Plot & Structure Exercise 36: Repairing Major Problems

Mistakes in real life cannot be repaired. If you say something awful to a loved one, you cannot take it back. In my experience, sometimes it feels like anything you say is just a pile on to the previous words. As if new words could repair the old. The same happens with actions: a bad action does not go away, no matter what you do, making it hard to forgive or forget.


Luckily — trumpets play — in novels you can totally repair, edit, delete, rearrange past actions and dialog. One of the many brilliant ways fiction is better than reality 😉


Winkie-face aside, which I will not delete, let’s talk about Mr Bells next chapter: all about repairing major plot problems. In it, Mr Bell details many examples of pitfalls and dead-ends that writers take themselves or fall in to. He says writers go off on tangents. Writers run out of steam in the middle of the story. Not to mention, Mr Bell warns us that we may write scenes that lack tension or “hot spots” — that paragraph that should draw the most attention in a scene.


As he describes theses common mistakes, he suggests remedies, such as taking a break, taking a night off, or applying some good ole cut and paste to the document.


. . .


In today’s exercise, Mr Bell asks us to list our top five common plot problems. Next to prioritize them from most egregious to less serious. Then suggest possible remedies. The point is to strengthen your craft, maybe even show the list to a trusted reader to verify the list, to add to it, or to suggest alternative cures.


Without further ado:


First Problem: Characters refusing to do anything other than what they want to do. Basically, and especially with my previous novel, but also with a lot of my stories, I find myself putting together ideas, running with them, and never changing what happens. I know Mr Bell has suggested many times in his book that we stop at a crossroads during our plotting in order to imagine the road most interesting to take. He says we should visualize multiple scenarios for our character and make him do the most interesting thing.


Example: our protagonist is in the hospital dying of pneumonia. Should he, A, bitch about it and then die? B, bitch about it and then live? C, act heroically in the face of death until it takes him? Or D, act heroically in the face of death until the doctors discover he actually has AIDS, and, surviving the illness, must live with this for the rest of his life? See? That’s how you’re supposed to write, picking the most interesting and moving forward. But what is my problem? My characters seem to want to live out their destiny.


Solution: get a grip on my characters, force out a couple of alternate scenes on a separate doc. And carry on.


Second Problem: Too much going on thematically. Essentially this is the issue of not writing your novel soon enough. If you’re like me then you have a shrimp net cast behind your head. Catching all the little ideas and big ideas that occur to you during the day. By the time I sit down to write a novel it has to be about so much, since there is so much I want to write about. It’s bad, but put another way, I feel like the plots that have come out of me tend to want to say everything, when it might benefit from a little focus, a little streamlining. This can also happen with a novel that hasn’t seen the light of day for a while. Every time I go to edit it, it just ends up getting fatter. It’s a plot problem.


Solution: write faster, share more, talk about my work, and keep only what makes sense once it’s all been taken out of my head and put into words.


Third Problem: Subjectivity. One of the issues I have, related to the previous idea of not sharing enough of my work, is this thing of thinking my shit rocks. When probably it doesn’t. I will really, really like a story. But when I end up sharing it, the friend or family or stranger will not get past the first couple of pages. I can’t even count the number of word documents that became rift raft in gmail’s vast ocean of spam and trash. My stories float all over the internet never to return, not so much as a thank you, or a fuck you. What I would like to say is this, that my plots suffer from subjectivity: I think they are good, but not good enough to comment on. Hence this exercising!


Solution: keep sharing, keep insisting on feedback, because that’s the only way I’m going to improve in any objective way.


Fourth Problem: Mr Bell mentioned this as one of the common problem of writers, the inner editor takes too much floor time. The part of us that is suppose to suggest the next word is always a quieter voice than the one yelling at us to stop or to cut or to move on . . . or to give up. This could be related to how good things are never as powerful as bad things. Imagine, I pay you 9 compliments, but one insult. Which one do you remember longer? Worse, I pay you 9 insults, and only one compliment. Will you even remember the one nice thing said? Same with writing. Right now, I am patiently waiting for the next word or phrase to suggest itself. Meanwhile the CUT ME URRHGHGEAA voice inside of me wags its finger.


Solution: become the arbiter of my subvocal personalities, I suppose. Give the one with a scythe his due time, but only after the one with the green thumb has planted and grown a nice field of crops.


Fifth and Final Problem: this one Mr Bell also mentioned, and it’s the issue of running out of ideas all together. The well runs dry. The rain never comes. Your friend never calls. Your test comes back inconclusive. Or you sit at the computer and not even a nonsensical blah blah reaches you, just a zilch nada nimic.


Solution: take a break, clean my computer keyboard, listen to music, pick my nose! Anything. The last thing I want to do is sit at the desk and WORRY. That self block, no way. Gaiman says he forces himself not to get off from his desk, so I do see the value in just staring back at the abyss of the blank page, but if 30 mins to an hour goes by, then I’m going to open up another document and just blah blah away, or do something productive for myself. Do laundry. Something! I find that when my body has moved then my bearish mind gets back to doing what it does best. Sprinting.

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