Troubleshooting Plot Issues

When it comes to writing, I’m a plotter not a pantser, but despite my best intentions there’s almost always a point in the process where I have to take a step back and assess something that has gone awry in the overall arc of the novel. More often than not it’s my own desire to over complicate things and so I have a bit of sub-plot and exposition pruning to do – sometimes, however, I just can’t pinpoint what isn’t working and that’s when I have to troubleshoot the issue. At the moment, I’m in the strange position of having over-pruned my current WIP but, nonetheless, I’m going to employ similar strategies to work out what to put back in and what new material will be required (especially as a lot of what I took out needed to be taken out). Given I’m in the throes of troubleshooting mode, I thought I’d share some of the strategies I employ and get some (no doubt very useful) feedback from all you wonderful TKZers on your own troubleshooting strategies!

My first point of reference is always the original plot outline (the one I’ve undoubtedly veered off from…) and as part of my revision process I always refine the outline to keep pace with the changes I’ve made. With my current WIP I’m about to take two additional steps: First, I’m going to lay out the plot in ‘bubble format’ where I go through the manuscript chapter by chapter to identify the main scene and plot points to track how the story pans out; second, I’m going to graph the story out, tracking high and low dramatic points to see whether the overall arc of the story seems to work. This second stage is  gives me a visual snapshot of the pacing of the novel and whether the overall story arc conforms to a basic 3-act structure.

If neither of these strategies really help identify the problem then my plan is go back to the ‘drawing board’ and ask myself these key questions.

  • Have I started the story in the right place?
  • Is there a fundamental flaw in the premise of the book? (I really hope not!!)
  • Is the story getting weighted down by too much narrative – or is the balance of background, character, setting, or plot weighing down the momentum of the book?
  • Have I got too many POVs? (a major revision in my current WIP was the elimination of an entire POV as the shift to that character’s perspective was interrupting the flow of the plot too much)
  • Are there inconsistencies in the length of my chapters or pacing in the way the story unfolds? (for example it would be a major red flag for me if I discovered that the chapters in the middle of the book are much lengthier than the early or later ones – would signal a saggy middle for sure!)
  • Have I resolved all the threads of the story?

Well, this is the plan at least! Hopefully once I’ve finished troubleshooting I’ll have a good sense of what I need to do next to revise my plot outline and get back to revisions/ rewriting mode.

What about you TKZers? what strategies do you employ to troubleshoot plot/pacing/arc issues during your revision process?



24 thoughts on “Troubleshooting Plot Issues

  1. Your system seems efficient and effective, Clare.
    I don’t outline, but I print and read each chapter as I finish it, and my critique partners also provide feedback along the way. When the draft is finished, I print it out, take it to a ‘reading’ place along with a notepad, red pen, highlighter and sticky notes. I try to see it as a “new” read and summarize each scene. I have to pay attention to the passage of time; for some reason I never remember to make those notes the first time through. My pitfall is enjoying listening to my characters, so a big part of my tightening process is to make sure they’re sticking to the story and not chit-chatting (brilliant as their conversations are.)

  2. but despite my best intentions there’s almost always a point in the process where I have to take a step back and assess something that has gone awry in the overall arc of the novel.

    That’s exactly what I do, Clare. I even call it the “20k Word Step Back.” At 20k I look to see if I have a solid foundation, a Lead who is forced through a doorway of no return to face death stakes in Act 2, and if I’ve done enough to bond Lead with reader. Once I’m satisfied with that, I go on to finish the book. I do a light edit on the previous day’s writing, then go for my daily quota. Next stage is setting the novel aside for 4-6 weeks, then doing a read through and going into the revision process.

    However you do it, it’s good to have a system. Tweak it occasionally as you gain more experience.

    • It’s always a good idea to put distance (and time) between the draft and revision – often I don’t leave quite enough so I am still too close to the material to spot some of the big issues

  3. I haven’t tackled big plot holes yet, but when I’m bogged down in a scene, I always go back a bit (whether in the same scene or the one before), and start writing. Typically, the before is missing something that I forgot about during the writing. It just happened to me yesterday.

  4. I like your system, Clare. I’m also an outliner, and have been in revision mode on my my first novel for a few months now. When I finished my first draft, I put together a spreadsheet with rows for each chapter. I created a column for “what happened in the chapter,” “mystery plot points,” and B-story (character relationship plot). This let me see the novel as it is, not as I outlined it.

    I also reworked the mystery extensively in multiple synopses, and eventually divided that into the murderer’s story (making sure their motive was sound) and my sleuth’s “arc of suspicion” / investigation angle, where I juggle multiple plausible suspects.

    The murderer’s motive is the same, but exactly what they were after has shifted. Writing a mystery is definitely more complicated than the more thriller-esque urban fantasies I wrote before.

    I find whenever I get too lost in the weeds, pulling back to the 30K foot view of the story, structure and characters helps clarify things. In fact, now I’m going to put together a new outline for the next revision.

    Then I’ll make a chapter by chapter mystery revision pass, revising and rewriting as I go. I’m definitely someone who complicates things, but this is also my first mystery novel, so I’m putting a lot of sweat equity into it.

    Good luck with your own revision!

  5. As a hybrid plotter/pantser, I can use your tips on troubleshooting plot issues, Clare. I’m going to make a note of them in my writing folder.

    I use Scrivener, and I occasionally print the outline format that shows each chapter, it’s synopsis, and word count to give me an idea of the flow. As I get close to finishing the first draft, I transfer the word counts to a spreadsheet to see how far through the book each scene takes place. I read through the entire draft several times during the process to make sure I haven’t gone off on a tangent somewhere (easy for me to do.)

    I have two major POVs in my WIP, and I’m trying to work the story back and forth between them to show two different approaches to solving the murder. I’m hoping readers will get into the rhythm of the story through this approach. I use the outline to make sure I’m not leaving one of them out in the cold too long.

  6. Such good tips and tricks! Thanks everyone!

    I’ve discovered the listening edit phase. I make a copy of my entire “final” draft-after I get it back from my editor-change the font, and turn on the Word listening function. I follow along as the voice “reads” to me. It’s astounding the number of tweaks still needed. For instance, I found this: in one early chapter, I gave a minor character the last name of Hamilton. But her last name should be Walters. Scratching my head over how that happened.

    I’m hoping not to find major plot problems…but if I do, it’ll be back to the writing board.

    Thanks for this post, Clare. 🙂

        • Terry, your post is what clued me in to it-a big thank you!

          You’re right, invaluable. The WIP I’m presently listening to is the one that will go to an agent (my first time…!) and I’m finding stuff that makes me cringe. I’d hate to make her cringe, ya know? 🙂

  7. Helpful tips, Clare.

    As a pantser, I’m envious of you organized folks with spreadsheets and chapter outlines. My first draft is usually the bare bones skeleton of a story. Dialogue is almost like a script–just conversations with no action tags, no inner musings. Each rewrite, I layer on muscle, sinew, flesh.

    Rather than cutting excess verbiage, I mostly have to look for what’s missing. Are transitions clear? Is the choreography in an action scene confusing? Is the pace dragging?

    My critique group and beta readers are terrific at spotting weak motives or inconsistent character reactions.

    Thanks to you, Clare, and other commenters for sharing the varied processes. Everyone’s style is unique.

  8. I had to do some thinking about this, Clare. I’m a work-in-progress. My first book (10 years ago – wow, where did that time go?) was planned like the Invasion of Normandy and had multi-multi-revisions before crawling out into the world. My recent based-on-true-crime series developed into a seat-of-the-pants free-for-all using a “Writing Into The Dark” outline and problem-fix-as-you-go approach taught by Dean Wesley Smith. It sure worked for me when it came to speed and confidence.

    Now, I’m into a new venture on a hardboiled detective fiction series and I’m back to the painstaking outline board. *winks at Sue Coletta* So to answer your question, “What strategies do you employ to troubleshoot plot/pacing/arc issues during your revision process?” I guess whatever works in this never ending quest to find it.

  9. I do most of that kind of work during my early plotting. I use index cards for my plot and any major subplots, then lay out my main plot and figure out what works, mainly plot logic, and cause and effect. The subplot is both plot logic and mirrors to the main plot.

    In STAR-CROSSED, the scene where the hero and the heroine decide to pursue a romantic relationship is followed by a scene where the hero’s ex realizes he’s trapped on that horrible slave planet, and she’s going to rescue and marry him. So a good thing–the heroine looks like she may have a happy ending is followed by a bad thing–a rival who will ruin that happiness, and a good thing–the hero may be rescued from this planet.

    After I have my plots laid out, I’ll write a plot summary where I notice plot holes and have to rework my plot. Once I’m happy with that, I’ll write a few chapters, and that will show me even more plot and emotional holes once I’m comfortably inside the characters so another rewrite. I’m usually good to go at this point.

    If it looks like I won’t hit my final word quota around the middle, I’ll usually work another subplot complication in, though.

    • Marilynn, I need to explore using index cards more as I do end up rewriting plot outlines so many times I may as well shuffle some cards:) I also tend to have too many sub-plots…

  10. Great thought, Clare!
    Like Kay, I’m a hybrid. I have a mental outline of what I need/want to happen, but I also keep a running “outline” of each book as I go.
    Because I write a fantasy series, that outline of past books/chapters is a great way keep track of annoying yet important little details like time of year, moon phase (it matters in a world with no technology and two moons!), salient plot points, etc. It’s a great way to spot dropped plot threads.
    In a humourous nod to the soap operas I never watched, I keep dream sequences in pink font.
    Time is tracked in green.
    But I, too, have to occasionally stop, step back, and give the ms the “long look.” I have characters that like to stage a literary coup and take over.
    To ensure everything flows well, I read aloud to myself. (I cannot imagine what a neighbor might think during those nice days with the windows open when I’m reading battle scenes where characters are shouting ar one another! Fortunately, we all have largely spaced 2-acre lots!)

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