5 Common Plotting Mistakes to Avoid When You’re Writing a Novel

5 Common Plotting Mistakes to Avoid When You’re Writing a Novel

A plot is the series of events that illustrate a story. It’s not the theme, the characters, the character arc, or the idea behind the novel — just what the characters actually do.

Because it’s so simple, it’s easy to overcomplicate the plot and get your manuscript into trouble (often right around page 50 or page 100).

If you’re struggling with a troublesome plot (or lack thereof) right now, take a look at these common plotting mistakes.

1. More premise than plot

A great idea is a wonderful thing, but it takes more than a premise to create a plot.

Many novels fail because all they are is a premise.

For example, “Four siblings go through a magical wardrobe into another world” is a concept with lots of potential, but there’s no plot to be found. It’s what the siblings do once they get to that magical world that creates the plot.

The characters’ decisions determine how a plot unfolds.

In contrast to the example above, “Four siblings go through a magical wardrobe into another world and must defeat an evil queen enslaving the land” is a plot.

Are you making this mistake? State your idea in one sentence. Does it contain what your protagonist has to do by the end of the novel?

If not, you might not have the core conflict needed to drive your plot.

2. Not enough choices

A series of scenes that describe how a character accomplished a task might technically be a plot, but it’s rarely a good plot.

Predictably watching someone do exactly what’s expected is boring. The more choices you give a character, and the harder you make those choices, the more unpredictable the plot (and the story’s outcome) will be.

Readers should feel that anything can happen, and they need to keep reading to find out how this story turns out.

However, choices won’t hold a reader’s interest if the outcome doesn’t matter. Each tough choice should have consequences attached to it: punishments for failure and reward for success.

Are you making this mistake? Look at the turning points in your novel. Are there tough choices at each point? Do the options have consequences?

3. It’s all in your protagonist’s head

Stories that are too internal and focus too much on how a character feels and thinks often lack a solid plot because there’s nothing for the character to actually do.

For example, if the protagonist’s goal is to “be happy,” there’s no direction to help you create the plot. But if the goal is to “find a higher-paying job and move out of his parent’s basement,” you have clear steps the protagonist can take and choices he can make to create your plot.

Are you making this mistake? Can you pinpoint what your protagonist has to do to be happy or achieve a goal? Can you list the physical or external steps needed to achieve that goal?

4. No reason to act

Plots often get derailed because the protagonist is only doing what the author told them to do. They have no personal reason to do it, no goals driving them, no stakes hanging over their heads.

They could turn and walk away and nothing in the story would change. Imagine the movie Die Hard if John McClane’s wife wasn’t a hostage in the building. He’d have no personal reason to risk his life and go to the extremes he does to stop the bad guys.

Are you making this mistake? What happens if your protagonist walks away? Could you use the second most-important character as the protagonist with little to no change in the novel?

5. No one worth fighting

Stories are only as strong as their antagonists, and a weak antagonist makes for a weak plot. The antagonist (be it a person, society, or nature) creates the obstacles the protagonist will need to overcome to succeed: the plot.

He, she, or it sets the conflict in motion and presents the first choice the protagonist will have to make. Which in turn makes the antagonist react and make a choice, forcing another protagonist choice, and another action and so on until the climax.

Are you making this mistake? Does your antagonist have solid reasons to do whatever it is they’re doing? Are they trying their hardest to defeat the protagonist, even if that makes it harder for you to get the protagonist out of trouble?

No matter what type of story you’re writing, if you remember to keep asking “What is my protagonist doing?” “Why are they doing it?” and “What happens because they did it?” you’ll rarely lose your way between page one and the end.

Have you ever made one of these plotting mistakes? Are you struggling with one of them now?

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98 comments

  • ohita says:

    Thanks , Janice for this informative piece.

    I used to struggle with point no 1 in the earlier days. Now I easily pass my ideas through the test to see if I have a good story to tell. Once I discover there is only premise and no plot, I either drop the whole idea or I rework it until I see a plot emerge.

    As for the other mistakes, it’s a constant struggle to keep from making them. I am yet honing my craft of writing. My desire is to be an award winning
    writer some day. God helping me. God helping me, I will get there.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      Most welcome. If you keep working at it, you’ll get there. 🙂

      Every book is different, yet also the same in many ways. Each one faces a similar struggle to find the right plot and build the right characters. The more we do it, the easier that process gets. Then it’s just a matter of working out the right details for each story idea. That can be tough or easy, depending on the book, but the process is (mostly) the same.

  • You frequently come across tips and advice for writing Novels, but 5 Common Plotting Mistakes are most common mistakes writers overlook, that make or kill a novel or story because people are more drawn to a novel that has an interesting story, and a plot that makes sense and not overcomplicated. Thank you, Janice, for sharing such great tips.

  • Nita says:

    As a new writer working on my first novel, I try to look as my manuscript objectively and answer the questions you discuss on your blog. It’s been very helpful. 🙂 My ms follows three characters, but one has been pushing herself forward lately, and I realize now it’s because she’s the one I’ve thrown the most challenges at. She’s really blooming on the page because if it. Now for the other two…

    • Janice Hardy says:

      They might work just fine as supporting characters if she’s turning out to be your protagonist. 🙂 But if they’re developing in the same way, run with it and see what happens. First drafts are all about figuring out the story.

  • EmilyR says:

    Janice,

    Thanks for your thoughts on plot mistakes to avoid! I’m working on a second draft and trying to modulate some plot choices based on reader feedback. It’s a struggle, so I especially appreciate your thoughts.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      Hope it helps. Plotting can be tough, especially when you’re deciding what feedback to use. What helps me, is to keep my core conflict and goals in mind. I keep asking, what does my protagonist want? Why does she want it? What’s in the way? And what happens if she fails to get it? This lets me quickly see if feedback will help the story or send it in the wring direction.

  • Susie Murphy says:

    Thanks for these great guidelines! No.4 particularly stands out for me – that question of the character’s motivation is so vital.

    I think it’s really important to include sub plots too. If there’s only a single plot then the story tends to succumb to the predictability mentioned in No.2 above. Derailing the flow of the main plot by throwing other minor storylines into the mix better reflects real life because real life is messy. Of course, the challenge is to make the sub plots somehow tie in with the main plot so that they don’t seem like random pieces inserted for the sake of it. It’s a tangled web we weave!

    • Janice Hardy says:

      Oh absolutely. You could apply all of these to subplots as well, using one to cause trouble for another. I might have focused on a single plot here, but that’s for simplicity’s sake 🙂 The “plot” of a novel has multiple layers and conflicts going on that all support the character arcs and core conflict arc. Tangled and fun!

  • Jess Byam says:

    I have been thinking a lot about #4 lately. I had a supporting character who didn’t make much difference to the plot, so I was worried she was a “darling” that needed to be cut. But I really like this character, so I’m working on figuring out how she can be more integral to the plot.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      You might try looking for ways to have her create conflict. For example, maybe she has a radically different viewpoint on the problem than the protagonist, or she has a secret agenda. She doesn’t have to be a bad guy or antagonist-level conflict, she can be a good guy and still have conflicting opinions on what needs to be done. She might even represent the alternate view or the stakes for the protagonist if they don’t solve the problem.

      Basically, look for ways to mess things up for the protagonist and then think of how this character can cause that.

  • Tom sullivant says:

    Brilliant. This is the best stop yet on your blog tour. This is exactly what I needed. Thanks.

    Ts

  • Lupe Garcia Ortiz says:

    Janice, I have just had an “Aha!” moment! I’m just beginning to write and I haven’t be able to get past page 2 in a couple of stories I’ve started. I now realize that my protagonists don’t know what they want and they certainly have no plan. So now I will sit down and figure that out using your welcome advice! Thank you!

  • Another great post, Janice. Thanks!

  • Leslie Monarch says:

    Number two shows me what I need to do with my YA fantasy. MY protag has one major desire but I have been having trouble plotting this without it being too predictable. It is a bit of a hero’s journey with multiple supporting characters who I can plot very well as conflict for the protag but I can see now I haven’t given her very many hard choices towork with. Thanks for a very helpful post.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      Most welcome. Choices are what drive the plot. Also remember to make those choices have options that are all viable. It’s easy to have choices that are obvious which one the protag would take, so it’s still predictable. Give them pros and cons to each option, and it’ll help keep things unpredictable, and give you more possibilities to plot with.

      You can also keep an eye out on how your supporting character’s conflict can affect the choices as well. It’s not always all about the protag 🙂

  • Laura says:

    Great post! Balancing plot and premise can be quite daunting, and they both have to live up to each other.

  • Carla says:

    Thanks for this. Plotting is hard for me, and keeping these basics in mind should be helpful.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      I’ve found just reminding myself what the protagonist wants, why she wants it, what’s in the way, and what does she do about it keeps me focused when the plot starts to get muddled. Those four questions are the core of plotting.

      Post-it notes on the monitor help, too 🙂 I usually have several notes to myself during a draft to remind me of the important details.

  • Jim Thorne says:

    I find plotting difficult. How do I have a hero. I’m writing a novel about Adam. Is Adam a hero or a antagonist. Or, is it God who is the protagonist. I get confused. Can you help?

    • Janice Hardy says:

      It can be tough skill to develop. The protagonist is the one with the problem that needs to be solved. They’re the one who has to solve is or something bad happens to them. If you took this character out of the story, you would have no story.

      The antagonist is the person or thing in the way of the protagonist solving that problem. Sometimes the antagonist is actively trying to stop the protagonist, other times the antagonist is trying to get the same thing or solve the same problem and getting in the protagonist’s way isn’t personal.

      The “hero” is usually the protagonist, since it’s their story.

      At the risk of self-promoting, you might want to look at my book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. I walk you through how to plan a novel and choose your characters, setting, theme, etc. It covers plotting as well as character and story development, and it will probably help you to have specific exercises that go through all the steps to writing a novel. It’s very hands-on and goes step by step, and you use each piece learned in the next section to build on your skills.

  • Cynthia says:

    Okay, I entered to win a free critique, but it posted without letting me comment, so I’ll get it in here. #2 hit my weak spot. I do have some surprises and difficult decisions, but not enough to carry it from page to page. I really think that remembering to keep forcing tough choices will help me keep it interesting from scene to scene.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      You want them at major turning points for sure, but smaller scenes can have smaller choices. Having everything be “do or die” *can* get melodramatic, but having a protagonist who has to think on her feet and what she decides to do directly affects where the plot goes will help keep your plot and story moving.

  • Karen says:

    This is such a great post. It was cool that at some points I was nodding along going: yep that’s going ok but at other points to have helpful actionable tips. Thanks for sharing!

  • Nicolle White says:

    This article was really helpful, thank you! Each point reminded me of follies I’ve done in the past, and tried to fix but couldn’t quite get there. You articulated *why* each one is wrong so well that I’m going to keep this bookmarked.

    Cheers!

    • Janice Hardy says:

      Thanks, glad it clicked for you. The “why’ was something I struggled with a lot when I was learning, and I spent a lot of time trying to answer why for myself. Turned out I had a knack for explaining it 🙂

  • Great post as usual, Janice! You’ve given me some things to think about for my current WIP. I just texted my mom to ask her thoughts on my antagonist and to make sure my character has enough choices. My poor mother is my sounding board for every little thought that pops in my head about my novel!

    • Janice Hardy says:

      That’s nice you have someone to go to. I have a few crit partners and we do that for each other. makes it a lot easier.

  • Susan Buchanan says:

    Great article. Some of these Must Dos we do without a second thought, others need us to focus on them more. A gentle reminder is a great help to many.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      That’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing blogs so much. It’s easy to slack off doing what I know needs to be done and the reminders keep me focused.

  • JC says:

    Gosh, I’m doing so many things wrong! I think it’s great and then… It can be painful, but at least I’m learning.

    As you said, “so simple”. I’ve read so much and worried about so many details that I think I’ve lost the big picture – things I’d swear I knew at one time! I gave some thought to #2 and realized despite the varied conflict and twists – the end is totally predictable from the first chapter. Grrrr

    • Janice Hardy says:

      It happens to most of us, so don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s easy to get so caught up in minutia that you forget the story and how to tell that story. Let the rules and the tips and all the technique guide you, but trust in your story and do what feels right for it–even if that breaks all the rules 🙂

  • Christy says:

    Your blog tour comes at a good time when I’m ready to layer my first draft.

  • Tracey Hope says:

    I’m redrafting by YA fantasy novel and attempting to weave in a subplot. Number 2 is the one I think I need to work on but I’m going to review all the others carefully. Thanks for this focused and clear list.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      Most welcome. I’ve found just crafting a basic turning point outline helps me see how my plot and subplots work. You might try making a list and summarizing each point and how it affects the others. Could help you see how it all works together.

  • Tracey Hope says:

    Okay so I thought about number 1 and yes my protagonist has a clear challenge however he chooses to fail the challenge and so his action changes to escaping the consequences of that choice. I have various subplots. Does that all sound too complicated?

    • Janice Hardy says:

      Nope. Wanting to avoid a consequence is a goal and you can create a plot from that. Plenty of things for your protagonist to do.

  • Nicole says:

    Great and practical advice as usual! I’m really enjoying this blog tour.

  • Great points. Thanks for sharing. Lots to ponder.

  • Vahlaeity says:

    Thank you. I’m struggling with the second last ‘piece of the puzzle’ of my WIP. This post makes me wonder if another earlier piece is in the wrong spot and that’s why the current scene isn’t working.

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