Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Writing Wednesday: How to Fix a Broken Plot

First up, if you didn't see it on Monday, we did a huge post on our numbers for the One Good Dragon Deserves Another launch. If you're interested in self-pub and/or you like graphs, definitely go check it out!

Two weeks ago, I did a Writing Wednesday on common plot mishaps and how to avoid/fix them. But while it is true that there are some universal roadblocks to good plotting, things aren't always that simple. There are times in writing when you can do everything right and still end up staring down the barrel of a fundamentally broken plot.

For my money, this is one of the most disheartening things that can happen to an author. Here you have this book that you're super excited about, filled with characters you love, and it just. Won't. Work. Even when you do everything right, even best planned plots can break down unexpectedly, leaving you stranded in the middle of your book with no idea how to get moving again.

Whether it's your first book or your fiftieth, this is very discouraging. As someone who just came off one of the most challenging books of my life, believe me when I say I've been there. But before you think about throwing in the towel, remember: we writers are gods in our own stories. We have the power to do anything so long as it works within the rules we create. This freedom is often the same reason we got into these plot messes in the first place, but it also means there's no corner we can paint ourselves into that we can't get right back out of again.

So, with that in mind, I give you...

Writing Wednesday: How to Fix a Broken Plot

Confession: I have plot breakdowns on pretty much every book I write. Some are relatively minor, and some are catastrophic. I'm not sure if this is because I love complicated plots, or if plot failures are a natural part of my writing cycle, but whatever the reason, I get stuck on just about every novel. The upside of this is that all this floundering has given me a pretty well tested method for getting myself back on track again.

"But Rachel!" you say. "My book's super broken! I don't even know where to start fixing it!"

Fear not. It seems horrid when you're in the middle of it, but very few plots are so fundamentally flawed that a good, hard edit/kick in the pants can’t get them moving again. It might not be a fun fix, but at least you'll get an idea for where to go.

Before we do anything drastic, though, we need to ask ourselves…

Is This Thing Really Broken, Or Am I Just in a Hard Scene?

In my experience, books tend to move in patches. Sometimes you’ll be writing along just fine, and then, suddenly, you’ll hit a rough patch. Maybe a scene that looked really good in the planning stage just isn't working in execution, or maybe your characters are no longer on board with the story you have plotted out. Sometimes, I'll get to a scene I've had planned from the beginning and I'll just hate it, which especially sucks when said scene is vitally important to the plot.

Rough spots can come up in writing for any number of reasons. Sometimes they're the result of long simmering issues finally reaching a head, such as a character who's not being allowed to act on their true motivation finally bucking the script. Other times it might just be a plot decision that isn't actually as great as you thought it would be.

These sort of mistakes are a natural part of writing. Obviously we don’t put ideas that don’t work into our books on purpose! Even if you've planned every scene in advance, sometimes ideas that look great on paper just don’t work in practice. Such is the writing life. But one rough patch does not a broken plot make.

Because it’s so easy to miss these problems until they explode in our faces, and because we tend to write books in order from beginning to end, it can be very easy to feel like your whole book is broken when it’s actually just one element or scene that's causing a temporary issue. So before you employ any of the drastic plot surgery we’re about to get into, take a moment and step back from your book to make sure it’s really broken, not just dinged. If you were writing along great and suddenly hit a wall, that’s probably caused by a localized plot issue rather than a systematic one.

If this is your problem, be happy! The fix is likely to be small and quick once you figure it out. But, if your book has been dragging for a while now (ie, you’ve been forcing yourself to write things you don’t like for multiple scenes in the hopes that things will get better), your story clearly has some major issues, which means its time for drastic action.

Performing Plot Surgery 

Unlike the specific pitfalls (with their equally specific fixes) I mentioned in my last plot post, fixing a truly broken plot isn't a matter of simply applying the right solution. The sort of big, systematic problems that break books require big, systematic action to fix. This is hard, but definitely not impossible, or even really that depressing. Just speaking from personal experience, compared to the crushing defeat that is trying to maul my way through a book that isn’t working, actually admitting my plot is broken and then taking the steps to fix it feels positively giddy, like I’m making a new start. So if you’ve determined that your book is really really broken, here’s what you can do.

Step 1: Identify the Problem(s)
If you've read any of my How To posts on this blog, you’ve probably noticed this is my first step to everything. What can I say? Knowledge is the first step of any battle! You can’t fix anything if you don’t first know what’s going wrong.

Once you’ve acknowledged there’s a problem with your book, your first step is to get a handle on the size and state of the task at hand, and the best way I've found to do that is to sit down and make a list of everything that’s making you angry about your book.

This process should be as cathartic as it is functional. If you've been banging your head against this book long enough to know it's broken, you're probably pretty pissed at it. Now's your chance to deal with those feelings. Be mean, be harsh, really let it all out. You don’t have to know how you’re going to fix any of this stuff yet. That comes later. Right now, we’re just making a list of the things in this book that aren't working, so be honest and get it all out.

Once you’ve properly vented (and maybe had a good stiff drink), it's time to go back to your "Things That Are Wrong With This Book" list and start looking for patterns. Does one character/plot element dominate the list? Do your complaints start after a specific point in the book, or are they all over? Are you having trouble with what is actually happening (ie, the plot), or are you struggling with the story's larger ideas (worldbuilding, themes, etc.)? Or are your people the ones giving you hell?

I'll warn you straight up: this questioning process gets old really fast. It might have been cathartic to vent about your book's problems, but no one likes to sit down and make a study of all the ways they messed up. Trust me, though. Painful as it can be, this step is critical. It's called "plot surgery" for a reason, and no doctor rushes into an operation without performing a proper diagnosis first. The time and thought taken here to figure out what's actually wrong and which elements are causing your problems can save you from accidentally amputating the wrong plot limb later on, so don’t be concerned if this process takes a while.

Keep in mind, we are not solving anything yet. This is the research part of the process, so don't be afraid to put down problems that you have no idea what to do with, and don't be afraid to ask other people you trust for their opinion. You don't have to let them read your broken book, but being nose deep in your book can leave you ridiculously blind. Sometimes just explaining your problems to someone who has no idea what's going on can give you the perspective you need to see the forest for the trees.

You'll know this step is done when you've addressed every issue you put down on your venting list, and I do mean every issue. It might be tempting to skip over some items written in the heat of the moment as "not real" problems, but if you were mad enough to write them down, then something is wrong. It might not need a huge plot change to fix, but you should still stop and figure out why you were mad at it to begin with.

Once you’ve got your thorough diagnosis of all complaints in hand, it's time to move on to the next step.

Step 2: Go Back to Basics
Now that you’ve got a list of problems to work with, it's time to start working on solutions. Since novels are so complicated, I've found the best place to start this process is to go back to the story basics of character motivation, tension control, the stakes of the plot, and the bigger picture of your world.

Now, this is a post about plot, but plot arises from the complex interplay of all the other story elements—characters, tension, stakes, the state of the world, and so forth—working together to create the events of the novel. As I mentioned above, problems big enough to break books almost always have their tentacles in more than one area, which is why our plan of attack needs to cover all these areas equally.

So, with any problem you are having, take it down to its most fundamental levels. If it's a character, look at their motivation. Are the actions you're having them do actually in character? And if so, do those actions forward the story you set out to tell? If specific scenes or story arcs are giving you trouble, go back and identify what gives those scenes tension. Why do those scenes matter for the larger book, and what is at stake?

The idea here is to gain insight how things went wrong by looking at how our list of issues plays out at most basic story structure level. Scenes and characters don't just break for no reason. The end result might look impossibly complicated, but when you dig in, you'll probably find that everything started with a simple mistakes in the basics of story: characters, tension, and structure. Once you identify these, the places where the book went off the rails often become obvious, as do the solutions.

Another thing I like to do at this stage is to go back and look at the notes I made before I started writing. Sometimes, things I identify as problems are really just places where the story/characters tried to go a different direction than the one I had planned. If this new direction is better than the one I had planned, this problem can actually be a blessing in disguise! When this happens, the solution is to stop and replot the book from this new angle. If not--if this new direction really is a screw up and not a brilliant new path--then it's time to go back to where the plot was working and try again.

Either way, the key to this step is to keep your eyes firmly on the prize. You have to know what story you are telling, and then make sure all the basics are in place to get you there. I can't tell you how to solve every problem in your book, but I can tell you that every issue you're dealing with is happening for a reason. Somewhere along the line, something went wrong, which means we need to find and fix it. That's a big task, but if you start with the basics and work your way forward through each problem while keeping your end goal for the book firmly in mind, not only will you find the place where things broke down, you'll also often find the way to fix it, or at least go around.

Step 3: Be Patient
Once we've tracked down all the places things went wrong and why, it's time to start coming up with solutions. Often (and conveniently!) these solutions become head-smackingly obvious during the process of tracking them down, because, again, all story problems happen for a reason. But even once you know what went wrong and, therefore, what has to be done to repair it, that solution can be a lot of work, up to and including a full replot and rewrite.

This is the most drastic measure you can take with a book, but it's neither uncommon nor undoable.  Even if your fixes don't require a full rewrite, you'll probably have to rewrite parts to apply whatever solutions you discovered in the steps above, and that's fine. Your book didn’t break instantly, it’s not going to be fixed instantly. You have to be patient and really dedicate the time to do it right. Don't cut corners on your edit, and don't be lured into letting things slide. Remember: every story choice that got you into this mess was made for what seemed like good reasons at the time. Looking back, many of these decisions will probably still seem like good ideas that you can skip on rewriting, but this line of thinking is a trap!

No matter how much sense each story choice might make in context, these are the steps that got you into this situation in the first place. They weren’t the right ideas for this project, and they're not going to work the second try either, so don't waste your time trying to save bad choices. Come up with your solution and commit to doing it right. This might mean rewriting some scenes that are actually good. Don't be afraid of that. Words are cheap. A book might be late for six months, but it'll be bad forever. Don't take that risk by taking shortcuts. Save your old draft somewhere you can go back to it if you mess up, and start hacking things apart. It'll hurt now, but your book and your readers will thank you in the long run.

Step 4: Experiment
By this stage you should have a deep understanding of why and how your book failed. Hopefully, this understanding will generate its own solutions as you see where things went wrong and how to make them right, but that's not always the case. Sometimes you can know exactly what went wrong and still not know how to fix it. When this happens, it's time to experiment!

This is actually my favorite part of fixing a broken book. If I have problems that still don't have solutions at this stage, I step away from the book, open a new document, and start brain storming for out of the box solutions. At this stage, nothing is off limits. If I want to completely change the ending to solve a mid-book problem, I can do that. All that matters is finding an elegant solution to the problem at hand.

Honestly, this is where my best book fixes come from. After working so long on a broken book, getting to just go crazy with new ideas can feel incredibly freeing, and that sense of joy that comes from new creation is often exactly what I need to get back into my story. This is my chance to change or completely eliminate problem characters just to see what happens to the plot. I can change my ending and beginning, or even give the book an entirely new central conflict. The sky is the limit! I don't even worry about how these ideas will be implemented, I'm just trying to get ideas flowing.

As you come up with new ideas for how to address the book’s remaining problems, some of them are going to hit you as instantly right. Others might take more work, and that’s fine. Just keep a list of all the ideas that have merit, no matter how crazy. Once you’ve got at least one solid candidate solution for every problem on your list, we’re ready to move on to refinement.

Step 5: Make a New, Better Plot
Now that you’ve got a pile of solutions to play with, it’s time to start working the new ideas into your existing story. As I mentioned back in Step 3, some of these fixes will be obvious, if labor intensive. Less so for the solutions from Step 4, but even if you have to twist things inside out to get some of the crazier solutions to fit, your book was already broken! It’s not like all this rearranging can make things worse, right?

As you’re fitting these solutions into your new plot, don’t focus on solving the individual problems of the old one. Instead, think about how this new version of the story will work as a cohesive whole. You want these new ideas to read like they were your plan all along, so don’t be afraid to shuffle the story elements that were working before all of this started if that’s what it takes to make your new plot fit seamlessly. Remember: the goal here is to make the finished product read seamlessly. If you do it right, readers will never know you had problems!

Once you’ve worked in all your new solutions, congratulations! The plot surgery is complete. Your book should now look totally different and (hopefully) 100% more awesome!

This doesn’t mean your new plot is now immune to failure, but the extra level of thought and workmanship that goes into fixing a broken plot will definitely give you a great foundation to work off should any new problems arise. The best part of all of this, though, is that you now have a new plan to be excited about. Through hard work and smart thinking, you’ve breathed new life back into a crippled project, and you should have a much stronger book for it.

I hope my process for fixing broken plots helps you with your own writing. Thank you so much for reading! If you liked this post and you want more like it, I post new writing craft posts every Wednesday. You can get updates by following me on the Social Media of your choice (Twitter, Facebook,Tumblr, Google+) or by subscribing directly to the blog via Feed Burner. You can also see all my back writing post by clicking on the Writing label below.

Thank you again for reading! Until next time, I remain your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man author,



Kessie said...

I'm posting this to my writer's groups. This is valuable stuff. :-)

Nick Green said...

A good tip I read once: read through the draft until you get to the last bit you think is good. Then skip ahead until you reach the next bit that's good. Make a new copy of the draft, then just CUT everything between those two good bits.

Then (and I quote) 'see if the bleeding edges will grow back together again'. You might find that the five chapters you cut (because they sucked) can be easily replaced with just a few expository paragraphs. And the book is healed.

Unknown said...

I was curious as to why you thought your last book was the toughest one to write this far.

I loved all this. I think a lot of it also goes back to loving your book (the enthusiasm side you mention of the triangle), otherwise you won't have the energy to really want to fix the immovable plot points that are giving you trouble.

That piece of advice on being excited about my project has helped me re-evaluate and re-imagine my book many times so it doesn't get stale, and it doesn't get boring to write.

THank you for these posts, Rachel! We love them, even if we don't always comment....


Anonymous said...

Hi Rachel, Thanks so much for your advice here. I have been avoiding sitting back down at my desk for a couple of weeks as I'd reached a point where I couldn't see a way forward for a particular character and, therefore, the story. You've given me hope and now I'm going straight from here to my manuscript. I love your blog - keep it coming - I can't tell you how many times you've got me working again after a crisis of confidence.

Have a great week.

Suzanne (Northwich, England)

Taylor Bara said...

I think this service can save a broken plot for you!