5 Ways to Untangle Plot

This is a subject I haven’t talked about much lately, but it’s certainly been on my mind as I work through the third draft of Blood Feud. The twists and turns my story takes sometimes even baffles me. I then wonder if that’s a good thing. Maybe this story is getting too complicated, or maybe I just haven’t thought things through enough. So then I go back to the drawing board to see how to untangle the twisty plot strings, and hope I don’t make an even bigger mess. Sound familiar?

Or how about a plot that sounded really good at first, but then a little ways into the story realization hits and that neat idea doesn’t work like it was supposed to? Yeah, I’ve had that problem. Or how about that plot that started out in a frenzy, but now doesn’t have any get up and go? Yep, I’ve been there too. Plot seems to have a mind of it’s own. It works some days and other days it decides to take a vacation. Sometimes it takes an extended vacation like weeks or months. And all I want is to stop using my messed up or missing plot as an excuse to not write, but how can I do that when I keep getting whacked in the face with plot barriers that seem to come from nowhere?

Well, here are 5 things I have discovered (over many years of trial and error) that help with untangling messy plot or to get around those annoying plot barriers…

1. Freewrite. So much can be discovered or understood just by this one simple tool. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s easily the most powerful (and most ignored) thing a writer can do. Just write. Write for 10, 15, 20 minutes or longer, or however long it takes to break through the ice freezing up the ideas. Sometimes it takes multiple freewriting sessions. I once had to do freewriting for a week before I figured out a certain plot angle, but I finally did it, and it felt so good to finally get there all on my own.

2. Time. Time is a writer’s best friend, really it is. Time gives the subconscious a chance to work out difficult problems. I can’t tell you how many times I finally gave up on a certain plot point and moved on to either another section of the story or another story all together, and then when I least expected it, the answer came to me like a flash of light. It’s a beautiful thing when it happens, and the excitement of discovery usually throws me into a writing frenzy for the next several weeks, or months.

3. Friends. Another great way to work through plot problems is to talk it out to a friend, preferably a writing friend or a person who is an avid reader. There’s a saying that two heads are better than one. It’s true. What one person can’t see, another picks up on immediately. An impassible dark passage becomes an easy hiking trail when another prospective lights the way.

4. Outline. Sometimes it’s as easy as getting it down on paper to see all of the plot at once. Make a map of the story (two or three sentences of the major plot points will do). Spread it out on multiple sheets of paper if need be. Link the pieces together. See if they fit or don’t fit. The point it to get the basics of the story down to view it as a whole. Then notice where the plot holes are and work to fill them. Some people use index card to do this and others use poster board and post it notes. I’ve done both ways. I happen to like the poster board the best. Also, some really great outlining software comes in handy too. I use Scrivener, but I hear Outliner works well too.

5.  Learn. Plot is something that is learned. Complicated plot (the kind that works and makes senses) takes even longer to learn. Sometimes plot doesn’t work, because the knowledge to make it work doesn’t exist within the person creating the plot. That’s when writing classes, books, and workshops come in handy. I can’t tell you how many books on plot I have purchased and read over the years. I’ve taken just as many classes and workshops on plot too. By far the best help I’ve ever found in plotting are the fiction novels and stories I’ve read in my spare time. By reading what others have done, I too learned. Also the book Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (the workbook, not the book) by Donald Mass has become my constant plotting companion.

These tools have all helped me past plotting hurtles at one time or another. Sometimes I use just one and that’s all it takes, sometimes I use a few, and sometimes it takes all five to get past a particularly difficult barrier.

Plot is different for everyone in how a person works through it and manages ideas. The best thing I’ve learned is to never give up. If it gets too much and you can’t seem to move past a certain point no matter what you do, let it be and find something else to work on for a while. If the story is truly meant to be, it will happen. Don’t let one story, one plot problem stall your writing all together. Writing is about the experience, and if the experience isn’t fun anymore it wears down the desire to write. Don’t let your desire to write be crushed under the weight of plot. Life is too short.

Do you have a different way to break through plot barriers? Please feel free to comment below and share.

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4 thoughts on “5 Ways to Untangle Plot

  1. Talking it out with a friend is seriously my block buster extraordinaire. I have a writing friend who I talk with daily and she always helps me get the snaggles out, sometimes without even realizing she’s helping or that there’s even a tangle in the first place. Just talking about it helps me lay all the pieces straight. On the other hand, my husband isn’t a writer, but he’s a voracious reader and has a good sense of story. And he’s certainly not shy about telling me when something’s not working. Between the two of them, I can usually get things sorted out.

    • I have a friend much like that myself. I don’t know what I’d do without her, and my hubbie can be helpful too. He is good at catching things I missed, or when I need advice from a guy’s POV. A lot of my characters are men, so that is always a good help.

  2. Thanks for the blog topic, Cynthia. I’ve been very pressed for time of late, so I’ve resorted to 5-minute outlines or “plot points” that I develop in more detail as I go back to them. Eventually, the plot emerges, and then when I get into the writing out of the story, I let the plot feel free to jump off the scaffold of the outline I’ve developed (if it wants to). Hemingway always left a line unfinished at the end of a writing session so he could pick it up where it left off the next day. Chekhov just put two or three people in a room and let them do and say what they felt like (although this can lead to a lot of randomness). I like your freewriting idea. I’ve freewritten pages and pages just to discard them as garbage, although sometimes I can pick out a few unpolished gems. I guess I always like a plot that sort of eventually comes back full circle at the end …

    • I like Chekhov’s solution and have used it many times. It always makes some fun situations. And it does lead to randomness, but it usually breeds some off the beaten path stuff too. 5 minute plot points sounds like it’s working for you. I know some writers who are crunched for time, and might find that sort of thing useful. I’ll have to pass that along. And I agree, it’s the full circle stories that I aim for. They are the best kind.

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