One of the number one problems we see from writers is a plot that drags at crucial moments and doesn’t seem to move forward in any particular direction. Rescuing a plot that drags is a self-editing skill that, once mastered, will change the way you write forever. This is an incredibly in-depth topic and one we could write about at great length. However, we have started with the six most essential self-editing techniques you can use to edit your way out of a dragging and directionless plot.
In order to keep forward momentum in your writing, as with anything, you need to establish a direction and an end goal from the outset – whether it is a journey of character development or an action-packed plot. In its simplest form, this means that the protagonist has a need or desire that he has to fulfil, roadblocks and barriers along the way and a final climax in reaching and achieving his goal.
The goal doesn’t have to be a big ‘blockbuster’ goal. This format can be approached in different ways, to varying degrees and with both internal and external obstacles being overcome. However, it does have to have big consequences for the protagonist if he doesn’t achieve it, or at the very least, consequences that we care about.
Action This: Determine what type of goals your protagonist is heading towards – whether they are physical or emotional. Clearly define the protagonist’s main goal, summarise it in a sentence and draw out a basic path of how he reaches that goal.
Intention and purpose are at the very core of forward-moving writing. Having applied the basic ‘end goal’ framework to your story, every word, every piece of narrative, every dialogue and every event – no matter how large or small - must in some way contribute to the protagonist moving towards this final goal.
Writing with intention and purpose can be present in the tiniest of details that contribute to the end game. It doesn’t have to be all about big, blazing arrows that point to an incident and make the plot predictable. Some of the best writing is writing that merely hints at something, but the reader senses that the dialogue or piece of narrative is there for a reason. For example, there is a big difference between:
“Staring back at himself in the mirror, he brushed his teeth, spat out the toothpaste and wiped the sweat from his face. As he left the room the door closed behind him.”
“Staring back at himself in the mirror, he brushed his teeth, spat out the bloody paste and wiped the stale sweat from his face. As he left, the door swung slowly shut, leaving just a crack of dark shadows in the room behind him.”
In the second version, we have given each of those steps meaning and purpose, we have created significance with the bloody paste and the stale sweat – and the reader starts to ask questions. Why stale sweat? What is the blood from? What darkness is left behind in the room?
Action This: Keep your goal map to hand. Read through your draft and pick out any areas where you feel the plot slows. Study these sections and determine that every description, every piece of dialogue and every incident has a reason to be there and each of those reasons contribute towards bringing the protagonist closer to the person he needs to be to achieve his goal, or closer to actually reaching that goal.
Don’t be afraid to try cutting out an incident – re-read and determine whether losing the incident has had any bearing on the story or the character development.
Forward moving plot is about more than just events – it is also about characters that develop and evolve into the person they need to be to play their part in the story. The protagonist has to reveal enough of himself along the way, through inner and external conflicts, to make us really care about the consequences he faces.
Behind every compelling protagonist is a change or development of character before our very eyes. Character development allows the reader to feel as though they are really getting to know the character and the part he is playing. Furthermore, as the protagonist’s character is revealed, the reader becomes more invested in the events happening around him and gleans a greater understanding as to why events are unfolding the way they are.
Action This: Determine what you want the reader to know about the protagonist and why it is significant to the story. If it isn’t significant, consider losing it.
Be careful how much information you release to your reader. What the reader is privy to should be relevant and significant. We don’t, for example, need to be told that the protagonist loves going to the cinema and his favourite colour is purple, unless however, the protagonist is a serial killer, his murders take place in a cinema and his calling cards at the murders are purple.
Lengthy exposition dramatically alters pace and flow and is usually due to ineffective character development and the inclusion of excessive backstory. Contrary to what many writers think, backstory does not have to be spelled out in great detail. It will be much more effective if inferred and hinted at throughout the story.
Action This: Consider feeding significant points to the reader through alternative means, such as snippets of observation through narrative and dialogue. For some of the most skilled writers, it is what they say by not saying it that is the key to effective character development. This is the ultimate in ‘show don’t tell’ and mastering this will improve your writing dramtically. You would be surprised at how much a reader actually picks up from reading between the lines. Take note of it next time you read a novel – how much is the writer actually saying and how much of it is being inferred.
Even the smallest of events and incidents must have some kind of purpose. Whilst they may not necessarily relate directly to the end goal, they may relate indirectly, creating twists and turns, revealing more of the protagonist’s struggles as he makes his way towards his goal.
Action This: Map out some small loses and wins on your path to the goal. Make sure these don’t develop into a lengthy or heavy sidestory that will slow the pace. Keep them simple and effective. If the small wins and loses however have no significance to character development or if they don’t give us clues as to the direction of the plot, either give them purpose or be ruthless and cut them.
Rhythm and tension are fairly inseparable and there is a big difference between a mad exhausting dash to the end goal and a slow meandering amble to the finish. One will leave the reader exhausted and the other risks the reader becoming bored. The key to avoiding either of those scenarios and keeping up rhythm and forward momentum is variation.
Action This: Match the tension and the pace in your writing to the tension and the pace of the scene. Lengthen sentences for a build-up, punctuate these with short punchy sentences for impact. Allow for pauses, allow for breathers, for moments of laughter and allow for a big crescendo tumbling back down to a slower pace.
Whilst these are just a few of the techniques for helping a dragging plot, learning how to tackle edits like these will really help you improve your writing. Writing with intention and purpose and achieving a plot that moves forward with grace and ease is a tricky skill. It is also incredibly hard to be objective and spot those areas where your plot needs the most therapy. Develop the skills of an editor and a writer and wear both hats interchangeably and you will improve your writing no end.
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