Write It Sideways

5 Quick Fixes for a Story that Goes Wrong

Today’s post is written by regular contributor Dr John Yeoman.

Every serious author has panicked at some point when drafting their novel.

The story that was conceived as a perfect whole has gone seriously wrong. A major plot line has collapsed or characters refuse to behave as scripted. Worse, the concept itself seems so trite and unoriginal that there appears nothing for it but to toss the whole wretched thing away and start again. Six months of work down the shredder…

Have you ever had that experience?

Don’t panic! Here are five typical challenges you’re likely to meet in your first draft, and how to fix them:

1. The Runaway Plot

Your story logic has become implausible. If your characters are now doing this, they couldn’t have done that three chapters earlier. Or vice versa.

Relax. Probably, every novelist has had that dilemma. J K Rowling admits:

“Halfway through writing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I realised there was a serious fault with the plot … I’ve had some of my blackest moments with this book … One chapter I rewrote 13 times, though no-one who has read it can spot which one or know the pain it caused me,” (Glasgow Herald, July 2000).

Quick Fix: Before you consign that chapter to history, see if you can change something earlier in the story that makes it appear logical. Then weave the chapter back into the story line. If an episode surprised you—the author—it will certainly surprise a reader. That’s a freshness you might want to retain.

2. The Patchwork Quilt

Your scenes are a mess. They’re written the way you planned them, and there is a pattern behind the sequence, but they appear to be all over the place.

Quick Fix: Go back to each scene and drop in some transitional links. A throwaway exchange of dialogue can often do it. For example: “I wonder how the cabin survived that bad storm, John?”|”We’d better take a look.”|“Next month?”|“Yeah, I reckon the mosquitoes will have gone by then.” When the next scene opens four weeks later at the mountain cabin, it’s a seamless transition.

An inexperienced writer will try to rewrite everything. A seasoned author will just cut—or drop in—a few lines and the continuity slips back into place.

3. Hopeless Scenes

You work all week on an episode and discover it’s a digression. Pointless. Irredeemable.

Quick Fix: Cut it, of course. But save it in an Outtakes file. Chances are, you can reuse some of that material elsewhere.

The same applies to Fine Language. Maybe you’ve written a beautiful line of description or characterisation. “Her voice was as soft as doves on a distant hill.” Poetic? No. Pretentious. But it might work if an affected character mutters it to himself, or writes it in a letter or diary. People are allowed to be pretentious when talking, ostensibly, to themselves.

4. The Aberrant Character

Your main players develop interesting but unexpected quirks. Maybe they conflict with the reader’s image of the character. They don’t ring true.

Quick Fix: If your character throws a surprise at the reader, foreshadow it with a brief Characterising Incident earlier in the story.

For example, your protagonist—a tough, veteran cop—has to explore an abandoned mine shaft. He panics. That’s out of character. So present an incident earlier when he refuses to enter an elevator and takes the stairs instead. He explains weakly to his colleagues, “I need the exercise.” But one nudges the other. “Jim has claustrophobia.” The incident seems inconsequential but, when Jim panics in the mine, the reader can understand why.

5. The Peril of Plagiarism

You’ve stumbled on a highly original plot idea. It’s topical. It has ‘best seller’ written all over it. You’ve half finished the story when you read a novel, already published, that’s based on the self-same idea. No, you didn’t steal that idea. But if you submit your novel now, reviewers will cry “Plagiarism!” Won’t they?

Quick Fix: Go back and twist that plot idea radically. Present it in an entirely different way. Probably, nobody will compare the two novels or notice the similarity of themes. And if they do? No matter. Ideas cannot be copyrighted. (Otherwise, only one novel would be allowed in the world with the theme of a vampire lover. Or a hard-boiled detective with a heart of gold. Or… well, you get the idea.)

Just make sure you don’t inadvertently echo any of the names, phrases or other forms of words used in the other novel.

Avoiding Problems in the First Place

The simplest way to avoid many of these problems is to write a detailed synopsis in advance. You’ll need one anyway when the time comes to submit your work to an agent or publisher. Save yourself a lot of agony by preparing the synopsis before you draft the novel.

Use the synopsis to test the plot logic in every episode. The transitions. The plausibility of the characters. Then draft the story around your plan. You’ll know at once when the story’s going off-script.

That said, it’s a military axiom that no plan ever survives its first engagement with the enemy. Rowling plans every novel in detail. “Before I start writing seriously I spend two months re-visiting the plan and making absolutely sure I know what I am doing,” (BBC interview, March 2004). Yet she still came unstuck with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Maybe the characters took over.

If that happens to you, rejoice! Chances are, your story has developed a new vitality. You just have to whip those mischievous characters back into the plot…