Writing Streamlined Plots

Do you know how to write streamlined plots? New writers often try to put too much into their stories by cramming every plot line, every character and every detail into one story. I was there once—I know how tempting it can be to throw everything you’ve got at a story and hope it sticks.

Writing Tip for Today: How can writers declutter their story lines and the way their stories unfold?

The Magic Art of Tidying Up

Drafting your fiction, please don’t attempt to create and edit at the same time. If you think you’ll save time and effort by writing a perfect plot the first time, you are short circuiting the writing process. Revision could be called the Magic Art of Tidying Up Your Fiction, but in the drafting process don’t corral your ideas. The more stories you write, the more you’ll be apt to learn the best story structure—the structure that readers demand.

You’ve no doubt heard different versions of this drafting concept: Write s****y first drafts; first get it down and then fix it up; lock your inner editor in a closet. Whatever helps you turn off the inner critic will be helpful in allowing your ideas to burst out of the subconscious and onto the page. Here’s a fun one: pretend you are world famous and publishers want whatever you write, no matter what shape it’s in. Indulge your creativity by just running with it. This is similar to telling a sculptor to keep throwing gobs of clay on an armature until it looks like what he imagined.

Go with Single POV

My opinion is that many newer writers take on multiple viewpoints in their fiction before they’ve mastered single POV. Writing multiple viewpoints in a story involves much more than just rotating the narrator. If you can’t decide “whose” story you’re writing, ask yourself which character has the most to lose. Readers are generally OK with more than one viewpoint as long as they aren’t confused. You see, readers assign value to a storyline based upon your signals as their manager. If readers receive too many competing signals, they’ll be likely to give up.

Go ahead and include other characters’ well-developed back stories in your research—maybe even let them star in a sequel. Just try not to throw everybody’s story together in a stew that readers will not see as clearly as you do. Plot lines in themselves usually don’t add interest in a story. High stakes and escalating tension drive stories, but readers can only pay attention to so much at once. Including a cast of thousands in your POV scheme usually waters down the tension as readers scramble to decide where their attention should be.

Domino Effect

Ideally, your story should fall like a line of dominoes. One event changes the character, which changes the character’s next choice, which has unforeseen consequences and so on, right up until the climax scene. Each domino in the line needs to be bigger, heavier and more important than the last.

Writers will often start the story with the event or scene packing the hardest punch, thinking that they will gain and keep readers’ attention. Unfortunately, the tension and stakes have no where to go but down if you place the BIG scene first. In some stories, readers get a hint of that scene, but in general, save the worst for the climax.

There’s a writing adage that counsels against “burning down the tree” in the first chapter or scene. If the tree is gone, nothing remains to help build that tension as readers march toward the climax. Instead, consider using a foreshadowing of leaves smoldering to set up your story. Burning down the tree at the beginning of the story only telegraphs the rest of the story and gives readers nothing to discover.


About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

4 comments on “Writing Streamlined Plots

  1. Mark,
    How did you know I did it wrong 5 times, LOL? It is true that we improve by learning from mistakes. Writers who try to cut the workload on the drafting side will learn more if they give up and write really awful first drafts, followed by lots of revision. Just my two cents.
    Keep Writing!

    • It was a lucky guess, of course. When I was much, much younger, I thought I was a fast learner. I wasn’t, I just made lots of mistakes quickly. Now, I take a little more time and make lots of mistakes. LOL.
      I tell writers the first draft exists only to be a POS. Their job is turn it into a gem. We are on the same page.

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