called Under the Metal Sky, which is set in space. As the game’s name implies, this is heavy on the horror tropes.

Being the Game Master for a role-playing game means that you (unlike your players) know the whole story. You also know what everyone has created for their own character (via the questionnaire), and you have to be ready to role-play as any of the minor (and sometimes major!) characters that your players will encounter during the game.

You are also the prop master. In storytelling games the props are like booster packs — your players suddenly have something tangible to handle, something to hear, a puzzle to unravel. It can revive them if their attention is flagging, their stamina depleting, if they’ve lost the desire to continue in the face of overwhelming vampires (not a spoiler, btw)….

Novelists write in one dimension, but a Game Master tells a story in 3-D! There are words on the page, lots of them. But there are also maps, journals, and audio recordings, pictures…. All the items that as a novelist you have to describe, as Game Master you actually create them!

I encourage writers to step outside the page and create a living story. Watching your friends work to unravel a puzzle you’ve created, playing the stubborn parking garage attendant that your friends need to charm, rewriting the story in your head as your friends do something that never, ever would have occurred to you…. that is the thrill and delight of being a Game Master, and Dread is a great place to start.

The Company of Others

Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. ~ C.S. Lewis

cs lewis

Want to be a better writer? Seek the company of other writers.

While you are writing, write for yourself alone, but when you’ve made the best story you can make, you must solicit the opinions of other writers – how else do you improve?


I love the CS Lewis quote for this very reason. Asking for critique, getting another writer’s take on our work makes us better writers. Not because the others will rip our work to shreds but because they will invariably see things that you cannot.

Beyond the mundane grammatical missteps and misspellings, another writer will notice a place where you can heighten tension or notice a spot where you underwrote the scene. Beta readers are great to tell you what plot points are confusing; other writers point out thematical opportunities, character holes, pacing issues, and the like.


Find a community – online or in person (maybe both!) – and join the discussion. Here’s how to become a better writer and valued member of a writing community: give 90% more than you receive. Yes, about 90% of the time you should be critiquing other people’s works and about 10% of the time you should be asking for input on your work.

Not everyone will do this – there are always people who will extract what they can and not give back fully. Eh, let them alone. They have their own journey. For you, jump into critique with both feet and enjoy it! Learn from it and from the company of other writers.

No one is going to steal your writing. Only you can write your story so don’t be worried about sharing your work in the world. Story ideas are in ample supply, so don’t let that worry keep you from joining a group.


Don’t be afraid of criticism. If you do plan to share your writing with the world at large, if you’re thinking you want to make a go at being a “writer” than you need to be prepared for people – hopefully not many! -to dislike your work. It happens and it’s fine. Have you loved every book you’ve read? Have you even liked every bestseller you’ve picked up? No, of course not! And so it will be with your work, too. Jumping into the writing community is great way to become a better writer, but it’s an even better way to develop a thick skin.

Three ways to be a great critiquer:
1. Give praise and suggestions in about equal measure. There are always good things to say about a piece, even if you find it as a whole to be problematic. People need encouragement – new writers especially.
2. Offer concrete ideas. If you think a sentence reads awkwardly, give your take on how it could be rewritten. If you think the section is doing too much “telling” versus “showing” (think voice-over narration versus bullets flying action), give an idea of an action to replace the narration.
3. Read as a writer. This is hard sometimes, but beta readers are ample; other writers who will read and critique, not so much. Treat the story like your own; edit it as if it were your own, and hope that others will do the same for you.

Getting the most out of having your work critiqued:
1. Listen, but don’t respond. In most in-person workshops, the writer has to listen to the full critique without interrupting. Most of your critiquing might happen online, but cultivate the ability to hear the critique without responding, even silently. This is so hard to do! I know. Believe me, I know.

A mistake that many new writers make is to try to explain. A critiquer might note a section and say, “Why did James leave the bottle? Is that significant?” and the writer will literally respond to the comment and say, “The bottle is a metaphor for his marriage.” Great. Put that in the story. Craft the scene so that the reader makes that connection. That’s what the comment is prompting you to do.

This reminds me of a story – I was at a poetry reading once and an English lit. professor was sharing a few of his poems. He read a powerful poem about his wife surviving breast cancer. The poem was good, and the last line was great — something like “in the shower my fingers find the seams and I smile a survivor’s smile.” But then he ruined the poem – absolutely, positively ruined the poem by pausing, looking over his glasses at the audience and saying, “The seams are, of course, her scars.” Well no shit, professor. So glad you cleared up that mystery! I would have been perplexed for the rest of my life.

2. Don’t get derailed. There’s a phenomenon in critiquing (in any kind of feedback, really) called switchtracking. It’s what happens when you react to the critique by critiquing the critique. (That’s a mouthful!) Basically, instead of hearing and absorbing the feedback about your story, you genuinely focus on how the information was conveyed or on how you think that person could be nicer in the forums or on how they don’t even read fantasy so why are they critiquing your piece anyway? Mostly this is subconscious – you think, “I need to help this person be a better critiquer.” and you don’t recognize the side benefit of no longer focusing on the bad things they said about your story.

3. Incorporate but also reject – not always in equal amounts! I’m not suggesting that every comment is golden and needs to be incorporated into your story – in fact, it’s important to learn to reject some feedback, too. You need to learn to hold fast to your vision of the story. An easy example would be someone telling you to set your story about migrant workers on Mars. That could be either the greatest idea of all time or the stupidest thing anyone has ever said to you. And the beauty is that you decide! You decide who, what, where the story happens.

Hold fast to your vision, but try out suggestions! People love the opening line of Thornbury Confidential (“It might sound ghoulish, but I’d been waiting for a murder case to come along“) but it used to be on the third page. A critiquer highlighted it and said, “This would be a fantastic first line.” Never would have occurred to me, but she was obviously right!

Writing is solitary work; editing doesn’t have to be! Find a group, become a valued part of the community, and get critiquing already!

Why Names Matter

If you hear a voice within you say ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced. ~ Vincent Van Gogh

blank journalThe Chinese poet Lao Tzu wrote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Your writing journey doesn’t begin when you put words on paper. It starts earlier than that: it begins when you claim the title Writer.

You have stories within you; you must otherwise you wouldn’t be here, reading this right now. You have stories within you, but maybe you can’t get them to come out. Maybe you jot a few ideas down. Maybe you don’t even get that far – you shrug your shoulders and say “Some day.” Some day I’ll write that novel. Some day.

Start Now

No one is guaranteed a tomorrow. If you have a desire to create stories, you must begin now, today. And to begin this journey you need to do two things. First you need to say aloud, “I am a writer.” And second you need to ignore the voices in your head telling you that you are not a writer. These are two separate acts, designed to handle two parts of your psyche.

Names matter and if you claim the title “Writer” for yourself, it’s like a magic spell. Say “I am a writer”, and it’s true! The phrase “I am” is powerful. You are staking a claim to time to think, time to dream, time to write. You may feel foolish affirming your identity as a writer, but it is vital.

For some time you will be the only one to acknowledge this truth about yourself. As you begin to share your work with others, they will help you affirm this mantle you’ve claimed, but no one can claim it for you. It must come, like creativity itself, from within.

Writers Write

For a long time I had to have a second part to my mantra because each time you sit down to write it is a leap of faith unlike anything else in life. To combat the fear I would say, “I am a writer. And what do writers do? They write. So get going.” I had to do this every. single. time. For about a year. Was it tiresome? Yes. Did it help? Decidedly. I completed a novel. It wasn’t very good (more on that later), but it was the best story I could tell with the tools I had available.

vincent-van-goghThe second part of the strategy is learning to ignore the negative voices in your head. As the Van Gogh quote above illustrates, ignore the voices; they will fade. Notice I didn’t say “The voices will go away.” I can’t promise that. I can promise that with time their volume decreases, and their import in your life dissolves.

Build confidence by Doing

Each word you write, each paragraph completed dampens the voices a little more. As you write each day, your skill and confidence grows and that also tunes out the voices because the voices are fear-based. I guess ultimately they think they have your best interest at heart. They want to protect you from the mean old world. Isn’t it better to stay safe in this dark room than to venture out into the scary world? That’s what the voices say. That’s what they promise: safe, beautiful stagnation.


Dare to create. Dare to tell your stories. You won’t likely be very good at first, but practice does make perfect. In the same way that you can’t sit at a piano as a novice and start playing a concerto, you can’t sit down with notebook or netbook and create a bestseller. You learn and practice and fail and succeed. It’s a journey, a glorious journey.

When I sat down to write what would become my first novel, I had just three things. A burning desire to write, the bones of a story, and years of exposure to great storytelling. I would argue that’s all you need. The first one will get you over the worst of the doubts. The second one will keep you coming back to the page, and the third one is your basic toolbox. I went time and again to one of my favorites – JRR Tolkien – when I needed an example of how to put an action in the middle of dialog or how to do a paragraph break in the middle of a speech or how to set up a description of a setting.

If you hear a voice within you say ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced……
Van Gogh’s quote presupposes that you have a yearning to create. If you didn’t, there would be no need for the voices to tell you not to. The fact of the negative thoughts, that alone tells you what I cannot – it tells you that you are a writer. Take that name; wear it proudly; dare to dream. It is a journey worthy of you.

True North

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb…. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. ~ Calvin Coolidge

Perhaps it’s unusual to look to a president for writing advice, but Silent Cal sums up the grit you need to write. That writing is lonely work is a cliche, except that it’s true. And even more, writing is screaming into the void. You have no idea, as you are putting words on the page, if anyone will ever read them. There is no guarantee – especially given the sheer volume of words being churned out for Amazon Kindle alone – that anyone outside your immediate family will ever read your work.

Forward motion

You have to put those thoughts out of your head during your writing time (and try to keep those thoughts away even when you’re not writing!) You must face true north and keep moving forward! Persistence will serve you well. The difference between Stephen King and your friend who says that he’s got a million great ideas is persistence. King has famously talked about his rejection letters. We all get them and that’s fine; it’s part of the process. The way to become a better writer is to write. And that means persistence of action and determination of purpose.


Writers need goals. Set a meaningful goal for yourself – something do-able but just slightly uncomfortable. If you think you can write 500 words during a session, set your goal to 600 words. Set a goal to write a first draft in six months and then map out the word count you’d need to have a 60,000 word draft ready in six months. If that seems too easy, great! Nothing wrong with easy. The point is to finish the draft.

There will be days that you don’t want to write. It will feel useless, pointless, fruitless. Too bad! Do it anyway. No self-fulfilling failures here. We are determined to create a new piece of art. We will persist in our quest to tell our story. We will not be discouraged.

Discouraged. What an interesting word! The absence of courage. We don’t think of it quite that way when we use the word. We’re not thinking in terms of being courageous or fearful. We mean that we’re feeling down and dejected, but as Coolidge put it in the opening quote, persistence is the key! I can’t think of a more courageous act than creating art because you want to see it. You create something that didn’t exist before! It’s nothing short of a god-damned miracle, when you think about it.


I still need courage pretty often – I’m not exactly a huge success in the book world (not yet anyway!), but my feelings when I sit down in front of the computer are different than when I was writing that first novel. Every day of creating that first story felt like I was walking a tightrope – and I’m afraid of heights! My hands would shake sometimes from the emotion of it. The bad thoughts in my head – the fears that we all face when we dare to raise our hands – I had to push them away. Sometimes it felt physical. I had to consciously, forcefully think a new thought. I had to consciously, forcefully turn myself back to true north and start typing again.

I’m here to say that it gets easier. My compass tends toward true north now. I rarely have to battle self doubt – not while I’m writing anyway. Persistence and determination are mostly baked-in now. I persist in creating new stories, and I’m determined to share them with the world. And as I think about it, that makes me a success.

The world is full of people who want to be writers, of people who are “working on a novel”, of people who started stories and haven’t finished them yet. That’s all fine; we each have our journey. For me, writing is one of the most important actions I take on a daily basis. It’s one of the most fulfilling parts of my life, and I want other people – people who crave that experience – to know that it is attainable.

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