Help! My Plot is Getting Away From Me!

by James Scott Bell

(Today’s post is adapted from the book Plotman to the Rescue: A Troubleshooting Guide to Fixing Your Toughest Plot Problems. It is used by the kind permission of the author.)

Here’s a question I get from time to time. What do I do if I’m in the middle of my novel and there are so many things happening, so many characters running around, that I’m losing my way?

You would think this question would come primarily from “pantsers,” the If-I-knew-what-my-story-was-about-before-I-wrote-it-I’d-be-bored school of writing. But it arises with the plotter, too, who has perhaps been overly ambitious in the planning. As sometimes happens for the plot engineers, a sudden twist or turn or character may try to horn in at, say, the 20k mark, throwing the whole outline off.

So what do you do when you discover you’ve a) gone down that infamous rabbit hole; b) have plot points or characters popping up you didn’t plan for; c) are lost in a dark forest; or d) have fallen off a cliff into the bleached bones of the author’s graveyard?

I will allow you one wail of frustration.

Now let’s get a handle on things.

First of all, where are you, as the ad men used to say, “outline wise”? Do not skip over this part, pantsers, for you better have an outline, too.

Wait, what?

I’m talking about a “rolling outline,” one you put together as you roll along. When you finish a scene or chapter, write a quick synopsis of who the viewpoint character is, what he wants and what happens, as in: Ishmael gets depressed, decides to go to sea, and sets off to find a ship.

Scrivener is ideal for this because you can put the rolling outline on scene “cards” and view them on a virtual corkboard. But Word or even Excel will work fine, too.

Now, if you feel your plot is getting away from you, print out the current version of the rolling outline and do this:

Clean House on Characters

How many viewpoint characters have you got? This means you have more than one character with a storyline of their own. For example, in a traditional romance you usually have two viewpoint characters, the lovers. In a long historical or fantasy novel, you may have three, four or more.

If this is so for you, precisely define the following: What is each character’s death-stakes objective? (Death being physical, professional, or psychological.) If it’s not death, find a way to make it so, or drop this as a plotline. In the alternative, consider taking away this character’s viewpoint scenes and converting that line into a subplot. This means the character shows up in scenes told from another character’s point of view and (this is crucial) complicates the viewpoint character’s objective.

For example, you have a woman as a viewpoint character, and a man as another viewpoint character. The man’s plotline is not working out in a death-stakes way. You might remove him as a viewpoint, but have him show up in the woman’s plotline as a potential lover or long-lost brother or secret agent or alien from a parallel universe.

Clean house. Keep only the crucial characters.

For further study: The Stand by Stephen King, and Strangers by Dean Koontz. You’ll see how these authors make the several character lines work on their own terms before bringing the strands together.

Cut Scenes That Don’t Connect to Plot

Now that you are squared away on the objective of the main character or characters, assess each scene you’ve written so far. Ask:

  • Does the goal in the scene relate in some way to the overall, death-stakes objective of the Lead? If not, cut it.
  • Does the scene present an obstacle to the attainment of the objective, emotionally or physically or both? If not, why is it there?
  • If the scene is part of a subplot, how does it intersect with the main plot? How does it complicate matters for the Lead?

Write or Rewrite Your Pitch

If you’re a pantser, you may not have a pitch for your novel. After all, you’re still discovering what it’s about! Well, if you’ve done some thinking as this post suggests, you’ve made discoveries. Try putting them together in a pitch—250 words or less that would make someone interested in this story. Doing this will give you focus on where to go next.

If you’re an outliner, rewrite your pitch to include the elements you’ve uncovered. Get excited again about your journey.

Be sure to read Sue’s post on crafting a pitch.

Push On

Now finish your draft. Don’t do any more dawdling. You should have enough direction to push right on to the end. As you do, keep adding to your rolling outline. It will be helpful when you get to the editing stage.

Can you describe a time when your plot got away from you, or you felt lost? Is this a common occurrence for you? What do you do to get back on track? 


32 thoughts on “Help! My Plot is Getting Away From Me!

  1. Very helpful. As a writer who has written manuscripts as both pantser and outliner, I can definitely say that just because I outline a book before hand doesn’t mean I don’t get into just such a muddle as you described.

    What’s funny is that you read about solutions like this, slap your forehead and think “Ah, it’s so obvious! Why didn’t I think of that?” But when you’re in the middle of that chaos in your manuscript, it’s not always so easy to see.

    I feel like you just whipped out your medical bag, pulled out an elixir and handed out a cure. 😎

  2. Thanks for this. Usually, around the 30K mark I hit the “this is never going to work” mark. I look back at my list of publications and tell myself to keep writing.
    I hit 41K yesterday, and I’ve been procrastinating my scene summaries. As my kids used to say when they didn’t want to do something, “Maybe Tuesday.” Maybe today would be better.

    • Terry, I’ve known several writers who hit a 30k “wall.” I have, too, especially at the beginning. There’s got to be some psych explanation for that…but the only cure is more cowbell…oops, I mean, just write your way through it. At 35k I feel back on track.

  3. Was there a time when my plot got away from me?

    ✫ My plot didn’t get away from me; I just had none. Tenirax is a picaro, a scalawag, and I wrote his story just to have something to read to the workshop every week. Seat of pants stuff, 1000 words or so at a time, wherein my MC gets out of the trouble from the previous week, then gets right back into another mess for a hook.

    This is, I found out later, perrfectly okay for a picaresque novel. They are episodic, almost plotless, peregrinations, hither to thither to yon.

    The problem arose when providing continuity. Was Tenirax armed with the rusty sword hither? Did he lose it thither? Did he steal another yon? And so for his hat, and his pantaloons, etc. I woke at 3 a.m; once and found a short story on my PC, the product of another 3 a.m. insomnious stint.

    At one point, I discovered I’d put a flashback into a flashback. literary malfeasance! There were also periodic references to “that awful night in Bilbao.” I had no idea what happened there.

    How did I get back on track?

    ✫ I outlined the 120,000-word m/s. That, plus fixing the plotholes, took months. Paring the m/s down to 108,000 words, another week. I changed the wee hour short story to 3rd person and worked it in as a subplot. On page 247, Tenirax reminisces about Bilbao, up to where he’s about to be attacked in the dark. On page 282, during his confession, he tells what happened.

    I don’t plan a sequel, since there have been no takers on query.

    • Ah, the picaresque novel…almost the very definition of plotless. Worked for Cervantes and Fielding in their day, but not for Toole (Confederacy of Dunces) in ours. Would be an interesting study to theorize why…

      • Right. I didn’t make it to Page 3 in Dunces. I darted back inside the library and launched the book down the return slot within 3 minutes, a personal record. No need to theorize: Toole’s MC was rudely portrayed as an obnoxious loser with no redeeming characteristics, and not even a single save-the-cockroach moment. This arborcidist tome won the Pulitzer. I can’t imagine why.

  4. My plot doesn’t “get away from me” but it can zig instead of zag. For example, yesterday I was in the zone when a POV character discovered something in an old autopsy report that totally blew my mind. My husband sauntered in for lunch as I stared at the computer screen.
    “Wow,” I said, gobsmacked. “I did not see that coming.”
    I mulled over the new twist during lunch. Afterward, I backed up enough to transport back into the zone and let the ladies in the attic straighten it out. 🙂

    That’s my usual process, btw. If something shocking happens (like the time an important secondary character vanished from where I left her), I step away for a few minutes to ask: What could it mean? How does it benefit the plot? Who will be most affected? Why? I don’t think I’ve ever deleted a twist written in the zone. I just figure out how best to use it and adjust my plan.

    Enjoy your Sunday, Jim!

    • Love it, Sue. Gobsmack…zig, zag….what does it mean? Ask questions, figure it out, incorporated it, keep moving.

      We need to get the ladies in the attic and the boys in the basement together for a picnic.

    • “I don’t think I’ve ever deleted a twist written in the zone. I just figure out how best to use it and adjust my plan.”

      Same with me, Sue. Twists come courtesy of the ladies in the attic. They offer the inspiration. The writer’s job is to implement it.

    • I like your process, Sue. Those twists and turns we didn’t see coming in our outlining, may be some of the best twists and turns to surprise the reader.

  5. A plot? There’s supposed to be a plot? lol

    Excellent post! Thanks, Jim.

    Related to your approach, perhaps writers might also try the “reverse outline.” It’s a quick, simple way to corral the mess. A Google search will turn up the deets.

    Thanks for the shout! We all need an elevator pitch. But do we all have one?

    • Thanks, Ruth. If I’m getting it straight, a reverse outline is what you do AFTER you’ve finished your draft. You figure out what’s there and what works (and what doesn’t, which is what you cut). There’s an old book called Writing the Novel by John Braine in which he says just that. You have to write the whole thing to know what’s really going on. THEN you write a 2000 word synopsis and revise it until it shines. THEN you write a complete, new second draft. Whew! I can see the value in that, though I’ve never been able to coax myself to doing it.

      • Hi Jim,

        I run a reverse outline any time I need to figure out wtf I’m doing. I don’t wait to finish cuz when I’ve got a mess, I *can’t* finish. (if you know what I mean. it’s *that* bad.)


      • I may have to do Braine’s approach with my mystery. I’m creating a synopsis now, and will be running it and the first three chapters past my developmental editor (herself a very published sci-fantasy/mystery author and small press editor) for her feedback. My first draft doesn’t work IMHO, and it might prove much better, finally, after nailing down the story, to draft a new version, then trying to fix the current draft.

  6. Great tips, Jim, from a very insightful book. I pantsed my first four novels back in the 2000s, and frequently didn’t know where to go next. Often the plot turned out to be the characters on a quest to find out what was really going on, which, once they learned it, they fixed whatever issue had arisen. Lots of running around in the process and hugger mugger, which I came to realize was my subconscious trying to put together a plot for me. Starting down the path of craft on 2008 helped enormously.

    At the writer’s retreat I attended at the start of the month, I decided to return to pantsing/discovery writing, after reading a few of books on the topic, including one by our own Harvey. I wanted to see if I could loosen up after reaching a point where my outlining process had gone awry.

    I wrote a short story using the “looping” technique where you write a 500 or 1000 words, then cycle back and make changes/edits as needed, then write another 500 to 1000 words, rinse and repeat. I built a “reverse outline” as I wrote, which documented character and setting details, plot points etc. It ended up being a very short story of 2500 words, but it had taken me far longer to write. I then wrote a 9K word story without cycling or building an outline as I went. Then wrote a couple of flash pieces, also straight ahead.

    In the end, I’m still very likely to remain on the outlining side of the writing force, especially with murder mystery, but it was very worth trying after all these years.

    Have a great day!

    • Dale, it is good to try new things/approaches. I’ve written novels every which way and learned something about myself and process each time. I’ve got my preferred process now, but am always open to tweaks.

  7. Totally amazing, Jim!

    I have a WIP, a sequel to a finished novel I will release at some point. I haven’t looked at this MS (the sequel) since January, because I have no idea where it’s going. I look at it, stare at it, and then go do something else. And guess where I am in the word count…

    29,758! So I ask myself, how did you know? 🙂

    I think I’ll dust it off and try the scene synopsis trick you mentioned.

    And, I love this line: I will allow you one wail of frustration. Thank you for that.

    I’m done wailing. Have an awesome Sunday, all!

  8. “Can you describe a time when your plot got away from you, or you felt lost?”

    Daniel Boone once said, “I’ve never been lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.” I think I’m related to him.

    I usually know the beginning and the end of the story I’m working on. It’s that vast wasteland called the ‘middle’ that I wander around in trying to find the most engaging way to lead the readers along the path. Sometimes the girls in the attic will hand me a scene fully-formed, and all I have to do is write it down. Other times, I start writing and something will pop up that works. Just as often, I write and write trying to force a round scene into a square chapter, but I just can’t make it work, so I place it in Scrivener trash.

    This happened in my last book when I wrote several chapters of a subplot and decided it just didn’t work. I don’t see it as wasted time, however, because I may use that in another book.

    • Good point about nothing being wasted, Kay. For one thing, we learn what our plot is not (sort of like Michelangelo looking at the marble and chipping away anything that was NOT David). And yes, perhaps that material can be used in another book.

  9. What has helped me with my last two books is to keep a rolling outline on Google Docs, with a scene synopsis/summary – a prewrite of the scene – below that. I have Google Docs open behind Scrivener, so it is always a click away.

    After I’ve written the outline of each scene, I “prewrite” the scene in my mind, then record details and instructions to myself in the Google Docs “outline” which has become a detailed synopsis. When actually writing the rough draft, I review my prewrite before I write each scene.

    • That’s a great process, Steve. A few moments of “pre-writing” a scene in the mind saves a whole lot of time later. I like the idea of making that your outline in Google Docs.

  10. I’m a plotter who is gradually evolving into a pantser. I enjoy the freedom, but at about 50,000 words I suddenly realize, “Yikes! I don’t have enough for a 70,000 word novel.” Then I go back and create a live-or-die dilemma for my main character.

    • Interesting, Elaine. Most of the time I hear about pantsers evolving into plotters. Yes, freedom is fun, but not free. Another thing you can do if the plot is thin is the opposite of what I prescribe in this post: add a character and a subplot. That’s a good 10-15k right there.

    • Changing from being a plotter to a pantser later in your career means you are so sure of yourself as a plot creator that you no longer need to write the notes and the plot summary because your subconscious has it well in hand.

      • Lee Child (pantser) and Joe Finder (plotter) had a good-natured debate about this. It was Joe’s contention that Lee had plot and structure so firmly in his mind from his TV background that he was in essence doing invisible plotting all along.

  11. My writing super power is plotting like a Swiss watchmaker, and my characters are created for my plot so my moments of “oh, crap” for this problem are thin on the ground. The only true disaster I ever had was one I’ve mentioned before. My original research on an Edgar Allan Poe poem creation date was wrong which dropped a novel-destroying grenade into the MacGuffin over half way through the novel. After a bit of screaming and running around in panic, followed by doing a complete cleaning of my fridge, I figured out how to fix it. Never underestimate the power of drudge chores.

    My writing students, however…. I teach the Rule of Three for each scene. If a scene doesn’t contain at least one or two plot points (information or events which move the plot forward), and one or two character points (important character information) so that you have at least three points total, then it should be tossed, and whatever points included in that scene should be added to another scene. I suggest they have a piece of paper that lists these points beside them when they write the scene so they don’t lose focus.

    For more complex novels, the secondary characters who appear more than once are tied to a subplot that moves the plot forward, offers depth to the thematic elements, and offers more information about the world building.

    • Great tips for your students, Marilynn. Giving just a few minutes’ thought those considerations before writing a scene makes the whole process so much easier.

  12. Jim, your post is outstanding and I’ve loved reading through the comments and found them very informative.

    Often I hit the wall, as I call it, around 30K and I start over. I sometimes do this again at 60K. In the book I’m working on, I’ve used plot points and pinch points, writing to each.(Also the signposts in Write Your Novel From the Middle thrown in) If I get stuck, I just keep writing. So in a way, I guess I’m using the rolling outline…maybe. Thanks for a great post!

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