Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 4, 2019

Getting Lost: When Your Plot Hides Behind the Details

by Janice Hardy

I work with a lot of new writers, and a common frustration I see is getting tangled up in the details of the story and being unable to see the larger problem. These writers have a general sense of what they want their novels to be about, but they keep focusing on the specifics of individual scenes and not the bigger picture.

Say your novel is about a couple who reconnect years after their relationship ended and rekindle their romance. You know there’s a history between these two, and that they broke up over trust issues, but you’re not sure exactly what happened. You feel confident you’ll figure it out later and write (or outline) away.

You create a slew of decent scenes that show them rediscovering each other, feeling that spark again, feeling unsure because it didn’t work out the first time, but also feeling the pull and urge to try again.

Then you start having trouble, because the setup is over and it’s time for the actual conflict to begin. You have them fight, but over silly, general things, so it feels superficial and not at all what you want.

So you tweak.

You change the job of the one character and the goal of the other. Instead of a clerk, he’s a sales manager, and instead of wanting to go back to med school, she wants to open a bakery. You create a whole mini-arc about his need to hit an impossible sales goal that’s creating all kinds of trouble in the romance. You give her a nemesis who wants the location she’s trying to get for her shop.

None of this addresses the issue of why they broke up or what their baggage is, so the plot still doesn’t work.

You change things further, connecting his sales problems to her bakery in some way so they’ll have something to fight about and create that much-needed conflict. You make the nemesis an old flame of his to add to the pressure.

And you still can’t get past the general setup of the novel.

By this time, you’re ready to rip your hair out and throw your laptop across the room, sure the novel is doomed and you’re never going to get anywhere with this story you love so much.

And you’re right, because you’re lost in the details and ignoring the bigger picture. No matter how many things you change, nothing actually changes because the real problem isn’t being addressed.

Luckily, there’s way out of this mess.

Step Back and Look at the Big Picture

Your novel has a main problem, and that problem will drive the plot (the core conflict). Your main characters—particularly the protagonist and antagonist—will have goals they need to resolve by the end of the book. It’s possible you’re lost because you’re not sure what that main problem is yet, or only have a vague sense of the premise. Being fuzzy about what the goals are will make if difficult to know what needs to happen in your scenes.

You can’t fully understand how the story details fit if you don’t understand the larger conflict behind it all. Knowing the couple has “a bad past together” doesn’t give you enough information to write their scenes, or know what’s really behind their romantic problems. Was that past infidelity? A lack of attention? Attempted murder? Know what happened matters.

Even when you know a little about it, such as “trust issues,” that often makes it worse, because now it feels like you know the reason behind the conflict. And you do, sort of, but the details are still missing. Those details are necessary to understand the backstory, and thus create the conflict that will drive the plot. How was the trust broken? Who broke it? Have circumstances changed that would prevent the same thing from happening again?

If you don’t know, you can’t choose the right details to bring the scene to life. You wind up choosing random details that don’t serve the story about past lovers torn apart by trust issues.

Look to Your Characters’ Goals and Motivations for Guidance

The goals might not be fully developed yet, but knowing what your characters want will guide you to crafting the right plot for them to get it. Ask what they want. Ask why they want it. Ask what they’re willing to do (and not do) to get it.  If you can’t answer those questions, or can only give vague answers, that’s a red flag you need to spend more time fleshing out the goals and motivations of that character.

It could also mean you haven’t given enough thought to their backstory, which typically explains why they want that particular goal or why getting it is a problem. The stronger the character arc, the more likely the backstory matters to the plot. Past wounds will play a big role in how that character behaves.

Maybe you chose the goal before you decided why. It’s not unusual to know your character needs to do X for plot reasons, but have no idea why from a character perspective. Using my reunited lovers as an example, you might know they need to not trust each other because of their past history, but without knowing the details of that history, the mistrust feels weak. There won’t be any real conflict in the scenes to cause that mistrust, and the characters end up looking childish and petty.

Details are terribly important in a novel, so we need to choose the right ones to illustrate our story. But we also have to be objective enough to notice when we’re getting tangled up in the details and forgetting what the story is about.

Don’t get caught up in details that don’t serve your story. Do enough brainstorming to figure out the problems and conflicts facing your characters, so you know the right details to use to drive your plot.

How much do you usually know about the goals and problems of your characters? What methods help you discover this information?

* * * * * *

Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.

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Want more on how to craft strong conflicts and solid story problems in your novel?

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34 comments on “Getting Lost: When Your Plot Hides Behind the Details”

  1. Janice, "Bingo", you have described my struggle to develop a plot perfectly. I think I may have finally grasped a connection with my protagonist's internal motivations that will drive him through the story. All this on the first cup of coffee. Thanks!

    1. Oh good! Glad it triggered a few ideas. I've been running into quite a few writers having this same struggle recently, so it seemed a good thing to talk about.

  2. I tend to be surprised by my characters. It's usually several chapters in before I know enough of their back story to deal with their conflicts. In my current book, all I knew about my heroine was that she'd inherited a run-down house and it was going to create problems for her. I knew even less about the hero. He was a cop, so I knew there was something in his past that made him become a cop, but didn't know what it was until I got further into the book.
    Once they reveal these secrets, I can go back and filter in the necessary details. Often, I'm surprised that my subconscious has written them already.

    1. That happens to me as well, since I pants my characters. And my subconscious is TOTALLY a much better writer than me, hehe. I so get that. Even a plotter like me can only know so much before I start, and a certain amount of "let's just see where this goes" is important and good. I'd imagine pantsers would do this a lot more.

  3. Great advice, Janice! I haven't always done this well, though I once had a premise so crazy that it forced me to ask, "Okay, what could have possibly happened in these people's lives to make them act this way?" And that's honestly a good question to ask for any of my setups!

    1. Thanks! That is a good question! That's all part of writing. I'm certainly not saying to ignore details or letting your imagination run, but for those struggling to find their story, this can be a reason.

  4. Hi, Janice - long time no see.

    One of the benefits of plotting with Dramatica, as I do, is that the big plot point, the stepping stones from the beginning to the end, are actually the first thing you decide. By the time you've figured out the throughlines, and woven them together in the right order, you have the 'big picture' all locked down.

    The goals and problems are specifically identified, by you, and stored.

    Then everything else is detail. You have to be a plotter to prefer this approach, and it has a long learning curve, but at every step there is a spine to measure progress against. And you have a great deal of material, again figured out in advance, to flesh out characters and plot points at a finer grain. And you know where you're going, and it remains to discover the how, which is the fun part (and a lot of work) in writing the scenes.

    I like the way it hangs together when I'm finished writing.

    1. Hi there!

      That's my process as well. Big picture, then fill in the steps to get from point to point. I've never used Dramatica but I'll have to take a peek at it. Sounds like it fits my style. I built my own templates to suit my process, which usually serve me well.

      The knowing where you're going part is my favorite aspect about this approach. I like to say "I know where I'm going, but don't always know how I'll get there." I plot extensively, but pants my characters, so there's always a good chunk that happens on the fly.

      1. I don't recommend Dramatica, especially not to beginners - it takes a lot of time to learn to use it well, and without that depth it isn't as usable as most other methods.

        But I swear by it because of how it aids my writing process, and lets me work in small chunks of story, knowing their connection to the whole has already been decided.

        I pants the writing, the how, but from material already gathered, and arranged in rough order before I start.

      1. I can recommend a book which helped a lot; beyond the basic Dramatica, A new theory of story, written by the co-creators, Dramatica for Screenwriters has lots of detailed examples of how to use the theory or the software (which is much less expensive than it started). Those examples are crucial, especially with the terminology. Armando Saldaña Mora is a professional screenwriter, and makes it much clearer how to use the theory.

  5. I am a "want-to-be" writer and love this site. Yes, practice makes perfect...or at least a lot better
    so onward. Thanks to each of you for sharing.

  6. Hi Janice, interesting advice, as always from you.

    I can only say that even though for me every story works differently, when I start writing I have at least a decent idea of the central crisis around which all the book revolves. I find this strategy helps a lot. Especially for a pantser like me. I think I could say find the big picture looking hard at the most important scene of the book and then working around it.

    1. That's a good way of looking at it, and I'd imagine useful for pantsers. That's essentially keeping the core conflict in mind, maybe the core inner conflict if it's more character driven. It's enough of a goal to keep your story focused on where it's going and what you're exploring in your plot.

  7. Great post, Janice. One tool most new writers don't know about that can help you keep an eye on the big picture is the log line. Most people think it's something you come up with after you write the book and are getting ready to pitch. Not so! Developing your log line in the beginning will give you a clearer picture of what the most important elements of your story are and help you to maintain the focus as you write. I'm not saying that the log line can't evolve during the writing process, in fact I'm sure it will. but evolving and changing your log line requires conscious effort, so any changes will be well thought out.

    1. Thanks! Absolutely. I write my log line and my query blurb before I even start potting, so I'm firmly in your camp there for the same reasons. It's such a great tool for pinpointing what the story is about and where the conflict lies. If I can't write a query, I know I can't write the novel. Log lines are even more focused.

    2. I bow to people like you two. The only way my loglines get written before a book is finished is when Laura Drake does it for me. Loglines are not my superpower. Humor, snappy dialogue, imaginative storylines? Fine. But not loglines.

      1. Ha! I can help you with that Jenny. Do you want the PowerPoint from my presentation on log lines and tag lines?

      2. Different brains, different superpowers. Humor is hard for me, so it all works out. 🙂

    1. Thanks! I do, too. I view a synopsis like brainstorming on paper. It's great for getting those "first ideas" down so you can come up with even better ones.

  8. Thank you Janice, ^ such a great summary of related articles to 'see the big picture.' As an airy-fairy pantser, I'm finally leaning towards the log line, blurb and synopsis start, to solve endless rewrites, all of which join the mound of 'stuff too good' to throw away....and I'm drowning in it.

      1. Thank you, Janice I read your articles and like the way you explain things. I just need to follow instruction. From your link, above, Michael Hauge's Six Stage Plot Structure appeals most to me. I like the 'essence' and 'identity' aspect of it.
        Thanks again, Wendy

  9. Okay, I'm reading this, carried along by the fine prose, and start wondering: "Surely no writer could get THAT lost..." Then I remembered "The Muse" (1999), where exactly that happened. And actually got tweaked, sold, shot and released. At the time, I thought the concept was at fault, despite sounding good: Screenwriter develops writer's block; Muse comes and saves him.

    After reading your post, I'm thinking, "Nobody stood back and looked at the big picture. Nobody revisited character wants and needs." If they had, it might have saved the picture. Or they might have realized the plot was Sharon Stone ex machina and cancelled it. Not every concept holds up under development.

    Great post, great comments!

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