Trouble Your Darlings: Bringing Life to Pallid Plots

The premise of your story is fantastic, and the characters are well-defined. Yet something seems missing. Your plot is just going through the motions, or maybe the central challenge of the story just seems too easy for the characters to overcome.

It’s not… bad, it’s just not exciting. Or funny. Or stirring. It’s too straightforward and it has the characters do boring things to achieve their goals. It just feels limp.

It’s time to go back to the drawing board, yeah. Sadly you’ll need to start over from page one. But if you’re ready for a radical departure, try one of the following complications (or, obviously, make up your own) to wake things up:

What if the Bad Guys already won? Your villain wanted to turn the hero’s family into zombies. What if that happened? What kind of psychological changes would your hero have to go through to fight their own loved ones? What if the MacGuffin everybody was looking for was actually fake, a complete myth? This is sure to get your characters agitated.

How would your plot change if it was set 100 years ago? Or 100 years in the future? You don’t need to take your heartbreaking coming of age story and make it over into science fiction. Maybe the future/past world is very subtle, maybe it just means cell phones work a different way. Maybe you don’t have to define the setting’s timeframe at all, you just keep it hazy and complicated. Alternatively, maybe the story is actually being told by the grandchildren of your protagonist. Maybe your hero failed… but their descendants still have a chance to make things right.

How many characters/set pieces/words do you really need? One of the big reasons that plots fail to sing is that they’re too bloated. You have too many people doing too many things–look at every character in your story, and what they do. Would it be more interesting if the protagonist had to do their job, too? Are there characters who are just there for emotional support, or a funny scene? Cut ’em out! Find a way to make their scenes work without them. Even better, cut out the big turgid set pieces you love so much but which don’t advance the plot. Finally–are you sure this needs to be a 300 page novel? Would it move faster and be more exciting as a 10 page short story?

What if your central plot was actually a ruse? Your villain stole the McClintosh Diamond from the National Museum. It’s clear she’s going to build a death ray with it! Or is she…? What if the whole plot of your story is just cover for what the antagonist is secretly doing (bonus points if it’s a cover for what the protagonist is up to, and you keep the reader guessing until the last page)? If that doesn’t work, think about what kind of diversion the antagonist might stage to throw the hero off the trail, something they could do early on that ties your story up in knots? Red herrings can be frustrating if used too preciously, but they’re great for building suspense, especially early in the story.

Is this waking life? Or a dream? The worst ending you can possibly have for a story is “…and she realized it was all just a dream.” But what if that’s the first line of your story? What if your protagonist thinks they’re having a dream/vision/acid trip… and then it turns out to be real? What if you keep the reader in the dark as to what is real and what isn’t? Your straightforward plot is suddenly a deadly game of chasing the white rabbit–is the goal in sight? Does it even exist? Or is it more real than real? Blow our minds, man!

Bad Advice: Write Like Your Parents Are Already Dead

Because, of course, then you’ll be liberated from the fear of offending them. Or you can write about them, even better, right? You can write about how crazy they were or how they treated you or what they did to keep you from writing. Right?

It’s true that writers need to be a little fearless when they choose their subjects. They have to write violent or dark or–gasp–sexy scenes and if they’re worried what their families or close friends think, they’ll hold back, they’ll soft-pedal things. It’s true that the great writers are the ones who tackle subjects nobody wants to talk about. The ideas and concepts that might make them unpopular.

Right?

I don’t entirely buy it. Oh, it’s good to be a little libertine in your choices as a writer. You want drama and excitement and a little adrenaline to spice up your stories. But there are two reasons I think this is, if not terrible advice, at least worth questioning. The first is that your parents–actually, let’s open this up and say your loved ones, regardless of their legal relationship to you–are the best support staff you’re going to get. They can nurture you and be your best first readers and their stories can inform what you write. One of the best, if not the best moment of my entire career, happened at a dinner table one night while I was visiting my parents.

“Here are my five favorite David Wellington novels, and why,” my father said. Then he went on to list and describe them.

My Dad had read my books. And liked them. He’s passed, now, and I miss so much the support, encouragement, and love he gave me. While he was still alive he got to see me succeed as a writer. He was so proud. I wouldn’t trade anything for that.

Writing is a solitary activity and it can be soul-crushing. The isolation and daily discouragement you get as a writer is your worst enemy. Your loved ones are what can keep you going in the darkest moments. Don’t see them as impediments. See them as resources. If they truly love you, of course they’ll want you to use their stories, to adapt their anecdotes. You can’t write in a vacuum.

The second reason that this particular piece of advice is bad is that strictures and limitations are what make art great.

The pure, free play of the writer’s mind gave us Ulysses, and To The Lighthouse. Those are great books… but they’re rare. And they should be. Most great stories come from some kind of artificial rule, some boundary set up against the author’s progress by forces they couldn’t control.

There’s a reason why the Monty Python movies aren’t as good as the television sketches. Forced to work within arbitrary rules of censorship on state media, the Pythons were forced to go absurd–they couldn’t just make endless jokes about shit and fucking, so they had to get surreal.

Almost all pulp fiction passed through a rigorous gauntlet of editors and gate-keepers, people who either demanded the stories be less salacious–or more so. Then there’s the greatest road block of them all: the readership, in all of its strident demands and capricious wants. I would argue–and I know there are many who disagree–that Lovecraft’s greatest stories are the ones he wrote specifically for the Weird Tales audience. Not the Poe pastiches and noodly nightmares he created when nobody was watching.

Editors refine stories. Audiences push authors to find universal themes, to find why stories are important. Writing in a vacuum would ignore those tensions, pretend they don’t exist.

For the sake of your readership, and your own mental health–don’t write like your parents are already dead. Right the story that’s going to make your father (or mother, or wife, or cousin, or crazy best friend) proud of you.

When You’re Stuck: Things to Try

There are days when you just can’t write. You can have the world’s best idea, be sitting in the world’s best writing chair… and nothing comes. When it feels like every sentence you put down just takes you farther from what you wanted to say.

And you know what? Sometimes there is no solution, except to stop, walk away, and find something more constructive to do with your time. Absolutely.

But before you get to that point, there are things you can try to bring the magic back. I can’t guarantee they’ll work, but it’s better than losing an entire writing day, right?

Change Your Viewpoint: I wrote a story recently where I just couldn’t find the right voice. I had great characters in mind, but I couldn’t make them jump through the necessary hoops. They were too smart to do the dumb thing, or too weak to effect the needed change. I tried writing that story four different ways, and in the end, the answer was to write the story from the perspective of the villain. Suddenly the evil machinations all felt natural. The dialogue, which had been forced, was suddenly crackling with malice. It turned a mournful, quiet story into a fun romp–exactly what that story needed.

Write Backwards: There are some writers, I’m told, who write the middle of a story first, or the next-to-last scene, or whatever. I’ve never been one of them, myself. I need to write chronologically, both for the sake of continuity and flow. But every so often I’ll find that the answer really is to write the climax of the story first–and then write the penultimate scene, and then the antepenultimate scene, until I get to the beginning. It’s like when you’re stuck solving a maze–often just flipping the maze over and starting from the end is the best solution.

The Extended Outline: The worst way to write, typically, is to just list a series of events, as in; this happened, and then that happened, and then another thing… except when that’s exactly what you need to do. If you know the structure and plot of your story, try writing each chapter as a single sentence (as convoluted and nonsensical as it needs to be), as if you were writing a dry and clinical synopsis of the story. Then go back and fix those terrible sentences! You may find they turn into scenes because you can’t bear to leave them as knotted up and mechanical as they look on the page.

Change Act I: If the ending of a story isn’t working, if it seems hackneyed or lifeless, often times you just haven’t earned it. Your characters haven’t gone through enough trials, or the solution to their problem is just too easy or too obvious. Go back and look at how you started the story. Did you not give your protagonist enough obstacles to overcome? Did you forget to mention that your heroine is a wizard? Find some simple detail early in the story and change it. How does that affect your ending? It could unlock whole new possibilities. Of course, the opposite can be true as well–that is:

Simplify! A story that is too complicated is one of the main causes of stuck writer syndrome. The problem may be that you’re trying to do too much. Do you really need that subplot where the characters open a bakery, only to realize they actually needed to find the Jade Parrot statue before it was too late? Are you trying to create rich, multi-dimensional characters in a pulpy potboiler? Cutting out extraneous material and diversions will free you up to really explore the things that excite you about the story.

And of course the best advice you can get when you’re stuck is this: Don’t give up! Keep plugging away. Write ten bad sentences in a row and maybe the eleventh will be the one that sings. You can always go back and edit later. Remembering that is often the golden key that unlocks your creativity. Don’t be afraid to fail!

Working with Editors

So you’ve sold your book to a publisher. Maybe your agent went toe-to-toe with a greedy editor and convinced them to give you your damn money. Maybe you had to do the negotiations yourself–either way, you’ve experienced the horror of professional writing now. You’ve come face to face with the most existentially terrifying fact of the writer’s life:

Publishers want to make money off books. If they don’t think your book can make money, you’re dead to them.

Does it matter if your book is a brilliant masterpiece? Not if they can’t sell a thousand copies. Does it matter you put years of your life and your entire soul into it? They literally don’t care.

Maybe they want you to make massive changes to your book, changes you don’t agree with. Maybe their idea of how to market the book is repugnant to you–how dare they put out a press release saying your real life alien experience is a work of science fiction?

But somehow, you convinced them to publish something you wrote. You would be forgiven for thinking you’re marching into the lion’s den. But here’s the secret to being professional as a professional writer: starting today, you need to completely flip your attitude.

Your editor is your friend.

You’re on the same team.

That’s the only way this relationship is going to work. And I guarantee you, it’s what your editor wants.

You have good reason to trust them and to treat them like a coworker. They’ve already decided they like your book. They think you have potential.

How many people in your writing life feel that way? You can’t afford to push them away.

Similarly, they think your book can be a success. Maybe they’re not thinking “best-seller”. Maybe they’re thinking mid-list. But you know what? It’s their job to figure that out, along with a lot of other things. If they’re competent, they’ll know what the market is looking for, much better than you do. If they’re driven, they’ll want your book to reach its full potential, and for you to see the success your talent deserves.

They want to make money from your book. Absolutely. So do you, right? I’m not going to assume, here, that you wrote your book just to get rich. You’re not that dumb. But a little extra money in your pocket makes it that much easier to write your next book. And the editor knows that if your book makes money, the publisher will be interested in a sequel or a follow-up.

The editor is on your side. Regardless of how nasty the negotiations on your advance got. Do they want you to make major changes to the book? It may need those changes. Those changes may make it stronger. It’s always valuable to have a second pair of eyes look at a book, and see where it succeeds, and where it fails. Please, please do yourself a favor. Set aside your hurt feelings and your passionate defenses of your book. Listen to what the editor says with a clear mind and an open heart. They’re too busy to listen to your explanations, your defense mechanisms, your evasions. Criticism is not contempt, and you need to get ready to hear the harsh truth. You need to be ready to accept it at face value.

The editor is your friend.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re always right.

Editors are people, and therefore fallible. It’s possible you have a degree in marketing. Most likely your editor has a degree in English. If they want to market your book to the wrong demographic or with ad copy that is literally offensive to you, you can tell them that. You can discuss it with them, and if you have a strong argument, they’ll probably agree with you.

You are not legally required to make the changes to your book that they’ve requested, either. If there’s something they want to cut, but you think the book needs it, by all means fight for it. Although… maybe use a light hand, here. If the editor asks you to cut a third of your book, consider the fact that maybe you overwrote. It happens. But if they want to cut a character who you think is the secret heart of the story? Be ready to defend your decision. But stick to your guns.

It’s possible to completely wreck your own book deal by being too antagonistic toward your editor. It takes some work–most editors have pretty thick skin. But if you refuse to even listen to what they have to say, if you demand more money after you’ve already signed a contract, if you insult them in the press, well… say you worked in an office. I don’t know, selling insurance or something. Say you had a co-worker who did all those things to you. Say you just had a co-worker who spent all day telling you how awful the insurance industry is, or how everyone in your office is talentless and you can’t figure out how they got hired. How long would you keep that job? Would you get promoted?

I have heard stories of some authors who were moderately successful, but were such a pain to work with that they didn’t get a second book deal. It’s pretty rare, but it happens. Now, if you just wrote the next Harry Potter and you’re selling a million copies a year, well, feel free to be a diva. (Don’t, actually. Success doesn’t justify your being a jerk. It just means other people can’t call you on it). But if you see a long climb ahead, if you imagine a career spanning decades, with each book a slow burn toward royalties, well…

You’ll need all the friends you can get. The second the ink is dry on your contract, do yourself a favor and call your editor. Tell them how excited you are to be working with them. Say you really want to hear their ideas about how your book can be made stronger and a better fit for the market.

In the long run, you will be very glad you did.