After plotting, writing, and selling over fifteen novels and teaching thousands of other authors how to plot their own novels, I’ve seen (and made) several plotting mistakes that can quickly cause a story to fall flat. These are fairly common mistakes that countless authors make. But fortunately, they’re also mistakes that are easily fixable.
So, today, I’m sharing with you the three most common plotting mistakes I see in my writing workshops and telling you how to avoid them so you can craft an engaging, tautly paced novel that will resonate with readers and leave them wanting more!
Plotting Mistake #1: A Character Without a Clear Problem
Here’s a little secret for you: human beings are not perfect. Okay, that’s not a secret. That’s pretty much obvious on a daily basis.
So, if you want your readers to engage and connect with your main character, they can’t be perfect either. They gotta be flawed. If your character isn’t flawed, your reader will give up and lose interest. Fast. Because A) It’s not realistic and B) What’s the point? Readers want to read about characters who have somewhere too, something to improve upon, a huge life problem to overcome. Like trust issues, the inability to forgive, a fear of commitment, selfishness, an aversion to risk, something! Figure out what your character’s big “life problem” is and make sure it’s evident up front in your story.
Plotting Mistake #2: A Goal That’s Not Tangible Enough
Here’s another secret for you: Everyone in the world wants something. Well, except maybe a few Buddhist monks who live in the mountains and meditate all day. They might not want anything. But the rest of us—we want things. We want a new job, a new car, a nicer house, to ask the cute boy to the movies, to win the championship game, to save the galaxy from being destroyed by the evil empire (I definitely want that.)
And so, you guessed it, our characters have to want things too. And they have to actively be pursuing that thing when your story begins. But here’s the mistake I see way too many authors make: that want or goal that they establish for their character, it’s…mushy. It’s muddled. It’s not concrete enough. Writers in my workshops all the time say, “My character wants to be happy.” Sorry, not good enough. Why? Because how do we, the reader (or the character for that matter!) know when they’ve achieved it? We don’t. Not unless you give that happiness a concrete, tangible representation. Like, “I’ll be happy when I finally destroy that evil empire who’s been wreaking havoc on the galaxy.” That’s a goal I can get behind and root for! Because I, as a reader, know when your character has succeeded.
Plotting Mistake #3: An Act 2 that’s Not Different Enough from Act 1
For the past twelve years, I have been using a plotting method called Save the Cat! to structure my novels. In fact, I owe all of my writing success and my seventeen contracted novels to date to this method.
Save the Cat! is a popular screenwriting structure method that I’ve adapted for novelists (scroll down below to find out more about my book, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and how you can get a free starter kit for the method.)
Save the Cat! is basically the three-act structure on steroids. It breaks all great stories ever told into 15 key story “beats” (or plot points). And one of those beats is an uber important beat called the “Break into 2.” This is the moment (about 20% of the way through your novel) when your character leaves an old world/old way of doing things (Act 1) and enters a new world/new way of doing things. It’s the moment when Katniss Everdeen arrives in the Capitol, Harry Potter boards the train for Hogwarts, Robert Langdon goes on the run from the French police in The Davinci Code, Maddy starts a relationship with the boy next door in Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.
The mistake I see too many writers make is not crafting these two worlds/ways of doing things to be different enough. The character doesn’t make a big enough “break” into the next act/part of the story. Act 2 feels eerily similar to Act 1 but with a few things changed. Nope. Not compelling enough. Act 2 needs to be very different. Otherwise, we, readers, will feel like we’re reading in circles. We need to feel like we’re going somewhere. We’re leaving the station and going on an epic journey! Even if your character never physically goes somewhere new (like in Everything, Everything, where she literally can’t go anywhere new because she can’t leave her house), they have to at least try something new. And it has to be something they never would have tried before. It has to be BIG. Big enough for your reader to say, “Strap in! This plot is moving.”
About the Author: Since Jessica Brody started using the Save the Cat! method, she has sold more than 17 novels to major publishers like Simon and Schuster, Random House, and Macmillan. Now, Jessica is the author of several novels for teens, tweens, and adults including The Geography of Lost Things, The Chaos of Standing Still, A Week of Mondays, 52 Reasons to Hate My Father, and the Unremembered trilogy. She’s also the author of the Descendants: School of Secrets series, based on the hit Disney Channel original movie, Descendants, and the LEGO Disney Princess Chapter Books. Her first non-fiction book, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, a plotting guide for novelists, releases in October 2018. Jessica’s books have been translated and published in over 23 countries and Unremembered and 52 Reasons to Hate My Father are currently in development as major motion pictures. She lives with her husband and three dogs near Portland, OR. Visit her online at JessicaBrody.com, Follow her on Twitter @JessicaBrody, or on Instagram @JessicaBrody