The Plot Thickens: A Writer’s Guide to Looking Like You Knew What You Were Doing All Along

When I first started writing stories, I probably had a setting, a few characters, and an inciting incident. Nothing more. I did not know the meaning of the word “plot,” as noun or verb. I embodied the method of “pants-ing” and, consequently, didn’t finish a single story until I was in my early teens. It’s difficult to maintain the momentum of a story without any idea of what it needs to get it to the end. I would be afraid to go back and look at how many stories I abandoned with the intention of getting back to them once I thought up the next thing that would happen. Needless to say, I’ve since realised this weakness in my craft and worked to be more intentional with my plots.

The first story I ever finished was completed precisely becaue it was the first of my stories I knew the ending to. The plot, un-outlined and pantsy as it is, meandered for quite a while but ultimately led me to the end. It’s a dreafully plot-holey production but it’s complete–which means there is something to work with when going back and editing. And that’s what I think is the secret to pretending you knew what you were doing all along–having a stable end-point and ret-conning the rest so it adds up to that point. I still don’t outline per se, and I still sometimes pick up a random scene or setting and just run with it, but I am aware of the weaknesses of pantsing the plot and try to remedy them in my own writing.

Which is why it sticks out to me when a series of books read like they have no coherent plot. Sure, even the author can’t be expected to see everything coming, though they’re the one writing it, but couldn’t they at least make it seem as though they knew what they were doing all along? Some do, but I’ve encountered several that don’t convince me and thought about what specifically doesn’t work for these stories. I came up with three important things you need to think about so your story doesn’t have a plot that reads like it was thrown together in the act of creation.

“Oh. You… have a plan?”

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)

The first thing you need to have is a reasonable plan for your characters (provided they are reasonable characters). Or at least insert one in post-production. It doesn’t have to be complete, it doesn’t have to work out, it doesn’t have to be unchanging. It could even be misinformed and completely reversed by the ending, I don’t care. But at some point the characters have to have a compelling stratagem for whatever the goal is that they’re trying to accomplish. What you don’t want is to have characters set off for who-knows-where, with a plan to do who-knows-what when they get there. The unfortunate example I have for this is In the Hall of the Dragon King by Stephen R. Lawhead. I came into the book with high expectations, it’s true, which may have made me a bit harsh when it didn’t fulfill them. However, upon review of why it didn’t hit the spot for me, I realised what it was–it reminded me of my own writing in the not-so-distant past. Namely: the characters didn’t have a plan.

The main company sets out to the villain’s castle to… what exactly? Well, try and stop him from taking over the land, to be sure. But how? Well, there is no “how.” First goal is to get a guide to the villain’s abode, which also rather happens by chance than by any strategic maneouvre on the protagonist’s part. Second goal is to board a ship to take them to the island where the villain is, which takes a little more effort but is swiftly accomplished. Then they’re on the villain’s doorstep… and then what? Well, they have no plan, so the best they can hope for is a fortuitous accident to prevent them from being summarily dispatched… which comes in the form of the villain not being at home (talk about plot convenience!). So then they have to chase the villain back to where they started from (where they might as well have stayed, for all the good racing across the country did them) and stop him there.

I realise I have oversimplifed things, and probably forgotten a good many of the circumstantial details, but the basic purport of the quest remains the same. The protagonists had no “how” throughout their whole journey for once they got to the villain’s lair–that may work if you outgun the villian, but not if you’re a stealth force. So, give your people a plausible plan for what they’re going to do to succeed in their goal. It may require reworking, it may not even work, but at least they have some semblance of reasonable expectation that they could succeed in their attempt, whatever it is.

How very villainous. Unvaried, but villainous.

Megamind (2010)

The second thing is to have clear conflict, be it a villain or some subtler obstacle for the characters to overcome. If your antagonists don’t have clear reasonable goals, like the main characters, then what do you create the conflict from? It becomes rather difficult. The obvious loophole non-planners like myself have is to leave the antagonist’s motivation unknown and then have the protagonists discover it later. This can sometimes work, but there’s a potential pitfall. If the characters do not know at least generally what they are in opposition to, then a) how do they know they’re in opposition to it? And b) they can easily become reactive instead of proactive characters, waiting for the villain to make a move before they can act. So, making villain motivation unclear complicates the hero motivation. One of the first series I read that was striking to me as a run together affair with no plan was the Maximum Ride books by James Patterson. And the reason for that is what I’ve just listed: fuzzy villain motivation/goals, resulting in reactive protagonists with no clear, independent goals of their own.

When I started the series, I liked it. However, I feel as though Patterson intended the books to be a trilogy and once it got popular had to scrounge something else up, branching out into this wild environmental terrorism/apocalypse sub-plot. The first three books seemed all of a piece with one another, but particularly after book 4 I began to feel a bit of whiplash from the plot twists and wonder what was going on in the outlining department. Not a lot of the events in the later books actually hinged on identifiable, pre-established (or even subsequently established) plot. Things just “happened” to the characters to get them to do something, because they increasingly lost all sense of purpose the longer the series went on. First the group was avoiding recapture by the “School”, then it was stopping similar evil corporations destroying eco-systems, then more survival stuff. The parade of evil scientists began to look the same, and they all seemed to have some mysterious purpose that justified them in their own eyes but was never clear to the protagonists–which meant they never knew until the very end what they were fighting against. Or, more often, running from.

At the bottom of it all was a string of increasingly nefarious research facilities funded by shady companies that were invariably after the main characters because “reasons.” On the surface, the main characters were fighting for survival and against the unethical practices of said scientific corporations. But that wears thin when stretched over more than a few books. And it’s pretty boring if it remains the only conflict you can come up with. So steer clear of this non-specific, corporate evil type conflict unless for a brief episode and instead try to come up with some coherent, defineable obstacles tailored to challenge the (hopefully) coherent, defineable goals of your protagonists.

Keep to the Code

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

The third thing you need is to be aware of what kind of story you’re writing. Because writing rules, like the Pirates’ Code, are more like guidelines than actual rules. So if there is a genuine, legitimate, bona fide reason you need your plot to come across like it’s just random events strung together, then by all means, ignore my prior suggestions. As much as I like things tied up in a bow at the end, with no dangling character developments or loose events, and every thread with an ultimate meaning and purpose… sometimes that doesn’t serve the story. Say, in a story with large portions of it detached from observable reality, involving dreams, psychotic episodes, or perhaps an unreliable narrator or an amnesiac narrative perspective. Alice in Wonderland or The Bourne Identity are good examples of two those. In these cases, the very irrational development of the plot actually signals something important about the narrative to the reader.

But, particularly in the memory-loss plot (which I’m going to focus on), the story still has to arrive at a reasonable place though the process of getting there has seemed erratic and nonsensical. Usually this is achieved by having the main character regain/rediscover all or part of their memories. It can be done well or badly, depending on how things come together at the end. And for an example of it being done both well and badly, I am going to use two books from the same series: The Maze Runner and The Death Cure by James Dashner.

While reading The Maze Runner (despite knowing what was going to happen because I’d seen the movie first), I felt through the writing like Dashner was just making it up as he went along. But doing it really well. Because, from what little I remember of the specifics, every seemingly meaningless incident or random development ended up significant in the end. And, as the main character(s) all have memory loss and limited knowledge access, it felt right to be in the dark with them, discovering the keys to maze and how everything worked together alongside them. It made narrative sense, in other words, for things to seem like they didn’t make sense. But then, in the end, they did. Dashner pulled it together really strongly at the end, giving meaning to small things that together formed the larger secret of the maze.

The Death Cure, on the other hand, was a monumental disappointment. It felt slapdash, aimless, and when the series comes to a close and answers are within reach the main characters pull back, leaving everything unresolved. The protagonist maddeningly refused to get his memories back when he could have. Despite the reasoning given, I feel like this functioned more as an author’s excuse for not putting more effort into plotting a coherent backstory or providing much needed closure. The protagonists had no plans almost the entire book, with random events and coincidences thrown in to drive the plot because the characters were certainly incapable of doing so, being sans memories and therefore short on clear goals. The villains… well, what can I say? Another evil scientific corporation with “greater good” type justification for their unethical practices. Sigh. It was an unfortunate close to an otherwise strong trilogy.

And those are my three points to watch out for when pantsing a story, taken from the bad (and good, but mostly bad) examples of books that read like they were made up as they went along. If you give your characters a plan, your villains a motive, and your story’s point some thought, your book might be able to fool the reader into thinking you actually had an outline. It works for me.

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