The 9 Mistakes Most Writers Make When Trying to Plot Their Novel
Bijgewerkt op: 12 dec. 2022
Plotting mistakes are pretty common. After all, there’s really no one way to plot a novel, and most writers figure it out as they go. However, there are some mistakes you’d want to avoid. Below you can find some of the mistakes authors make when outlining their novels (and how to avoid these mistakes).
1. Not clear on the genre
When we don’t know what type of story we want to write, it’s incredibly difficult to create an outline for your book. Each genre or plot type comes with certain conventions and expectations. If you don’t know what you want to write, you don’t know what you should include.
So, first, consider what type of story you want to write. A romance? An epic fantasy adventure? A heist? If you’re not sure, think about a story that inspired you or what your general idea for the story is. What’s at stake? Is it something physical, societal, or romantic?
Once you’ve figured that out, you’ll start to have an idea about the kind of novel you’re writing. For instance, perhaps you realize you want to write an action rebellion or a cozy mystery.
Be clear on your genre when you start plotting your novel. The rest will follow.
2. The stakes don’t escalate
If the stakes of a story don’t escalate, it’s not really interesting. So, how do you escalate the stakes?
First, identify which value is at stake. This is tied to the main plot you chose for your novel. If it’s physical stakes, consider how you can increase those physical stakes at pivotal moments in the story.
Or, if you also have subplots, consider how you can use the values at stake in these subplots to escalate the stakes. For instance, if you have an action story with a romance subplot, how can you use the romance value at stake to escalate the physical value?
For instance, perhaps the antagonist has kidnapped their lover, and they’re forced to give themselves over to the antagonist to save their lover. That way, you use your subplot to escalate the stakes within your main plot: the protagonist is now captured, which means the physical stakes become more severe.
3. No external events that force the character into making decisions
Speaking of escalating stakes: you need good external events that force your character into a dilemma or crisis. They need to make impossible choices.
Often, the external events aren’t strong enough to force a decision, even though the character does make them. This makes the decisions feel unprompted or unnecessary. Or perhaps the character doesn’t make any decisions at all, facing no dilemmas.
Stories are about choices, so this is an important one.
Consider if your events actually trigger a dilemma or if you need to change them.
4. Unclear antagonist
We all like to think about our protagonist and witty side characters, but we often neglect the antagonist. Which you definitely shouldn’t do, as the antagonist drives a large part of the story. It’s often their actions that put the protagonist in impossible situations—their actions that force a choice.
So, before you start plotting, think about your antagonist. Who are they, what do they want? And why is the protagonist in their way? Or why does the protagonist challenge them?
5. Unclear goal
Your protagonist needs a goal. As readers, we need to know where they’re going. This has to be clear from the start. The initial inciting incident should trigger a certain goal within the character. For instance, a loan broker comes by the protagonist’s house to demand their money back, but the protagonist is broke. Their goal will then become to get the money, fast.
Note that these goals can change over the course of the story (and should). In our example, by the end of the first act (the global inciting incident), the protagonist finds out there’s a big reward for whoever saves the princess from an evil villain who holds her locked in a tower. The protagonist’s goal then becomes to save the princess to strike up the reward, so they can pay off the broker.
As I said, goals should change and transform. And the most interesting will be when a protagonist faces conflicting goals.
Would you like some help with plotting your novel? Then my Easy Outlining workbook is for you! It uses my system to guide you through plotting your novel until you feel confident enough to start writing your first draft. It moves from a rough outline to a completed scene list.
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6. Not plotting any character arcs
What makes a great story isn’t just the plot itself: it’s the characters. So, as you plot, you should take your character arcs into account. Which characters will change throughout the story? In what way do they change?
What events are necessary to make that change happen? After all, people don’t just change unprompted: something needs to happen so they change their ways and views.
Use your plotting time to figure out how to merge your protagonist’s arc with the external plot.
7. Having no good understanding of story structure
This perhaps goes without saying, but if you want to plot effectively, you should have a decent understanding of story structure. The best way to learn more about story structure is to read some books. Some favorites of mine are:
Related: Review of The Write Structure
8. Including subplots that don’t support the main story arc
Most stories don’t have just one main plot, they also contain subplots. Usually, this includes one internal plot and an additional external plot. You can have more, but note that the more you have, the more difficult the writing process becomes.
The important thing here is: don’t add a subplot for the fun of it. Make sure it ties to the main story arc in some way. How do events in this subplot escalate or support the stakes of the main plot?
9. Sticking rigidly to the outline
An outline is a tool you can use to write your first draft. However, it’s not set in stone. So, don’t treat it as such. If you get a strike of inspiration as you write but it doesn’t fit your outline, don’t disregard it. Use it. You can always figure out later how it fits within your story. Perhaps the story goes in a different direction altogether.
Now you know which plotting mistakes to avoid
The above are, I believe, the most common mistakes writers make when plotting their novel. However, there can be more.
Don’t let these mistakes overwhelm you, though. You can get better at plotting by reading some good books on story structure and through practice. If you’d like some additional help with plotting your story, you can also work with me through my plot critique service.
Want to know whether a plot critique is right for you? Read here when to get a plot critique.