How to Plot Wrong, in 3 Easy Steps

Can you believe it’s June already? You’d never know it from the weather on the Northern California Coast. It’s been pouring rain for days. It’s practically the Pacific Northwest.

So I’m going to spend the month of June talking about how to do everything backward. And I’m going to need your help with this. I’ve spent the bulk of my life learning everything about fiction the hard way, so I’m pretty conversant with that part, but there’s nothing like doing it wrong to bring out the unique creativity of the individual.

This conversation won’t realize its full potential without your creativity added to the mix.

Let’s start with plot, because that’s the simplest thing to learn and therefore the simplest thing to screw up:

  1. Hook at the wrong place

  2. Most aspiring writers have no idea what they’re going to write about in their novels—they just sit down and dive into something that seems interesting. And that’s a lot of fun! Whee, doggies. Who are these characters? What are they doing here? What are they up against? Why don’t they know it?

    And this last bit is what bites them in the butt—Why don’t they know it? Because the writer doesn’t know it, that’s why. But the characters should know. They should be completely and shockingly clear on what they’re up against in the Hook. And they should be absolutely desperate to get it resolved.

    When you launch into a story this way—expecting to keep this Hook in the final draft—all you do is share with your reader your own fogginess and indecision about your story. And they don’t want your fogginess and indecision. They have plenty of their own.

    Unfortunately, your characters can’t possibly know, in all its depth and import, something you don’t know. You need to know why you’re starting where you start. That Hook casts its shadow forward over your entire novel.

  3. Develop in the wrong way

  4. And because these aspiring writers don’t know what their novels are about when they start writing them, they have no idea where to take them. They just keep writing scene after scene, bumbling along, feeling around in the dark, wondering what on earth is going on.

    Again—all kinds of fun and excitement. For the writer. Beyond boring for the reader. The reader needs you to have already figured out what on earth is going on. Otherwise, they’ll go find a writer who has.

    You would not believe how much of my time I spend kindly separating the wheat from the chaff for aspiring writers. “This scene is fabulous and gripping and carries your story forward exactly right,” I’m telling them. “These other ten scenes must have been great fun to write, I know. But they’re your background notes. They belong on your desk, not in your novel.”

    If you could figure out just how much of my time that takes. . .you’d know just how much money you could save by doing that part for yourself.

  5. Climax at the wrong place

  6. And when these aspiring writers finally burn themselves out on all this random fantasizing, they tend to throw up their hands and end on the real point of all this for them: a long, detailed description of how happy all the characters are when they’re no longer struggling anymore. This can go on for a really long time. This can go on for chapters.

    Which just caps off this exercise in writing for the sake of the writer. Unfortunately, this is vastly different from writing for the sake of the reader.

    Even John Gardner was told to cut 1/3 of his 1970s magnum opus, The Sunlight Dialogues. (He did.)

Because this is the crux of the matter: you can write your first draft solely and entirely for your own sake if you like. Everyone knows how thrilling that is, what a pleasure to the writerly soul. We all wallow in it, to some extent or another. Otherwise, why would we be doing this work?

But if you want to sell that novel, that final draft must be plotted with unerring care and precision for the sake of your readers.

Next week we talk about how to characterize wrong.

The week after we talk about how to write wrong.

And the week after that we talk about how to revise wrong.

Plus, of course, we need 9 Ways to Find the Time to Write.

I can’t be the only person who learned all this the hard way.

28 thoughts on “How to Plot Wrong, in 3 Easy Steps

  1. Love this! We’re often vague for quite a while about our books because it takes time to discover clarity – that comes through successive revisions and re-examinations. Often books are dragged untimely from the womb, to paraphrase somebodyorother.
    But I’d forgotten the joy of the burbling, indulgent end where the writer can’t bear to let the characters go. Just one more scene in the sunlit garden please!

    1. Victoria says:

      Aaah! Roz, you’re back.

      Yes, there are so many wonderful ways to do it wrong. I have made an exhaustive personal study.

  2. Crichardwriter says:

    I learned about plotting by reading several books on screenwriting. The books about writing novels are too vague and constantly say stuff like “wait until your characters start talking to you and then you will know what to do” – ummmm, not really. Instead, the screenwriting books do a superb job of laying out a story in three acts and defining how you get from one act to the next.

    1. Victoria says:

      There’s absolutely no question. I learned the basic elements of structure from Syd Field’s Screenplay. Then I applied his principles to dozens and dozens of novels and found. . .he’s exactly right.

      I’m writing the chapters on this for my second book, The Art & Craft of Story, this week, up to my eyeballs in it all day today. You can take the basics of three-act structure down to the micro level in scenes. Clean, simple, straight-forward.

      Like knowing how ignition-fuel-combustion works to power a car.

  3. Jeffrey Russell says:

    There really is a lot to writing a novel, isn’t there, Victoria? With my first try at it I spent a lot of time working on scenes that got my characters do just what I wanted them to do, just the way I wanted them to do it. To say just what I wanted them to say, just the way I wanted them to say it. And some of those scenes turned out pretty good. But the book wasn’t all that good.

    You wrote in this blog “the characters …should be completely and shockingly clear on what they’re up against… And they should be absolutely desperate to get it resolved.” That was the problem. I was completely clear about everything, but my characters weren’t. Nevertheless they went about doing and saying everything I told them to.

    Like I said, the book had some really good scenes, which I’m very proud of, but it didn’t turn out to be as good a book as I’d hoped.

    1. Victoria says:

      Yeah, there really is, Jeffrey. It’s a nearly infinite craft. I’m still learning about it every day. I love the depth and complexity to it. . .but it’s not a craft for the faint-hearted.

      So now you’ve got one practice novel under your belt. You’ve only got four more to write to catch up with me. 🙂

      An old novel never dies—it just regenerates with fresh characters, fresh plot ideas, fresh scenes and twists and unexplored avenues: fresh insights into the human condition.

  4. I feel very fortunate because I found Larry Brooks’ “Story Engineering.” Consequently, I feel pretty good about my book, at least structurally. All I need to do now is finish writing the remaining 50,000 words! But at least I know what those words will be — at a high level, anyway.

    The one thing that is still unclear to me is what is supposed to happen at the end of the book, from a timing perspective. From what I understand, the classic 3-Act structure is turned into a 4-Part structure for novels, with Act 2 broken into Parts 2 and 3 at the midpoint.

    Theoretically, the climax (coordinated with the main character’s Moment of Truth) is supposed to happen at the Second Plot Point, which happens at the end of Act 2/Part 3. Okay…you still have 25% of the book left for what? Resolution? In an 80,000-word book, that’s 20,000 words of wrap up.

    Perhaps my problem is that I’m thinking of “climax” as the end of the final battle, rather than the beginning. I know, I know, “how very male of me.” But what I DON’T want to have happen is for my reader to just roll over and fall asleep before the end of the novel.


    1. Victoria says:

      Ah, this is a slight misunderstanding of three-act structure.

      I’d have to review Larry’s book to know how he describes it, but I don’t break a novel into four parts. It’s still three acts, just like a screenplay. I do break each act into two parts, which involves that break at the midpoint of the novel you’re talking about, which is the midpoint of Act II.

      What happens at the second Plot Point at the end of Act II isn’t the Climax. That’s the third major Conflict, which I refer to (cannily-enough) as Conflict #3.

      Act III begins after that. What belongs there? Oh, everything.

      It begins with the Faux Resolution just to make sure the reader stays off-balance. And then it throws the kitchen sink at them in the Climax. The closer your Climax is to the last page, the more succinct and therefore more powerful the Resolution that comes after it. Many writers—like the inimitable Isak Denisen, whom I’m working on right now for The Art & Craft of Story—shove that Climax right up to the very last moment. . .leaving the Resolution to the reader’s imagination, where it can wreak the greatest havoc.

      No reader should ever roll over and fall asleep before the end of a novel. If it’s not part of the excitement, it’s not part of the story.

      1. Thanks, Victoria. That helps a lot. I can go back to my “beat sheet” now and move some things around with a little more confidence. It seemed like the big moment was arriving too early. I feel better knowing my instincts were right about that.

        I’ll also have to go back and review my Brooks. I must have missed something about how Act 3 is supposed to work.

        I’ve discovered I’m a structure junkie, so your feedback on the subject is much appreciated.

        1. Victoria says:

          Daniel, I think Larry might approach this slightly differently from me. He and I traded books several months ago, but I don’t remember now exactly how he framed it.

          I talked about this in overall, macro terms in The Art & Craft of Fiction and am writing about it in detail right now for The Art & Craft of Story. I’m hoping to have Story published by the end of September, so it’ll all be there then. If you’d rather read about it sooner, I’m publishing each chapter as I write it to The Art & Craft of Fiction Lab. There’ll be a whole flurry of activity there this week and next, as I get these detailed chapters hammered out.

      2. Jeffrey Russell says:

        I suppose I’ll know more after you look at my WIP, but my Act 3 doesn’t start with a faux resolution. It starts by showing that the Conflict/Crisis which ended Act 2 is turning out even worse than anyone expected. And it continues getting worse and worse for everyone straight through to the Climax/Resolution.

        1. Victoria says:

          We’ll sort it out, Jeffrey. Conflict/Crisis is the most important part of storytelling, the part aspiring writers are most likely to forget. So long as you’ve got that all blocked in, a Faux Resolution can be added rather easily. . .if, in fact, it’s missing. Which it may not be.

  5. I had to learn that there is a distinction between a good story and ‘story structure’. I have a great story but had to learn how to tell it in such a way as to hook and keep the reader. Now that I know how, I’m rewriting it.

    1. Victoria says:

      Exactly. There’s an old saw about the difference between plot and story:

      The king died, and then the queen died.

      The king died, and then the queen died of grief.

      In the first you have plot structure—Hook and Climax. But in the second you have plot structure plus character. And that makes all the difference.

      Story structure is so simple. It’s honestly the most straight-forward of the three elements of fiction: plot, character, and prose. And once you learn it and start practicing, you’ll find your stories begin to come out of you naturally in pretty good structure, making rewriting vastly less work.

      Of course, the mark of a real writer is the willingness to rewrite any- and everything until it’s right.

  6. E. Hunter says:

    Great post and interesting comments! I just started reading your blog and I am enjoying this series.

    I have to say, this is why I cannot start writing anything until I’ve outlined it in fairly exact detail. I hate the idea of going back and rewriting scenes at the beginning of my novel that no longer fit with the resolution of the story. It happens on a small scale, but if I didn’t outline to the scene from the beginning, I would drive myself nuts and just get frustrated.

    Do things change along the way? Of course! But not significantly. Not usually. I know every writer works differently, but I wish more people gave outlines a try from the beginning.

    That said, I often find myself having to be patient about starting the writing process until I’ve fully wrapped my mind around the story as a whole and have written my notes and character sketches, so I understand the temptation to just dive right in.

    I’ve also never come to a point with any of my stories where I was sitting blankly, staring at the computer screen, completely unsure of where to go, either.

    Thanks for the great post! Looking forward to more.


    1. Victoria says:

      Hey, E! Welcome to the madhouse.

      I’ve finally learned to design my plots first, too. I spent many, many joyful years blithering gaily away without structure, and although I learned a lot about character and prose writing those novels, they still simply don’t work. Now I’ve learned to separate the thrilling brainstorming stage from the intricate writing stage, and I can outline a whole novel scene-by-scene and then write the thing in a matter of months. I do this every year writing a book for my son. He’s got eight of them now.

      You’re spot on about patience. It helps to remember to relish the brainstorming stage—the part in which you’re letting your subconscious leap to conclusions in all directions. That’s a marvelous high.

      Then the writing becomes a long, luxurious meditation, using a different part of the brain.

  7. Janice Hardy says:

    Great post! I made all three of these. Heck, I think I made every mistake at some point, hehe. One thing I remember doing was getting the whole “every scene needs a goal” concept wrong. I figured as long as I had A goal I was good. So I had all these really pointless ones that let my protag act, but not in any way that drove the story.

    When I started thinking “what goal will push my protag closer to the core conflict of the novel and cause them the most internal struggles?” that things started changing. I started to see how plots and goals were all just steps of the larger story and figured out how to weave them all together.

    1. Victoria says:

      Janice, I’ve made all three of these so many times when you look up “How to Plot Wrong” in the dictionary it’s a link to my page.

      That’s a great story about learning to plot! “What goal will push my protag closer to the core conflict of the novel and cause them the most internal struggles” is about as succinct as good instructions get.

  8. Janice Hardy says:

    LOL. Doing it wrong and struggling to get it right does make it stick in your head though, doesn’t it? And I think it makes us understand whatever we struggled with even better.

    1. Victoria says:

      There is nothing so good for your skills as learning from your mistakes.

      I had an anthropology teacher twenty-five years ago who taught us that pain is the single greatest technique for fixing random information in memory—he suggested giving us each a slice across the palm as we left his lecture that day, promising we’d sure remember it.

      Which turned out to be true. I did remember that lecture. That part of that lecture.

      1. Janice Hardy says:

        Egads! But the theory works. The stuff that “hurt” is what I’m strongest at now. Emotional pain qualifies.

        1. Victoria says:

          YES. And this is why readers love reading about characters in crisis. Because that’s what’s most riveting, most educational. . .and most likely to result in personal strength.

  9. K.M. Weiland says:

    ‘Nother good’n here, Victoria. Hooks are tough (actually, the first 50 pages are tough – what am I saying? The whole darn book is tough!), but I’ve found everything slips into place so much easier when I use an outline. If an author outlines the whole plot before writing the first draft, he always knows what’s going to happen a step ahead of it actually happening. Outlines make controlling the whole reading experience so much simpler.

    1. Victoria says:

      Hi, Katie!

      Outlines do—they really do. Even the most sweeping generalization about how your protagonist creates their own nightmare (Climax) and when that first becomes inevitable (Hook) helps. And it’s really simple math to sketch out for yourself the three major steps they take on the way to their doom. Any sketch is better than none.

      However, it’s true that at this point in my life, I’m cramming the books I write in between my job and my life with my family. (I complained to my husband last night that I’m not going to be able to write that last third of my book on writing this week, and he said, “What would you tell a client who thought they could write a third of a book in a week?”)

      That time-crunch means I outline all my books these days in scenes-by-scene granularity. It’s the only way I get a whole book written for my son every October. At hair-raising speed. 🙂

  10. kathy stemke says:

    I may have found your blog just in time! I’ve written 18,000 words of my first novel and feela little lost. I’ve written a brief outline, but I see the need for more detailing and plotting. Thanks. I’m going to follow your blog.

    1. Victoria says:

      Thank you, kathy! Yes, I think most of us learn the hard way, by diving in and writing a couple of full novels before it ever occurs to us that there’s a reason our favorite novels hang together so well.

      It took me decades. And I understand Katherine Anne Porter spent 29 years on Ship of Fools.

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