This is the seventh in an ongoing series of Plot Fixer blogs by double RITA finalist Kara Lennox. Here are the links for Parts 1-6:
Part 1 - Your Premise Isn’t Compelling
Part 2 - How To Fix a Weak Opening
Part 3 - A Lack of Goals
Part 4 - Is Your Conflict Strong Enough?
Part 5 – Raising The Stakes
Part 6 – 5 Tips To Help Improve Your Story’s Pacing
by Kara Lennox
The following two plot problems are related to pacing.
Plot problem #9 - The dreaded saggy middle
This problem is so common as to almost be a cliché. You have a dynamite beginning. The first three chapters practically wrote themselves. You know exactly how you want it to end. You see the scenes in your mind clearly. But you have no idea what happens in between.
One time when this happened to me, I turned the novel into a novella. But if that isn't an option (and usually it isn't) you need to figure out the middle before you write. Otherwise you have your characters stumbling around aimlessly, engaging in one pointless activity after another. It might be amusing, or reveal character, but if it's not moving the story forward, it's going to sag and you're going to get a rejection letter that says your story is "episodic." This means it doesn't build, and one scene doesn't logically lead to the next. (More on "episodic" when we talk about theme in a later lesson.)
The cure for this is plot points.
Now, I promised at the beginning that we weren't going to get into plot points (or turning points, I use the terms interchangeably). I lied. But this will be short and painless, I promise.
You need at least three major turning points, when something majorly important happens, and they need to be interspersed throughout the book.
There should be one at roughly 1/4 of the way through the book, one at the halfway point, and one at the 3/4 mark. Think of these as loose guidelines, something to play with as you ponder the plot points in your book.
The following applies to a 400-page book; adjust the page numbers accordingly if your book is shorter or longer.
Introduce major characters, setting, tone, but as little backstory as possible.
We're going to lay this out by page number below:
40 10% Inciting incident should occur before this point
60-80 15-25% Turning point that twists action into new direction. The point of no return. Hero or heroine makes a decision. Character goals must be revealed at or before this point.
Escalating conflicts, twists and turns, allies and enemies, complications, character growth
200 50% Major emotional turning point--SECRET REVEALED or LOVE SCENE or FIRST KISS, for example
300 75% (or later) Turning point (dark night of the soul) New decision propels action in a new direction. Often prompted by a move from the villain/antagonist
New goal, black moment, action inevitably hurtles toward the ending
page 340 85% Last secret revealed (black moment, all seems lost)
340-80 85-95% Climax--highest tension
360-400 90-97% Plot twist--character sacrifices all--leads to resolution
396-400 99% Resolve romance (or other personal issues, subplots)
This little cheat sheet isn't meant to be a straight jacket. If you can't make it work, toss it out. If just looking at it gives you hives, toss it out.
Some people find this sort of list helpful in hammering out their story's structure or spotting what's missing, or they use it as a springboard for brainstorming. Have fun with it.
Plot Problem #10 - The plot moves too fast
I don't see this as often as a too-slow plot, but often enough that it needs mentioning.
A plot that moves too fast leaves the reader's head spinning. Sometimes the author simply doesn't explain enough, or describe enough. You don't want to weigh down those first few chapters with info dumps, but neither do you want the reader to be completely lost and confused.
If you have four or more scenes per chapter, each one very, very short, this could be a warning sign. If your readers (critiquers, editors) are asking a lot of questions because they don't understand, it probably means you need to slow down and clarify.
Make sure every scene is grounded in a time and a place. If you just jump into the middle of a conversation--certainly a legitimate way to start a scene--make sure you fill in pretty quickly who the characters are, where and when. Some introspection is needed.
If you are deep into a character's P.O.V., they are going to be filtering everything they see, hear, touch, taste and smell through their unique outlook. Make sure your introspection is true to your character. If we feel we are inside a character's head and we know what he or she knows, it has a grounding effect.
Another way a too-fast plot manifests is if the drama doesn't build. I read a book once (published, so obviously this wasn't a fatal error) where the heroine was in constant distress. She received a threatening phone call. Her apartment was tossed. She was almost driven off the road. Someone keys her car. Someone tries to poison her dog. The entire book was one event after another after another, and it was exhausting to read.
The problem wasn't that the heroine was in constant trouble. The problem was, the danger didn't build. She was driven off the road fairly early, THEN her car was keyed. That is no way to escalate stakes.
If a number of bad things are going to happen to your character, try to arrange them from least horrible to most horrible. And give the reader a bit of reaction time between scenes of high drama or high action or danger, so they can catch their breath. Then, just when the reader has relaxed a bit, BAM, you hit them with something else.
Think in terms of scene & sequel. Something happens, the character reacts, then they make a decision which leads to the next something happening. (Check out Dwight Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer for more detail on this, or Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham.)
Next time, we'll talk about how not to be predictable.
Do you have either of these plotting issues? What is the most difficult part of plotting for you? Where do you get stuck? Kara is here to answer questions in the comments!
Kara Lennox, author of Project Justice series for Harlequin SuperRomance. Kara is an award-winning, bestselling author of more than sixty novels of romance and romantic suspense, for both Harlequin and Random House.
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