Five Critical Components of Any Successful Novel’s Plot

fastest-writer-on-the-world-1020206-mToday, I wanted to continue my plot series by introducing five of the toughest aspects of plotting. These are things that are rarely, if ever, good to get wrong. They are, in some ways, the “biggies” of plotting errors.

They’re kind of obvious, but that’s only because they are such “big deals.”

Sometimes these errors are fixable, with a lot of thought and a lot of rewriting. I’ve faced them before, and had to make choices about whether to let a story go, to rewrite everything from the start, or to try to salvage what I could through strenuous editing.

There’s no one right choice when you find out your plot has major issues. It all depends on how invasive the damage is, but even more, it depends on you:

  • How sick you are of the story.
  • How frustrated you feel, and whether starting over or editing the heck out of that screw-up would be a worthwhile investment of time. (It’s possible to feel so annoyed and upset that emotionally you can’t concentrate enough to make any progress, no matter how much you try.)
  • Your personal goals and plans for the book–for THIS BOOK in particular–and what the project means to you. Maybe just writing a first draft fulfilled your needs and you’re ready to let the story go and move on to something else.

I always say to write for you, after all.

Following are what I’ve faced as the “Big Ones” of plotting problems. In my next few posts, I think I’ll expound on each one, one at a time.

  • Avoiding too many coincidences. Especially coincidences that are super important: incredibly lucky or unlucky for the protagonist and your major story arc. It’s probably not a good idea to have a major shift or development of your story hinge on pure coincidence. Coincidences that are a real stretch of the imagination–of the “this could never happen” or “the chances of this are one in a billion” type–are especially tough for readers to swallow.
  • Pacing the development of your plot. Knowing what to reveal when is important. Pushing back a revelation, or moving it forward, can drastically change not only the choices your characters make, but the tone of a scene that doesn’t really have to change in substance. I feel I don’t question scene placement enough after my first drafts, and that’s important to do.
  • Determining what “side” issues and descriptions contribute to your story and which are fluff. It’s the little things that make a novel feel real and bring an imaginary setting, or at the least imaginary people, to life. And it’s easy to get drawn up in “fleshing out” your story. Now, fleshing out your story and your characters is good, but there is a line when too much extra info becomes distracting, and/or too much to remember and keep track of.
  • Making sure your dramatic conclusion is “big” enough. There are few things as frustrating for a reader than feeling let down by the end of a novel. Feeling that everything was one big anti-climax. Even when the anti-climax is intentional and you know that, it can still feel weird…. I think “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is the funniest movie ever made, but the end still shocks me every time I watch it. And that ending does fit the movie in its way.
  • Avoiding the dreaded “plot hole.” I’m always terrified to read through a first draft. I have the basics of my story down, and I’m terrified I’ll make some realization that my characters are choosing are doing B when A is a much more obvious and even simpler solution. OOPS. Even worse, as a fantasy writer I worry that my magic system won’t hold up somehow…. That in writing magic I will have violated the rules I created, and that error is critical for the plot to continue as I need it to.

I realize this post is shorter than my posts have been lately…. moving to posting only twice a week, rather than daily, has allowed me to devote more time and energy into developing each post as it comes.

This post is meant to be a “list post,” to introduce the theme I’ll be developing later on, and I didn’t want to have too much overlap between the intro and what I plan to say later about each of the entries in its turn.

Basically, I haven’t exhausted this subject, so I hope you’ll come back throughout the next two weeks to continue the discussion and share your own experiences!

In your mind, what is the toughest thing about plotting? What bugs you in a book that gets plotting wrong? Is there something you hate that I’ve overlooked? Please let me know: we can definitely add it to the conversation!

If you enjoyed this post, you can sign up to follow my blog on by email at the top right of the page. That way you won’t miss the rest of the series. Until then, if the topic interests you, you can find other posts about plot here.

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43 responses to “Five Critical Components of Any Successful Novel’s Plot

  1. Reblogged this on #StoryCraft Chat and commented:
    Whether you like to plot or not, these five structural issues are good to get right!

  2. In writing crime fiction, I am having to make certain that my subplots don’t overshadow my main plot. Sometimes the subplots can actually seem more exciting than the main one. I am finding that out, even at the beginning.

    • That can happen in crime fiction…. and that’s a good thing. Not overshadowing, i guess, but if the only thing interesting the read is whodunit, then that book will feel very long 🙂 engaging subplots are critical in crime fiction I think…. I love that genre.

  3. I have to admit that the third one is the toughest part of plotting for me. I get ideas that are great for character development or simply fun to write, but they end up giving very little to the plot. In my third book, I had a scene that was a character showing off her magic to prove she knew what she was doing and it was all to lead up to a single question by a mentor character. It was pointless, so I ditched it and added the question to another scene. I still miss the part though because it was fun to write. So, a rule I made is that I have to remember what’s fun for me might not be relevant to the story.

  4. I know the feeling of an unsatisfying ending–Interview with a vampire left me so cold I got frostbite.

  5. I appreciate your concise listing of plot uh-ohs to avoid!

  6. Another plot problem is when at the very highest tip of the climax the hero is not in control, and is perhaps saved by an outside action/force.

    I’m struggling with this in my own WIP since my hero is a loner-hero type who assists people in conquering their inner-demons. My problem is, while she IS rescuing them, the final destruction (or rather ‘banishment’) of an internal shadow can only be done by the person in direct conflict with that shadow. If a person is trying to overcome an addiction, a hero can come in and save their life, encourage/keep them away from their addiction, give the person what they need to beat their addiction…etc., but in the end the PERSON has to decide to put an end to their addiction.

    I have worked out a way that will possibly (hopefully!) still work, putting the hero in control at the most critical moment/major climax. But I have to be very careful and thorough as I work through any climax- subplot or not. There are so many ways that will not work, and very few- maybe just one- that will.

    “The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air. All I must do is find it, and copy it.” ~Jules Renard, “Diary,” February 1895

    • that is a GREAT point!!!! it’s important to have the hero’s actions matter to a substantial degree….a protagonist’s choices she largely determine the outcome of a major conflict/climactic scene.

      You’ve hit the nail on the head about why the “Deus ex machina” device is a weak one and to be avoided. 🙂

      You’re right that a person with an addiction has to take personal control and responsibility for his or her choices. But that doesn’t mean someone else can’t have a major role convincing that person to do so or helping that person be able to make that choice. You story sounds really fascinating and powerful!

      • Absolutely, if an author has put him/herself in a corner and feels a “Deus ex machina” is the only way out- then they need to go back and reference/hint to whatever this “savior/relief” in one way or another. Even if it’s mentioned and seemingly unimportant…at least then it isn’t as “out of the blue” or contrived.

  7. Avoiding coincidence every chapter is definitely one of those things that some authors should take note of. it drives me mad in some books how convenient the plot just falls into place.

    • I totally agree. There is a huge difference between one small coincidence having minor consequences and everything hinging upon one unlikely but major coincidence…. That last is really annoying and a great example of when we as authors take the easy way out.

  8. Scene placement is very important. In my first novel, after several reads, I discovered that a particular scene worked better at a later part of the story. But the fix required some re-writting and that required more work. In the end ot was well worth it.

    I’ve read several novels that included what I call filler–parts that take up space yet do nothing to move the story along. On the one hand, reading through those parts was mildly annoying. On the other hand, it taught me to take a good hard look at my own writing to make sure I’m not adding filler. I want every phrase and paragraph to be important and play a part in moving the story forward.

    Great post. I’m looking forward to reading more.

    • I agree filler material is a big problem that bogs a story down. Great example of how we as authors always benefit from reading, even from reading poorly written novels. When we stop to think why it’s annoying, and critique our own work and improve our own writing as a result…. that is what it’s all about!!!

      • I am wondering about this because yesterday I wrote a pretty lengthy scene which didn’t seem to push the plot along much, but the scene is testing the main character’s patience…so in a way it tests the reader’s patience too. Maybe it isn’t as long as I think and it just took a while to write. It does serve the purpose to expose some character traits- her impatience contrasted with her mentor’s laid-back-ness, who also is clearly pushing her patience. It was one of those scenes I hadn’t planned on but just happened. I suppose it is in a way a “first test” for her…and it then leads to the Mentor sharing his back-story. (I’m reasoning all this as I write, lol.)

        And btw, your blog is the only one I make time to read no matter what. It is a treasure chest of writing advice :). I’m going to put a thread up on NaNo (I’ve decided to not be selfish and share ;). So thank you!

        • Aw, thanks Joan! I’m so glad the blog is helpful for you!!! Personally, as a reader I don’t mind when an author puts me in the same position as a character to help me relate to that character and feel what that character is feeling.

          One thing I would say, don’t worry about whether the scene works now. Inspiration is a good enough reason to let the scene stay as is as part of a first draft. Later on, during a read through, you can get a better idea of what adjustments, if any, the scene needs. Then you can make those and get beta reader feedback. That’s how I do things, at least.

          I try to make a conscious effort not to question a first draft too much, just because if I did, I’d never get one written because I’m a total perfectionist!

      • I hear you about perfectionism. NaNo is reallyyy forcing me to try to stop second guessing everything, which has been really challenging. For example this was written late last night:

        “You need help with that?” a voice offered.
        Avila looked up. [Okay. Hold up. WHO are YOU? Avila isn’t supposed to have friends, remember? Just Mr. Cruz because they are the Key Keepers or whatever…but why else have her fumbling if no one is going to help? If I put someone in here they are going to be critical. She was late, she was frustrated, and if none of that had happened then she wouldn’t be meeting this person…or SOMETHING important wouldn’t have happened. BUT WHAT?? Oi. This really shouldn’t be counting as word count…]
        **It finally latched. [<And LAME-O is this sentence’s NAME-O. …So much for turning off my inner critic. ._. ]
        And then the bus stopped and on loaded the traveling River Dance Mimes. Oh look, there goes my sanity. Alright. 400 more words and your reward is sleep. GO."

        Starting a few sentences back, I re-routed a different path, pumped out 700 words instead and it maaayyyy actually work. No river-dancing. Though she may have to pass by a mime on the street just for the heck of including my late-night self.

  9. I find avoiding plot holes and making all the right connections between events is hard. The longer the book the harder it is to keep track of all those things. It often requires a lot of reads and time between reads to pick them up. A LOT of work.

  10. I hate number two the most, at least when I’m reading. I like to see characters work for it. And I dread number 4 the most in my own writing. It’s a big stress for me when I’m doing those first drafts.

    • Four stresses me out too when I write!!! I was really worried about it in one case, and in my current WIP I decided I needed to significantly expand closing events so that they fit the bill, so to speak.

  11. Pingback: The Tuesday Five: Writing Process (November 5) | The Daily Word

  12. Pingback: Authors: Can Plot and Coincidence Ever Work Together? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  13. Cate Russell-Cole

    Reblogged this on "CommuniCATE" Resources for Writers and commented:
    This is a helpful post from Victoria Grefer at the Crimson League. I often pass her posts on through Twitter, as she is a goldmine of information. I hope this gives you a boost up!

  14. Thanks for the insight. Found your post helpful, as I’m plotting my next novel presently.

  15. I’m not sure if I’ve got an issue or not. Perhaps you can advise. My WIP started with the leading male, a police officer, investigating a high profile murder. As the plot moves along it becomes apparent he has personal issues that he has avoided – and unrelated to the murder investigation. Nearing the climax, I finding there is more emphasis on his personal side rather than the murder investigation (and threats to his life). My intent has been that this character is maturing, becoming a person with feeling and risking giving up his old ways to have a happier life. Thus, the focus has been shifting away from the murder investigation which is a vital part of the story. Any suggetions?

    • There are lots of genres and subgenres that combine this kind of thing…. think of romantic suspense, for example. Maybe your novel just doesn’t belong to the strict “whodunit” genre a la Agatha Christie? That’s my thought reading your description here.

  16. Pingback: Different Kinds of Plot Holes in Fiction | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  17. These are 5 great tips I can certianly use in my current writing. This post is also a good reference for the readers of my blog to see. Thanks.

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