Fixing your plot problems

** Guest Blog**  Gary Gibson is the author of six science fiction novels for Pan Macmillan, the latest of which, Final Days, was published in August. The sequel, The Thousand Emperors, will be published in 2012. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland.

You’ve been there. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there: the one-third slump, when a manuscript runs out of steam maybe thirty-thousand words in. Something about the story simply isn’t working.

So what’s gone wrong?

When I first started out as a writer, I read up on the different approaches used by novelists I admired. I found that many of them, particularly Stephen King, didn’t like to plan things out. They were seat-of-the-pants writers, who liked to come up with a situation, then watch where their characters took them. For such writers, part of the pleasure of writing was the sheer unpredictability involved.

All well and good, but it took me a long time to work out that this wasn’t the right approach for me. Over the next several years, I started and failed to finish a ridiculous number of stories and novels. I knew the characters, the basic story, and the conflicts. What I didn’t have was a clear enough idea where the story went after a certain point.

This continued to be a concern even when I got my first book contract. Although my first two novels, Angel Stations and Against Gravity, were well-received, I was never quite satisfied with the plot in either. I became highly stressed while trying to find the direction of the story in each. And so, when it came to writing my third novel, I took a radically different approach.

Whenever I pitch a book to my publishers, I’m required to provide a rough outline of the story. This time, I determined to write a much more detailed synopsis than before, but for my benefit rather than that of my publishers. I wanted to be absolutely sure not only how the book started, but exactly how it would end. I broke the story down on a chapter-by-chapter basis until I had approximately six thousand words of text.

Then I started writing what later became my third novel, Stealing Light. I hit a one-third slump anyway, despite all my planning. I found what had sounded good in the synopsis wasn’t necessarily panning out in the actual manuscript. I suspect this happens even for those of you who do plan your novels.

So I stopped writing and, for the next four or five weeks, did nothing but revise that synopsis. I made a point of not worrying about my deadline. By the time I finished those revisions, the synopsis had ballooned to a little over twenty-four thousand words — one quarter the length of an average novel. I had every little detail absolutely nailed down, as well as having made major revisions to some of the principal characters.

It occurred to me during this that all those seats-of-the-pants writers were being a touch disingenuous about their writing process. Either they did plan out their stories, but kept it all in their head, or their offices were filled with a vast number of unfinished stories and manuscripts. Both, I think, are true.

When I write reports for the Writers’ Workshop, time and again I find that a novel hasn’t been planned in sufficient depth, and I sometimes wonder if it’s because the author read the same interviews I did when I was young — interviews with writers like Stephen King, who can produce hundreds of thousands of words of text every year, without fail, even if much of that effort winds up in the bin.

Writers like King are the exception, I believe, rather than the rule. The rest of us, in order to write a saleable story, must instead plan everything out in as much detail as possible before we start writing a novel. Think of it as building a roadmap; without the map, you become lost in the woods, but with the map, you can see not only where you came from, but where you’re going. Without the map, you might be able to find your way out of the woods eventually, but it might take you far, far longer, and the journey might be considerably more frustrating and much less fun.

And what about if, like me, you find even with that map — that outline — your story still isn’t coming together in those early stages?

Do what I did: stop writing the book, and rework the synopsis instead. Treat those first thirty-thousand words as a kind of testbed for your ideas. Use it to figure out what does work, and what doesn’t. Give yourself permission to play around, to develop alternate paths for the story to develop. Treat the synopsis as an end in itself, and take satisfaction in developing its twists and turns. Allow yourself as much time as necessary to do this, and don’t even think about starting work on a book unless you know how it ends.

Don’t believe writers who tell you doing this can ‘kill’ the story for you: just because it’s true for them doesn’t mean it is for you, and you could save yourself weeks or months of frustration.

That third novel of mine, Stealing Light, was an enormous success, and my ‘breakout’ novel. It was also my first book to be issued in hardback, and was soon followed by two sequels. I attribute this almost entirely to the care and attention I took in plotting every twist and turn. Ever since then I still stop at roughly the one-third mark in a manuscript to revise and alter the synopsis, based on what is and isn’t working.

Instead of an object of frustration, that one-third slump has become an opportunity for inspiration.


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  • Attempting to write my first manuscript, the 1/3 mark was when I stopped and thought about what I was doing. I knew something wasn’t working. I had plotted out my novel chapter by chapter and I knew the ending, but I was having troubles with the timeline. Its still proving difficult to cover one year’s time and I’m not where I should be in terms of word count compared to the time of year, but my plan is to write the first draft and the revise, revise, revise. Maybe the 1/3 point is where the story moves from the “beginning” into the “middle” and maybe its often a tough spot to get through?

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  • what is your story about?
    maybe i can help you

  • Greg Robert

    I have started a fictional novel based on my experiences whilst living and working in Saudi Arabia. The main protagonist the brother is in the UK. The novel is along the lines of the hero looking for greener pastures abroad but returning in time to find happiness (romance) in the UK and to stop his brother from cheating him out of family inheritance. I have written thirty thousand words.
    Problems, there are too numerous other protagonists and whilst the series of Saudi Arabia adventures are very unique and interesting they threaten to make it fragmented rather than a cogent story. In short I feel I have the material but not the expertise, despite taking an OU course last year. I am therefore contemplating either Intermediate Novel Writing or Complete Novel Writing Course with Writers Workshop. Which would you recommend?

  • Harry

    You could go either way, I think. Probably best to call the office (0845 459 9560) and talk it over with someone here. The two propositions differ quite a lot in structure, commitment and cost, so it’s as much a question of your own preferences as anything more objective.

  • Greg Robert

    Thanks Harry

  • Emma Anderson

    I am trying to write my first novel. I am in university but not for writing, I’m a designer. I think it is a good place to start due to having a creative mind although I have no skills in writing and found out that I am dyslexic three years ago. Do you think I should try anway or is it hopeless for me?

    My aim was to create something truely scary, that also will make people question “what if this could actually happen?”. Everyone knows that Vampires, demons and all the scary fictional characters that we write about are not real. I have read some books that have been writen in such a way that their story fits into normal society seamlessly. I was inspired by these and sci-fi, fantacy, romance books for teens/young adults.

    My book is a horor with some romance. I started with a young woman working in Manchester as a main character who discovers who she really is after her mother was murdered. Since then my location has changed and the plot also. Now My main character is a university studen who still is to discover she is not completely human. I thought that if I use my experiences and places I know better the novel will be more beleivable. She also has nightmares she later realises are of her past, where her brother and farther were killed by the same evil woman. I am having some difficulty with my “baddies” I guess I hadnt thought it through properly before I started to write. My evil woman is around the same age as my heroine and goes un-noticed as a baddie untill she makes a move, however that is where I’m stuck. I can’t think of a way to reveal her as a baddie. I was thinking of having her kill someone but I thought that may be too obvious, or would you think it to be unexpected? I am uncertain how it would come across to a reader. If you have any advice I would be grateful.

  • Harry

    There’s no problem with being a writer if you’re dyslexic. The key thing is that you have a passion for story and are careful with your language as you tell it. As for the specific plot problem you raise – well, it’s impossible to advise unless we’ve read your work. But personally I think introducing a corpse or two into a book seldom hurts …

  • Emma Anderson

    Thank you for the advice.
    I know killing off a character may be a bit extreme however I am writing a horror. I was thinking of taking a class at some point but at the moment I have a lot to do with my course. After I graduate I will try and find the time.
    I will get there eventually, I hope.

  • Michael

    Wise words, thankyou.

  • Alex Blythe

    Wonderful article. I’ve been struggling with the same problem for years.

    I think I have enough unfinished manuscripts that, if I sowed them all together, I could recover the ozone layer. King’s seat-of-the-pants technique was something I, too, followed and began to think that the reason no stories were being completed was because I was just no good at writing. Then I stumbled across a comment by Lawrence Block-“How I write a novel works for me, but won’t work for you, because you’re not me.” (paraphrased, but that was the basic gist of it.)

    I have just started plotting a new project, leaving behind all other work because I want something fresh. What I’ve found is that even though I already had a life story for my protagonist, plotting their arc has given me even more vital information about them. She is suffering PTSD after the aerosol factory she worked at caught fire, killing her colleagues and the woman she loved. The lesbian relationship has just appeared in plotting, fleshing out more directions to take the character. She also lives with her grandmother, who is suffering from increasing dementia (and trying to keep it from her granddaughter) which sparked an idea for dear old gran to keep leaving the gas on, creating paranoia in the protagonist thinking Grandmother is trying to kill her (which she realises is stupid to think that way, but PTSD and OCD-checking every appliance and fire alarms and crazy times of the night-is creating more obstacles in recovery).

    All of that came from plotting, listing ideas that could prevent the central character from a quick recovery. Of course, if Gran dies mid-way or at the end, without plotting, I don’t think I could develop a reasonable response, psychologically, for the protagonist.

    Your advice is spot on, although I didn’t just stop writing the book, I created this whole new project maybe as a trial run, but diving into plotting has created an excitement for the a story that I haven’t had since I wrote a screenplay in secondary school.

  • Harry

    Really good comment – thank you! What you say about the interdependence of plot & character is really, really true – and it feels to me like you have the seeds of a genuinely interesting book there. (Ha! especially if it turns out that Gran, in her dementia, really DID want to start a fireball … or maybe that’s just my crime-writing mind at work.)

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  • Michelle

    Before I got part way through this article, I thought, “Yeah, but once I write a full chapter-by-chapter synopsis it stops me before I get to the 1/3 mark. I stop because I know how it ends and I don’t care anymore.” There’s no surprise for ME, which I feel like I need. I really enjoy creating a scenario, throwing some well thought out characters in and saying “Now go.” Then I read how that for some people it is like that. I feel like I develop some pretty good story ideas but if I create the ending, I don’t finish it and just put it away so I can “maybe get to it someday” and start something else. When I was in high school six years ago, I created a story; a decent plot, good characters and bad ones, though the protagonist was sort of a jerk. I planned it, wrote a couple chapters, and stopped. I put it away, and planned out another one, found I got bored of that too, and stopped. So now I’m trying it the King way, so I don’t actually know the ending, except the basics of “I need this to happen, and I’ll see what my characters do with it.” Though I surely hope my endings turn out a little nicer than his…

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  • Adam

    I have found this article quite useful in some respects, although I do not particularly suffer from a ‘one third block’ as such.
    My ‘blocks’ tend to be randomised or at a point at which I’ve found a plotting inconsistency that I probably would not have foreseen even if I had spent months on planning.
    My plots are nearly always gleaned from earlier short stories anyway, which start with a key notion, for example, ‘how would a cybernetic revolt be experienced by a normal family?’ and the rare (at present four) stories I have advanced past twenty thousand words evolve from these and the principle ideas.
    My first novel – ‘Me²’ – is a ‘fix-up’ of three shorter stories weaved together. As I was lucky enough to be able to fit these plots together into a coherent overall plot, my blocks were minimal. I suffered more of an ‘inspirational block’ of ‘what next?’ in the first half of this year after self-publishing ‘Me²’ in December last year.
    I definitely agree that good structuring is essential for use as ‘the map’. I enjoy allowing my characters to grow with the plot, like drops of rainwater trickling down a pane of glass; they are all going to reach the bottom, but they meander and traverse the glass differently. I structured Me² into three parts, as I have with my current (second) novel and it really does help to guide the plot to through its twists, and to its climax and resolution.

  • thank you for the lovely ideas. I have written many books , both in English and Urdu I always write them as the ideas came to my mind; not planning or thinking about the end. I will try now to write with planning, and revising and rewriting.

  • Christine

    Eureka! Can I say that when it’s someone else’s insight? I’ve written two ‘novels’ both ending up around 35K words long, but in my mind telling the whole story. I’ve worked for decades writing information for management and trying to condense as much content into the fewest and simplest words possible, and your article has opened my eyes to what the problem is. My books ARE long enough, they’re just not fat enough. Essentially I’ve written 2 chunky synopses. With that in mind I can now go back and starting fleshing the stories out. Another skill to master. Thank you