Holes in your plot will cause readers to lose interest. Not a good situation when you're trying to build a readership. Sin Ribbon shares five ways you can easily avoid this and write more compelling stories that have readers glued to the pages.
Loving a story is much like falling in love with anything; we can’t point to any one quality that captures our hearts because it’s the way all those elements collide—the gestalt—that speaks to us.
When crafting a narrative, we know the common ingredients: heart and soul, compelling characters, difficult choices, and life-altering conflicts, but there are a few pitfalls that can be avoided along the way.
1. Do the scenes begin in the right places?
A helpful tip is to start each scene as late as possible, even if it’s in the middle of a conversation. You usually don’t need to explain the ins and outs of how characters migrated from one location to another nor include idle conversation. Every scene must convey new information that drives the story forward. Any event that isn’t achieving that goal can be thrown out.
This includes description. While an author should orient readers in a space, avoid details that don’t contribute to the story.
Think of it like a film. If a film shows a close-up of an object, you know it’s important, but if they showed close-ups of everything, it’d be tedious and overwhelming (and probably boring).
Focus your descriptions on the aspects that contribute to character or plot development. For instance, religious texts or horror movies on bookshelves likely convey more relevant information than the style of a couch or type of wood in the dining room table.
2. Are your characters (appropriately) reactionary?
As the author of your work, it’s surprisingly easy to overlook. You’re blazing through a scene, trying to get to the next sequence, but you haven’t stopped to see if your characters have actually reacted to the events or discussed pertinent information with each other.
Because the story is in your head, it’s easy to forget that it’s not in your characters’ heads.
I’ve seen it several times: A minor character is killed or almost killed for dramatic effect, and the story jumps right to the next scene with little regard for the gravity of the situation.
It’s easy to throw fictional lives around on paper, but your readers won’t feel as invested if you dismiss lives (and deaths) as plot devices or statistical numbers. Even if you have to kill off large sums of innocents for your plot, make sure your characters are processing the weight of the situation and that this impact is visible in their development.
The emotional reaction they have will influence the emotional reaction your readers have.
3. Does every effect have a cause?
Piggybacking off that point, this goes for cause and effect as well. Make sure your effects have causes.
Think of it like planting seeds—small pieces of information that grow into trees, branching into various references and effects throughout the story. Every development must be grounded in a source.
Don’t throw a crucial item, detail, or event into the middle of the story just for the sake of convenience; it needs to have a source and path that readers can follow.
This includes a character’s background; if a character is meek and self-conscious or cocky and arrogant, pepper in aspects of the character’s past to explain how this personality developed.
For instance, a character who grew up in a wealthy family might be spoiled or smug, but these qualities aren’t so believable in an impoverished character.
A story is an interconnected web greater than the sum of its parts, but webs can be catastrophic messes or harmonious configurations. Make sure every character action and event have traceable origins and don’t simply occur just because.
4. Do your characters follow a believable path of growth?
Characters will and should evolve. Every good narrative incorporates growth, but there needs to be a direct line between where a character begins and where they end up. Readers need to see the events that led to a character’s change.
This is another element that is sometimes overlooked for convenience. If your character starts out as a naïve teenager and becomes a hardened assassin, multiple events will be necessary to make that transition not just believable but engaging.
Readers want to follow along on your character’s journey, and that includes witnessing the consequences of the character’s experiences and decisions.
Like the rest of us, characters have morals, biases, strengths, weaknesses, skillsets, and limitations, and while these should evolve over the course of the narrative, it’s important a character doesn’t develop a new skill or personality trait overnight. For every change, you the author must answer the question why.
5. Do your readers have a reason to care?
In grad school, I received a useful tidbit of information: “Don’t kill a character the audience doesn’t know.” In other words, before you throw trauma, loss, or hardship at a character (or kill them off), make sure the audience has been given sufficient reason to care about them first.
Characters need to be relatable and perform actions that convey their ethics, personalities, etc. Throwing readers into the drama too quickly can not only be disorienting but fall on indifferent ears.
Take it from George R. R. Martin, the more the audience knows, understands, and relates to a character, the bigger the reaction when said character is forced to walk through the fire (no pun intended).
This doesn’t necessarily mean we need to know the life story of a character before they die, especially one who dies early in a story, but it’s obligatory to establish why that character is important and what their loss means for the story.
I think of stories like vast, ever-changing universes much like our own, and it’s tough to fit something that size in your head while keeping track of everything.
Don’t get discouraged if you don’t catch these things the first, second, or third read-through of your manuscript. It takes time and practice, so keep at it and it’ll get easier to spot the issues.
Are you able to see holes in your plots? Or do you use a developmental editor to help with that? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Sin Ribbon is a storyteller on page, canvas, and screen — the author of urban fantasy novel TEN: Part 1 and creator of the award-winning audio drama In Her Burning: A Surreal Diary. An eclectic blend, she draws from the philosophical and spiritual to spin existential tales of encouragement and consequence. Her works originate from the caverns of introspection, exploring identity, origin, loss and depression, and the quest for meaning. Sin uses storytelling to deepen her understanding of the human condition and connect with others through the message of growth.