How to fix your plot problems

Guest author and blogger Gary Gibson is the author of science-fiction novels for Pan Macmillan. Gary has worked as a graphic designer and magazine editor, and began writing at the age of fourteen.

You’ve been there. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there: the one-third slump, when a manuscript runs out of steam maybe thirty-thousand words in. Something about the story simply isn’t working.

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So what’s gone wrong?

When I first started out as a writer, I read up on the different approaches used by novelists I admired. I found that many of them, particularly Stephen King, didn’t like to plan things out. They were seat-of-the-pants writers, who liked to come up with a situation, then watch where their characters took them. For such writers, part of the pleasure of writing was the sheer unpredictability involved.

All well and good, but it took me a long time to work out that this wasn’t the right approach for me. Over the next several years, I started and failed to finish a ridiculous number of stories and novels. I knew the characters, the basic story, and the conflicts. What I didn’t have was a clear enough idea where the story went after a certain point.

This continued to be a concern even when I got my first book contract. Although my first two novels, Angel Stations and Against Gravity, were well-received, I was never quite satisfied with the plot in either. I became highly stressed while trying to find the direction of the story in each. And so, when it came to writing my third novel, I took a radically different approach.

Whenever I pitch a book to my publishers, I’m required to provide a rough outline of the story. This time, I determined to write a much more detailed synopsis than before, but for my benefit rather than that of my publishers. I wanted to be absolutely sure not only how the book started, but exactly how it would end. I broke the story down on a chapter-by-chapter basis until I had approximately six thousand words of text.

Then I started writing what later became my third novel, Stealing Light. I hit a one-third slump anyway, despite all my planning. I found what had sounded good in the synopsis wasn’t necessarily panning out in the actual manuscript. I suspect this happens even for those of you who do plan your novels.

So I stopped writing and, for the next four or five weeks, did nothing but revise that synopsis. I made a point of not worrying about my deadline. By the time I finished those revisions, the synopsis had ballooned to a little over twenty-four thousand words — one quarter the length of an average novel. I had every little detail absolutely nailed down, as well as having made major revisions to some of the principal characters.

It occurred to me during this that all those seats-of-the-pants writers were being a touch disingenuous about their writing process. Either they did plan out their stories, but kept it all in their head, or their offices were filled with a vast number of unfinished stories and manuscripts.

Both, I think, are true.

When I write editorial reports on writers’ manuscripts, time and again I find that a novel hasn’t been planned in sufficient depth, and I sometimes wonder if it’s because the author read the same interviews I did when I was young — interviews with writers like Stephen King, who can produce hundreds of thousands of words of text every year, without fail, even if much of that effort winds up in the bin.

Writers like King are the exception, I believe, rather than the rule. The rest of us, in order to write a saleable story, must instead plan everything out in as much detail as possible before we start writing a novel. Think of it as building a roadmap; without the map, you become lost in the woods, but with the map, you can see not only where you came from, but where you’re going. Without the map, you might be able to find your way out of the woods eventually, but it might take you far, far longer, and the journey might be considerably more frustrating and much less fun.

And what about if, like me, you find even with that map — that outline — your story still isn’t coming together in those early stages?

Do what I did: stop writing the book, and rework the synopsis instead.

Treat those first thirty-thousand words as a kind of testbed for your ideas. Use it to figure out what does work, and what doesn’t. Give yourself permission to play around, to develop alternate paths for the story to develop. Treat the synopsis as an end in itself, and take satisfaction in developing its twists and turns. Allow yourself as much time as necessary to do this, and don’t even think about starting work on a book unless you know how it ends.

Don’t believe writers who tell you doing this can ‘kill’ the story for you: just because it’s true for them doesn’t mean it is for you, and you could save yourself weeks or months of frustration.

That third novel of mine, Stealing Light, was an enormous success, and my ‘breakout’ novel. It was also my first book to be issued in hardback, and was soon followed by two sequels. I attribute this almost entirely to the care and attention I took in plotting every twist and turn. Ever since then I still stop at roughly the one-third mark in a manuscript to revise and alter the synopsis, based on what is and isn’t working.

Instead of an object of frustration, let that one-third slump become an opportunity for inspiration.

Is your idea any good?

Learn the fundamentals of writing