I was ecstatic when a well-known editor at a major publishing house wanted to read my historical fiction manuscript. As I waited for her response, I was hopeful but nervous. Finally, her email arrived in my inbox. I skimmed through her critique, my eyes racing down the screen. In a nutshell, she loved the book and admired my writing. In fact, she had even shown the novel to a few colleagues. But in the end, she decided to pass on the project. Why? She explained that the book was too long and had several plotting issues. For example, the political “back story” slowed down the narrative pace. And the reader had to wait almost 100 pages for the main character, Elio Sardolini, to finally meet Lucia, the woman he’d fall in love with.
The news hit me hard, but in the end, I had to agree with the editor. My plot did have problems. And the book was far too long. Up to that point, I hadn’t learned the intricacies of effective plotting. I had convinced myself that literary fiction didn’t really need a very strong plot and that a compelling narrative voice would “cover up” any slow sections by engaging readers and making them care about the characters. This would drive the story forward–or so I hoped. But obviously this wasn’t enough.
Humbled and a bit shaken, I decided to learn and master effective plotting. And so, over the next 6 months I reworked the plot and performed major surgery to trim the book. I’m happy to say that the outcome was far better than I had hoped. Since it was published, I’ve heard from quite a few readers that once they start reading the book, they can’t put it down. Others have said they stayed up late into the night and made excuses to stay at home and finish the book. For me, this is the highest praise. It means my plot “works.”
And so, I’d like to share with you some tips I’ve learned so you can avoid common plotting missteps:
1. Don’t get side tracked by background information. Instead of pages of information on the history of fascism, for example, I interspersed short chunks of essential information into the context of a scene, so the narrative pace would not stall.
2. Don’t get lost in your descriptions. The reader doesn’t need pages and pages of prose to set a scene or describe a character. This can be done just as effectively by selecting a few key descriptors and making sure that these details also serve to advance the plot. For example, in the opening scene of my novel, I wanted to describe a remote Italian village in 1930, but I also had to set the stage for a car accident. Even though it was tempting to describe the village and people in detail, I also had to select details which would serve both these purposes. Here is the final result:
The three men from Montebello had never seen a machine so fast or so beautiful before. They were smoking near the bridge in an oasis of shade because the summer heat had lingered that year, exhausting nearly everyone except for a few children who shrieked and laughed in the stream just beyond the road. In this swelter the men could do little more than start conversations and idly drop them like the ashes flicked from their cigarettes, until one of the policemen glanced down into the valley where pillows of dust were rising from a lone car, speeding past donkeys, ramshackle cottages, and paesani men and women with sun-dried faces, stubbornly farming in the shadow of Monte Vesuvio. He pointed.
3. Prepare the reader if you are picking up a plot thread later in the book. In order to “set up” the arrival of the antagonist Donato Buonomano on page 100, I made sure that other characters talked about him throughout Part I, and each mention added an element of suspense or cast doubts about his character and motives.
4. Make sure the antagonist and the protagonist are an equal match. Even though this seems obvious, some writers stack the deck in favor of one character, making it less than a fair fight. How long would you have cheered for the unemployed, single mother Erin Brockovich or the clumsy FBI agent Gracie Hart in Miss Congeniality if you thought she’d lose? Even underdogs have to reveal a glimmer of potential, or remarkable determination or strength of character for us to believe they just might win against great odds. If possible, throughout the book, tip the scales, so that your antagonist and protagonist take turns winning and losing. This will drive the plot forward and have readers racing through the book to see who wins in the end.
5. Raise the stakes. With every plot twist, the stakes should get higher and higher so there are greater and greater consequences for the main character. Finally, at the climax of the book, you should leave the character at the brink. In other words, he or she will have to make a very difficult choice. Or, he or she will face a situation that has pushed him or her to the very limits.
6. Use the dialog to advance the plot. There’s nothing worse in fiction (and in real life) when a conversation has no point, doesn’t provide new information, and doesn’t reveal character. Keep this in mind as you edit your manuscript.
7. Don’t be predictable. The reader will lose interest in a character who is nothing more than a stereotype. The same is true for the plot. Remember the thrill of reading a story where an unlikely hero turns the tables and surprises everyone by revealing a hidden side of his/her character and overcomes great obstacles? (Fans of the classic book The Scarlett Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy will know exactly what I mean.)
8. Be a surgeon and make judicious cuts if the book is too long. How long is too long? The industry standard for first novels is around 100,000 words according to Writers Digest. Why? Longer books cost more for publishers to produce. And first novels are a gamble. So why raise the financial stakes? It’s far safer to cut the book. To keep things in perspective, the average book length is around 80,000 words, according to a report in the Huffington Post. If that seems low to you, keep in mind that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a mere 64,531 words and the behemoth Moby Dick weighs in at 209,117. And what was my final word count? 106,791– within the acceptable range–according to these Writers Digest recommendations:
80,000 – 89,999: Totally cool
90,000 – 99,999: Generally safe
70,000 – 79,999: Might be too short; probably all right
100,000 – 109,999: Might be too long; probably all right
Below 70,000: Too short
110,000 or above Too long
What plot techniques have you tried that work? What lessons have you learned about plotting? For more information on effective plotting, I’d recommend the following books: