Plots ~ Bigger Is Better

If you’ve been following this blog all year, you may have noticed I haven’t gone into plot at all except to talk about the visible plot goal of your protagonist. It’s not that I think plot is unimportant. To the contrary. I’m a stickler for tight, engaging, and well-thought-out plots. But because so many writers put so much emphasis on their plot to the detriment of all the other essential book elements in a novel, I’ve been stalling a bit from delving into the topic. Even though I consider myself a character-driven writer, I make no concessions–in my own novels or in my clients’–for any weakness or plot holes.

Too Much Information

But there is a ton of information on the web and in books about plots and how to write them. I certainly don’t want to repeat all the great material you can find out there. So many books are devoted to just plot, and you could go nuts trying to learn all the great techniques involved in writing a great plot. So I’m not going to go into the basics on how to structure a plot. This blog is all about looking at the heart of your story, and so my focus on these blogs is more about why you’re writing the story you are and what passion you are bringing to it.

So I’m going to assume for now you have your plot all worked out. Maybe you’ve already written your novel and you’re in the rewrite stage. Maybe you’re at the place where you think your plot is pretty darn good and doesn’t need any work and you’re focusing more on enriching your characters or subplots. Wherever you are with your novel, I’d love to offer some thoughts and suggestions on ways you can look deeper at your plot and maybe push the edges a bit to make it bigger. Sure, you can add some more subplots, and if those are done well, they will add a lot to your story in terms of revealing character and emphasizing your theme. But your main plot is your story, and there’s a reason you wrote it.

Ask and Ye Shall Make It Worse

If you haven’t done this at all at any time before or during the writing of your novel, I’d like you to consider spending some quiet time asking yourself these questions after identifying your theme and the take-away thought or message you want to give your readers when they finish reading your book. Your protagonist has a goal and is facing a problem to get there. Ask:

  • What’s the problem about? How can I make it bigger? If I take my protagonist out of the story, what does that problem look like in universal terms?
  • How can I make this problem the protagonist has harder? How can I make things worse in the outer world and in his personal life?
  • How can I make the effects of this problem worse for other people as well? How can I broaden the scope of this problem so it affects a greater scope?
  • What does this problem push people to do that they wouldn’t normally do? How can I blow that up bigger and make them do worse things?
  • How can I make it harder for him to solve this problem? How can I raise the stakes so more is at risk? If I have just one thing at risk, what other things can I add and put at risk?

These are just a few things to get you revisiting your plot from a farther distance. You may feel locked in with your protagonist going through certain doors and overcoming a set number of obstacles to reach the end. But if you can make your story bigger and more complex in some ways, you will have a plot that is richer and works on many levels. If you have a man leaving his wife, his actions are affecting his wife and children. But what if his actions cause a snowball effect and by leaving he creates other problems? Maybe his wife is already on the brink of a breakdown and this pushes her to do something terrible–like drive drunk and smash the car, which maims his child? What if leaving his wife creates repercussions at his job, causes him to make a deadly mistake that harms others?

Make a Mess

You can freewrite ideas on paper. Just let them come. Think of more ways to make a mess for your protagonist. Even if you’ve already written the book, you can add layers by making the problem bigger, giving it a bigger scope. You can have more people in the protagonist’s world rocked by how he is handling his problem, which only makes it worse for him. Once you get into it, making a mess is kind of fun–like when you were a kid playing in a mud puddle. This is similar but without the scolding and the guilt!

This week, list a page of ideas of how you can make the protagonist’s problem bigger. Don’t edit yourself as the ideas come. Let even the most ridiculous ideas end up on the page. Then, when done, see if you can find a few you can add to your plot to make it bigger.

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  1. A very good article Suzanne…I am sure following it would lead to a deeper work. I am neither a professed editor, or professional but reading so much advice does make one, as an author, reflect on what drives one to write what one does, and whether whatever it is can find an accord in some kind of ‘universal’ truth. The billiard balls of plot hitting all the cushions of some consequence to all.

    I am about to reflect on names and whether they carry universal connotations, of which a writer should be aware, and exploring this by inviting opinion. If you have a moment do drop by…Fridays will be open day!

    1. Thanks for sharing that. Naming characters is an interesting topic I’ve never talked about, but it’s important! Giving a character a “wrong” name can really affect the way the reader sees and reacts to him/her. So many little bits influence the feel of a novel.

  2. You’re amazing! I’m in the brainstorming phase of my third novel, and these are the exact questions that I needed to make this plot really explode. Thank you for succinctly setting out what I needed to do.

    1. You’re welcome. But I got these questions and ideas from many teachers I’ve learned from, so I don’t take the credit. I’m just glad to share what has helped me in my writing journey.

  3. Thanks for sparking my imagination on the subject of ‘bigger is better’. Deep into the revisions of my own novel, I needed to revisit the motivation of my chief character because I felt that as written they could not justify his actions. By presenting even more complications, I finally arrived at the dimension I needed to make my protagonist believable.

  4. I very much like your article and I agree about the complexity of plots making it richer. However, there must be some exceptions and not only due to the readers’ age group. There are personality differences that cause writers to write in different styles and readers to like different styles. The writer and reader have to ‘feel’ each other and it is not always natural to writers to make complex plots – especially those people who now write books but would have not done so when the internet wasn’t around yet or write books as a result of having learned creative writing in a course as opposed to having it in their blood.

    1. Not all books are alike and some novels won’t do well with a bigger complex plot. But for the most part, plots in novels tend to be small in scope and have have the potential to broaden by having events affect more than just the main character. Many have trouble creating riveting plots and often their basic plot is dull or has been done too many times. By adding some dimensions to a plot (since there really are no new plots) you can add some originality and add surprise and tension. I’m not sure how this issue ties in with the Internet or readers and writers needing to “feel” each other, but people do have different tastes.

  5. I am a little unclear what you mean by “Make It Bigger.” Do you mean develop the characters better? Or refine the settings and images that the people do their thing in? My plot is already complicated enought,with nine different people murdering ten more people.

    1. I mean fatter, thicker, deeper. Bigger as in blow it up so the plot doesn’t just affect your protagonist but sends waves of effect out into his/her world. This helps raise the stakes across the board and add interest and tension. Too many novels have a “tiny” plot that stays in a very small spot (okay sorry for the pedantic rhyming!) and by adding scope and layers (more next week on that!) your story gets richer. Maybe your plot is already big enough.

  6. I’m struck by the ongoing serendipity: this is probably the fifth or sixth time you’ve written about a part of my novel WIP that I’m grappling with at the moment. In this case, I have my theme, MC problem, and general plot fleshed out, but have been pondering how to make it more complex (i.e., bigger) yet still feel credible to me. Thank you yet again for great insights; these questions really focus my concerns and will help me burrow deeper.

  7. Great Post!

    I might have take some issue with the bigger is better line though, haha. Only because a lot of people are taking this to “Inception” levels of craziness these days, making overcomplicated plots just to make the plots bigger and more complicated. I also am a stickler for a tight, well thought out plot free from any holes. I also like plots that are realistic. There obviously is some sort of balanced that needs to be achieved between a sufficiently complex plot and the rest of the book.

    As for the “making a mess.” I do a technique that I call “mind-mapping” I just take one of those giant sticky notes and I write down my general idea and branch it out from there. When I am done it resembles a brain cell, hence the “mind-mapping.” Very helpful. Thanks for post.

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