Unsnagging Your Plot

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

What is a plot snag?

It’s like when you’re walking along admiring some rose bushes and your coat gets impaled by a thorn. Forward motion halted. You have to stop, go back, and unloose your coat.

Only thing is, when you’re writing a book, you may not so easily identify what has snagged you. All you know is that you’re stuck.

A plot snag is not to be confused with writer’s block or a loss of enthusiasm for a project. Those are separate issues, which can be addressed in their own way.

What we’re talking about here is a point where you don’t know what to write next. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pantser or a plotter or a ’tweener. The best laid plans o’ mice and writers often go awry.

Let’s say you’re writing a thriller and you’ve got your hero backed into a corner. A literal corner, in an abandoned warehouse where killers are searching for him.

You don’t know how your character is going to get out of it.

Snag.

Now, maybe you’ve got an outline, and know your plot’s direction, but this little conundrum has come up and you don’t know what to do about it. What you do know is that he’s going to somehow get in the back of a truck heading for Phoenix.

The question now is how to get him there. Try the following:

  1. Make a list

Brainstorm possible ways to get out. Go crazy. List six, seven, eight or more. Make your imagination work. You’ll get the answer. And if you need to plant something in the plot to justify this option (remember how Q always gave Bond the gadgets early in Act 1?) go back and plant.

  1. Do some shadow story

The shadow story is what’s going on “off screen.” It’s what the other characters are doing when they are not in the scene you’re writing. What did you think? That they were all in their dressing rooms sipping Coke, waiting to be called ?

Brainstorm some of the possible actions going on, and one of them might offer something a character in the scene can do to unsnag things.

Going back to our warehouse, maybe one of the assassins is really a secret ally, and engineers our hero’s escape. Why? Because we did some shadow story where the villain discovers there’s a traitor in his camp! Now we can adjust our outline and plans accordingly.

  1. Skip ahead

If you’re stuck but anxious to get on with the writing, skip ahead and write a future scene. Let your subconscious work on the snag. Keep up your writing momentum. Tomorrow or the next day you can come back to fill in the gap.

  1. Write a blazing first draft

It’s possible to whip through a first draft and avoid snags. You must write like a house afire, skipping plot “non-essentials” as you do.

And what is the purpose of this blazing method? Four things:

  • To discover what your book is about
  • To know if you have the major parts of the plot working.
  • To save you time by avoiding endless rabbit trails (are you listening, pantsers?)
  • To identify places where you can fill in material for which you now know the purpose.

Here are some suggestions for a blazing first draft:

Skip transitions

Instead of filling in the information that gets a character from one scene to another, leave a marker in that spot (like *** or &&&) and move on to the next scene. Concentrate on the action and dialogue.

Some writers put in a text reminder in ALL CAPS. For example:

“You’ll never make it in time,” Wally said.

“Just watch me,” Sam said.

SAM GETS TO THE OTHER SIDE OF MANHATTAN, BUT IT ISN’T EASY.

“I’m here,” Sam said, fighting for breath.

“Sorry,” the deli manager said. “I had to give your sandwich to somebody else.”

Skip descriptions

Don’t pause for descriptions. Fill those in upon revision. One benefit of this method is that you’ll know the overall tone of your novel and how each scene contributes. You can then tailor your descriptions with more efficiency. You can, for example, plant a symbol to foreshadow what’s coming later.

Skip deep emotional beats

Emotional beats heat up a plot and get us bonded to a character. It’s an important part of the craft, and the deeper the emotion the more attention must be paid to it on the page.

For blazing draft purposes, when you get to such a moment in your story, jot a note, e.g.,

SAM SHOWS HIS ANGER

            or

SHOW SAM’S EMOTION HERE

When you revise, you fill those in as needed.

Pro tip: When you go back to revisit emotional moments, look around for a more original emotion than you first envision. Sure, maybe anger is what you need, but what if you brainstormed other possibilities? Like elation or remorse? Perhaps one of these other emotions can conflict with the anger, so that you have that great beat called inner conflict. (Another tip: For brainstorming different emotions and techniques for showing them on the page, consult The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.)

So how have you handled your own plot snags? Have you ever blazed through a first draft to discover and solidify your plot?

(For more on fast writing, see this detailed blog post by Janice Hardy.)

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53 thoughts on “Unsnagging Your Plot

  1. JSB –
    Your “blazing first draft” strategies are brilliant! I’ve never come across these suggestions before.
    Crafting effective transitions, story/scene-vibe congruent descriptions, and organic/immersive emotional reveals is challenging and time-intensive for me. Page marking (e.g. ***describe reckless race through storm to save kidnapped woman) those spots/creative tasks for completion after first draft framework completed jumps out at me as a great idea. I foresee a faster and better overall process.
    I’m currently recovering from a health deal and eager to get cranking on book #4 in my suspense-thriller series – these tips have ratcheted my writing-passion catapult to the maximum and have me even more excited to launch!
    I’m definitely going to use these steategies in executing my draft.
    A particularly great post for me.
    Thank you!

  2. Good post.

    Since you asked, when I get snagged in a novel (usually about the 2/3 point), I just trust the character and write the next sentence. Though sometimes I have to calm myself and remind myself to do that. (grin)

    Most of my scenes are about 1100 words (800 to 1300) and take me about an hour to write. I take a few-minute break after each writing session, which is also about an hour. When I return for the next session, I read back over what I wrote in the previous session, allowing my characters to add what I missed, including any necessary foreshadowing, etc.

    I too like your blazing first draft suggestion, but probably from a different direction. I’ve tried leaving an all-caps note and skipping ahead, but for me personally it doesn’t work. When I did that (again, just for me) I found myself mired in trying to “figure out” (conscious, critical mind) what to add and I was bogged down further.

    I suppose every novel I write is a blazing first draft. My second draft is an automated spell check, and my third is to make any corrections that I agree with when I get the manuscript back from my first-reader or copyeditor.

    Of course, not everyone writes like I do, and that’s fine. I’m passing along your post to the writers who follow my daily Journal.

    • I used to hit a snag (I called it a wall) at about the 30k mark. I’d heard about other writers having the same thing. Not sure why. All that novel ahead? Wondering if the foundation is strong enough? The answer was, as you suggest, “write the next sentence.” I always got past it eventually. Then I started doing a 20k “step back,” where I made sure all my foundational elements (e.g., death stakes, first doorway of no return, compelling lead character) were where they needed to be.

  3. I’m 3K words into a new novel, a romantic suspense. I have a hero and heroine, although I don’t know a lot about them yet. I love these reminders and suggestions. Right now, my characters are headed into the basement of a house the heroine inherited. No clue what they’ll find. I’ll try making a “what if” list and see (because last night, the “boys in the basement” must have been hiding from the invasion of the characters and were no help at all.

  4. I use Word’s yellow highlighter for places that need work so they jump out as I scroll through the ms.

    Several years ago, I learned about “shadow story” from you. That has been the single most useful tip for troubleshooting plot snags. What is the bad guy doing offstage while the hero is muddling around? When I figure out what the bad guy is plotting and why, then I know what the hero needs to do, even if s/he doesn’t know it yet.

    Thanks, Jim, for your always-practical solutions. You make it look easy 🙂

    • Thanks, Debbie. The shadow story idea was a great breakthrough for me, too, when I first started thinking about it. I love keeping track of it in the document notes section of Scrivener. Really helps with scene writing.

      • You taught me to be a better writer and K.M. Weiland introduced me to Scrivener. God bless you both. Thank you for sharing your writing knowledge . You made my writing come alive.

    • I do both the capitalized text reminders and the yellow highlighter to help me find the places I need to work on later.

      Thanks so much Jim for the rest of your tips and reminders. Perfect timing as that’s exactly where I am in my WIP, 2/3 of the way and stuck on how to get through. I’m going to try the “shadow story” method first. I love that idea.

  5. This technique sounds suspiciously like the Hegelian synthesis between the plotter thesis and the pantser antithesis.

    It also suggests a strategy that could justify my doing NaNoWriMo. I’ve resisted because I didn’t want to be stuck with a huge, unmanageable hairball.

    Finally, I wonder if this approach risks tilting the resulting novel too much in the direction of plot at the expense of character?

    • Indeed, this is a great approach to NaNoWriMo. See the Janice Hardy post I mentioned at the end.

      I wonder if this approach risks tilting the resulting novel too much in the direction of plot at the expense of character?

      That’s a great question, Eric. And to answer is, let’s ask two others: What is true character? How is it revealed in a story?

      I say PLOT reveals true character. We don’t know who the real Scarlett is until the Civil War hits. We don’t know what Bosch is made of until he’s confronted with a sordid, cold case that hits him in the heart.

      Thus, with a blazing first draft, you are focusing on the way plot hits character. Then, when you go back to deepen and fill things out, you have a better understanding of HOW to fill things out.

  6. Ooo, I like the shadow story idea! I’m a plotter to the max, so I’m not sure a blazing draft to discover the plot would work for me. But I’ve used mind mapping during the outlining process to figure out plot points.

    • Priscilla, there’s nothing inherently antithetical about the blazing draft vis-a-vis outlining. It’s just that as you proceed, you might choose to leave off describing certain things, or puzzling over how to show character emotion in scene, etc. You want to get to the end of the book and have a better picture of your entire draft.

      It’s not a plotter v. pantser issue. It’s a speed issue.

  7. At first I read the part about transitions, aka the “SAM GETS TO THE OTHER SIDE OF MANHATTAN, BUT IT ISN’T EASY.” and was thinking, “Yeah, but if that transition indeed wasn’t easy for the character, then you may not have clarity on the character emotionally when you get to the next scene.

    But I see you anticipated that with “Skip deep emotional beats.” 😎

    Sometimes I skip sections & go on with the rest of the writing and it works. Sometimes I just stay hung up for a while till I figure it out. And unfortunately, there are some book ideas with snags that have been sitting, waiting on me for ages.

    So given my choice, I’d much rather use the blazing draft method than have manuscripts sit in the computer ‘drawer’ indefinitely.

    • BK, that’s a great point I hadn’t thought of. We all have those old manuscripts sitting in a drawer (oops, showing my age)…in a digital file. Why not take a week and blaze through it? I’d make sure to reconnect with what got me started, get that spark back. But then put the spark to the fuel and explode! (Ray Bradbury would approve.)

  8. Wow, Jim. I love this post! Not only is it filled with brilliant advice, but it confirmed my process. Janice’s post is also fantastic.

    Often, especially while on deadline, I’ll insert a comment box in Word that reads “add emotion” or whatever it is I’m skipping. In my WIP, I hit a snag yesterday and stepped away to list the exact steps of my hero. I’d planned where she ended up (I actually wrote the ending first), but the plot took an unexpected twist and I needed to find a way to bring it all together. It’s like you read my mind with this post. Thank you!

  9. Maybe your blazing draft idea is what I need right now. I think it might play well with my both-ends-against-the-middle solution to getting things rolling.

    My reputation at home is as the writer with 1,000 first chapters. To move the story further along, I find it helpful to write the resolution, one or two chapters at the end tying off loose ends and placing the whole cast in the conditions I want. If I use that resolution as a general target for a blazing draft, the snags might be minimized–or at least easier to manage.

    You’ve talked about shadow story before, but the concept hits me at a particularly sticky juncture, and I realize I need to flesh out my antagonist’s story apace. Most timely, sir.

    As usual, your nuggets of practical solutions strike me at an opportune moment. Thanks for these. My ore cart is full to overflowing with JSB gold.

    • Dan, I can relate to the 1000 first chapter idea. Openings are easy. Endings are hard! I have huge file of first lines. All I need is a novel after them.

      I like your suggest of sketching out the climactic scene so you have a destination to shoot for. That’s always subject to change without notice, of course, but at least gives you a direction.

  10. Your topics always show up when I need them. I’m in my final developmental draft looking for plot snags. I’ve used the shadow story and skip-ahead before, but the blazing draft is new, and here’s why it will work next time:

    I labored in sequential, linear, emotional hell for two years heading toward some kind of high-tech villain trap involving a self-driving car. When I finally got there, I sent the draft to my auto GPS-designer son, who had just seen the exact trap on TV. Now my fun, emotional, autonomous car set-up scenes (plot snags) don’t go anywhere. Next time, using the blaze draft and then using my new EMOTIONAL THESAURUS will speed up the process and get me to the finish line before my cutting-edge tech ideas become status quo. Thanks.

  11. I used the blazing trail approach recently. I was determined to finish my novel draft by Christmas but I got sick, was delayed, and thought I’d never make it. Christmas eve afternoon, I sat down and started writing. And writing. And ended up trail blazing through the last 7K+ words in a few hours. Some of the scenes are skimpy (mostly me saying what needs to happen and little snatches of dialogue or action) but I got through. It helped that I’d written (longhand!) the end scenes for both POV characters, so I basically knew where the plot was going just not all the specifics. And it felt really good to not have the unfinished manuscript hanging over me on Christmas.

    • That’s a great report, Meredith. I relate to the idea of not having anything “hanging” over Christmas. It’s a natural time to rest and reflect. Good job.

  12. Thanks for the post, Jim. It appears that it was a timely topic for many of us. I am currently backing out of a snag, so this is really helpful. Thanks for the link to Janice Hardy’s blog.

    I use the old fashioned “step-sheet” (James Frey) after I have the outline. I’ve kept it in a notebook in the past, but this year I’m trying One Note. I have Scrivener on only one computer, and don’t have that with me all the time. Now, wherever I am, if there’s access to internet, I can work on plot ideas and revisions. I like the idea of the blazing first draft.

    I assume you write that in Scrivener, then revise from there.

    I’m going to shift into blazing fast overdrive, and give it a try.

    Thanks!

    • Right, Steve. I draft in Scrivener then spit out a Word doc for revision.

      Re:step sheets, I first trained as a screenwriter using 3 x 5 cards on a corkboard, which Scrivener allows me to do onscreen. I can move them around and look for different patterns.

      Use whatever helps!

  13. I’m not sure my obsession over details would allow me to “blaze a first draft.” I have a rolling edits process that helps me dig into the emotional journeys of my characters & explore twists in motivation that could influence the plot. It also satisfies my need to edit as I go.

    Your ideas are definitely intriguing & tempting though.

    I often use the skip ahead method. And my initial “Turning Points W-Outline” leaves gaps in transition that can be a challenge to fill in, making the gaps tempting to set aside for later. It takes confidence to leave gaps & a thorough process to insure those holes get filled later.

    Have you ever written a screenplay (dialogue only) format for a full novel as an initial framework? I’ve heard some writers start with a full screenplay, then go back to fill in the rest to make a novel. I can see how this might be good for writers who might sell a screenplay AND a novel, as separate. I’ve read a few screenplays & good ones really trigger the imagination. They can provide a great initial structure for a novel. And imagining/writing scenes with dialogue can be a way to blaze a novel.

    • A screenplay really is like a blazing draft, isn’t it? Dialogue heavy, and quick transition between scenes. Since I started as a screenwriter, I always “see” my novel that way, which is one reason I use the singpost scenes idea the corkboard visual. I have a template in Scrivener for those 14 scenes.

      You bring up an interesting point, Jordan, about editing the previous day’s work. I do that myself. I can see blazing through that, too!

      • This is really encouraging, Jim. I see my novels like movies too…in scenes & turning points. I’ve been tempted to write a screenplay as a first pass & fill it in to make the novel portion.

        That would define the essential elements in a bare bones fashion. Everything in between would be embellishments. I might have to try this for a novella.

        You are an inspiration, Jim. Thank you.

  14. My strategy for snags is yo ask this question: What is the worst thing that can happen to the MC? (Not allowed to kill him/her.) I usually scribble down six or eight options each getting more and more far out. Number five or six is usually the one that works and is surprising. It usually works and results in a memorable (if hope) scene.
    Now with the blaze ahead tactic I have another tool in the writer’s box. Thanks. As usual I learn something new when you write.

  15. Your advice about going to one’s shadow story is interesting to me. I find that my own shadow story usually comes from the back story of my work. (I’m convinced, after reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, that back story is a much maligned part of our work, disparaged by many, but it usually [as in virtually every time] comes to my rescue.

    I wrote awhile back that I was running into a story problem that needed a buddy to solve. There was no room for her in the present story, so I wrote a short story and likely will be putting it out on Kindle (because my publisher looked at it, about the way a new Dad looks at a dirty diaper, and suggested, as Jack Webb would have in the DI, that he didn’t want to deal with it). But now, with a clear conscience–hey, it’s not my fault, dear reader, that you didn’t want to spend the $1.99 to read about her–I can go on with my main story and not have a deus ex machina drop out of the sky. (I wonder if, in the Roman theater, someone ever actually dropped a deux ex machina, thereby ending the play waaayy too soon.)

    So I have had the shadow story concept tattooed on my arm to remind me. No I didn’t. I do have it tattooed in my mind, and I thank you for conceptualizing it, naming it so I can reach in a pick it out and use it, as necessary. (And sometimes, it’s necessary a lot.)

    • Backstory is great, Jim, and gives us a lot of plot fodder. The issue there is when to do it and how to weave it into the story (so as not to bog things down). We can do a bunch of it before we start writing (I prefer doing selective backstory, focusing on key years in the C’s life) or get to a point in the novel where the character does something that needs justification, then can come up with it on the fly. So many possibilities….

  16. If you don’t want to write a scene, odds are that your reader won’t want to read it. Unless that scene in the car involves important plot AND character points, toss it out.

    For those of us who are organic writers where character, emotion, and plot grow together, skipping scenes can be a disasterous strategy which can lead to writer’s block or the lose of plot momentum. Those who write character and plot mixes like cozies and romantic suspense are almost always organic writers. Police procedurals and thrillers, more often not.

    Writing out the bad guys’ backstory and forward story is always a good idea. Making bad guys handy little plot puppets whose plot makes no sense whatsoever is one of the biggest mistakes I seen when I work with newer writers. Also, because he’s a psychopath and they do weird things is a very poor plot reason. Even psychos have reasons. They also have weakness like their desire to play with their victims which gives the rescuers or the victims time to defeat him.

    • For those of us who are organic writers where character, emotion, and plot grow together, skipping scenes can be a disasterous strategy which can lead to writer’s block or the lose of plot momentum.

      I’m not sure why that HAS to be the case. One can still skip transitions and move ahead on scenes, then backtrack. The scene skipped ahead to offers just as much possibility for material to spring up. One can make quick notes about that. The imagination is a muscle that loves jumping through various hoops scattered around the brain.

      • It’s not an OCD thing, but it’s part of the process of writing for most of us who write organically. Romance writers are almost always organic writers, and I’ve talked to and worked with hundreds, and I’ve never met one who could write using “insert important scene here” and create a workable novel. A few I’ve met can write scenes out of order, but most don’t because this method fails them. Those few tend to be so experienced as writers that they are able to write out of order.

  17. My biggest plot snag ever involved the date of one of Poe’s poems. My resource had been wrong, and one huge part of the plot involved that poem being seen at a certain time by a certain character. I was still in the middle of writing the book when I discovered the error, and I freaked out. I stopped and spent the day doing household chores, etc., while thinking like mad. My solution proved to be a better plot idea than what I’d originally planned. Sometimes, snags are a good thing.

    And, Happy 210th Birthday, yesterday, Mr. Poe!

  18. Great post, Jim. I have a friend struggling with this right now and I just sent her a link. Your tip to just INSERT WHATEVER HERE is well taken. This is a staple of my collaboration with my sister. Whenever on have of us is stuck on a scene, we write in mid-stride INSERT DESCRIPTION OF CREEPY MANSION HERE. Or some times, CHECK FORENSICS ON THIS LATER.

    The advantage we have, of course, is two brains. I have often told writers to pretend they have a co-writer and try this device, like they can count on someone to fill in the blanks later while they just keep moving forward. Then the solo writer has to go back later and put on the “co-author” shoes. It’s a trick that can work…if you’ve got a good imagination and you’re desperate enough.

    • Good tip, Kris. Reminds me of David Morrell’s suggestion: Imagine your favorite writer comes in and looks at your manuscript. What would he or she say about it? I’ve tried this several times. Got some great direction from John D. MacDonald and Raymond Chandler.

  19. Hi Jim
    Thanks for a terrific post.
    I find that I don’t hit snags so much when I have good sub-plots. These help drive the whole story along and provide extra conflict and are great for character development. For example, I’m writing a thriller, but there’s a romantic interest. Would you include sub-plots as a type of ‘shadowing’?
    Thanks
    Linda

  20. Hello, James, it’s funny. Since I’ve been following you, you’ve been publishing articles to help me at the right time exactly where I can’t go any further. I’m working on my first draft and I’ve tried to write the scenes logically one after the other in short form. As a beginner, even if you keep it short, you don’t manage to keep the tension because you are so busy with the logical connection of time, place and movement. This tip helped a lot. Thank you.

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  23. I can’t skip all that stuff when I write a scene; that’s just impossible for me. But I can skip whole scenes and jump ahead to a future point in the story, which is especially useful for maintaining or (more important) regaining momentum when a project has come to a sudden slowdown for any reason.

    To sort out sudden minor “and now what happens?” plot issues, my most useful method is: take the dogs for a long walk and give the problem some thought. For some reason this is way more effective than sitting on the couch and staring into space. Also, the dogs like it.

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