Good fiction takes time. You cannot sit down at the keyboard and pound out the Great American Novel in one or two sessions. (Take it from me; I’ve tried.)
No, we must be patient with our art and our craft, we must read, we must study, we must write. And write, and write. Then we must think, cut, rewrite, polish and look again.
But there’s such a thing as agonizing too much over your writing. Just as excessive reworking with charcoal and gum will ruin a drawing, too much scrutinizing and amending will sap the vitality of your original words. Most aspiring authors fall victim to this from time to time, causing needless pain, delay and, frankly, stunted results.
It’s the hard parts that get you. When you come up against a knotty structural problem, take a breath and do what professionals do:
- Calmly evaluate the problem.
- Decide whether it really is a problem.
- Work out a solution.
- Implement it.
- Move on.
- Revisit the situation later.
Did you pick out the key phrase in that list? It’s a solution. Not the perfect solution, but a solution. There is no single best way to solve any given writing quandary. What seasoned writers know—and what we can all take comfort in—is that there are lots of fine ways to solve them all. So when a problem arises and threatens to slow, divert or even stop your creative flow, you simply need to find one of those solutions so you can keep writing—it’s as simple as that.
Not every problem can be solved in minutes, of course; situations like editing out a main character or completely reworking a plot cost plenty of time and effort. But surprisingly many structural problems can be dealt with more quickly than you might think.
Let’s look at 10 common plot problems you can tackle in a flash—and then find out how to do it.
1. I’m Missing a Crucial Piece of Information
You’re writing a key scene, and you realize that you really need to know something, but it’s either impossible to find out or too costly in time or money to do so.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: If you can’t find the exact data you need, get as close as you can and wing the rest.
Recently I was on a conference panel with other authors discussing intensive research, and after everybody shared exciting (or humiliating) stories about our quests for authenticity, we all agreed on one thing: When the chips are down, make it up.
Let’s say you need to present exact details about the innards of a nuclear bomb. Current atomic devices are top secret, but you can learn a lot online about outdated ones. Then, use common sense and your imagination to take it from there. What might be different today in a bomb? Well, you can bet the electronics are smarter and smaller. With the addition of fictional details, you can BS your way convincingly through the scene:
The guts of the bomb were now open to his scrutiny. As the detonation sequence began, Agent 008 focused on the microchips, which were shielded, for fail-safe reasons, behind a thin titanium screen about the size of a credit card. Microchips are delicate. If he could somehow disable one, even by something as small as a scratch—that might do it. Nothing to lose at this point. He snapped the clip off his Montblanc Meisterstück and, using it as a miniature crowbar, went to work.
You might be surprised at how much you can make up in a convincing way. Maybe you need a recipe for the perfect poison and have no idea where to begin. Invent a character who’s a chemist, and have that character develop a poison that’s as lethal as cyanide, as innocent-smelling as strawberries and as traceable as water.
2. My Action In This Scene Drags
We’ve all been there: You’ve got an action scene that’s starting to bore even you. Granted, your story is moving forward, but it feels cumbersome.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Resist the urge to pile it on; rather, tighten what you’ve got.
You could spend hours—days!—trying to inject more life into a scene, but the best solution is often just the opposite. Usually a quicker pace will do the trick.
One of the easiest, most effective ways to tighten prose is to turn full sentences into fragments and opt for one-line paragraphs.
If you start with this, for example:
The thug was much taller and heavier than Jamal. Looking up, Jamal thought: If I don’t figure something out fast, we’re all dead meat. There was the pool cue, propped against the table, his only available weapon. He grabbed it, wound up as the big man began to react, and swung. It was with a tremendous sense of satisfaction that everybody in the bar heard a crunching sound.
Turn it into something like this (and be sure to drop the “dead meat” cliché):
Jamal looked up.
Without thinking, he grabbed the pool cue and swung, eyes closed.
A satisfying crunch!
You shouldn’t try to write a whole book this way, but rat-a-tat passages like this will bring variety and movement to your fiction.
3. One Of My Characters Is Starting To Seem Lackluster
Sometimes you get too careful with a character, especially if you’ve based her on yourself or a close friend or relative. If this seems to be the case, consider adding weirdness.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Give her an obsession.
Obsessions are great because they’re simple to drop into a character’s personality, and you can use them repeatedly to spice up your plot.
Think what you can do! Give a ghetto hooker a fixation on growing the perfect eggplant in her window box, turn the commander of a space station into an incurable packrat, bestow upon your straight-A prom queen a fascination with arson, twist a fat, old cop into a joyful, compulsive transvestite.
An obsession gives a character a sort of schizophrenic point of view that can be used for comic relief, extra conflict, inner turmoil or all three: The space station commander must run a tight ship yet, gosh, there’s that beautiful cobalt-blue screw-top from yesterday’s meal that would fit perfectly in the crevice next to his sleeping station, provided nobody has to slide open the adjacent compartment with the emergency appendectomy kit, which happens to be crammed with the lucky bingo charms he inherited from his aunt and smuggled aboard on launch day because the sight of them calms him down when he’s upset.
An added bonus to this strategy: It’s fun.
4. I Have To Communicate a Lot of Information, and It’s Overkill
You’re at a turning point in your novel, and you’ve got one character-revealing information to another, or making connections in his head as the puzzle pieces fall into place. Or your omniscient narrator is explaining a lot of stuff to the reader. And it doesn’t feel natural.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Turn narrative into dialogue.
Don’t underestimate the modern reader’s ability to infer, generalize and make connections. A professional’s first instinct is to cut exposition, but when you’ve sliced away all but the essential and you’re still looking at an awkward block of text, turn it into dialogue.
Scope around for a handy character for the first one to talk to. Then, give the two some back-and-forth, something to disagree about. Create a little conflict while delivering your basic facts. Or, if your character is alone, make him have an internal argument, as in this example:
I ought to confront Otto with what I know about
Wait a minute, shouldn’t this be a matter for
To hell with the police! They don’t know he worked
for the bank five years ago. Plus—
Don’t get upset. Stay cool.
I’m cool, OK. I just want him to know I’m onto him,
and if he tries anything with Selma or Johnny, I’ll be in
This technique has served me well in several of my books. (I stole the method after seeing Erica Jong employ it so well in Fear of Flying. Of course, she probably ripped it off from Shakespeare—all those soliloquies …)
5. I Don’t Know What Should Come Next
You’re writing something new; perhaps you even have a rough outline. You’re galloping along, happy and breathless, and you finally bring a scene or chapter to a satisfying conclusion. Then you get that uh-oh feeling.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Have a 10-minute brainstorm.
I actually feel great in this situation: I love to brainstorm, and I know I’m about to have ideas I’ve never had before.
Flip to a fresh page in your notebook or computer notepad, check the time and give yourself 10 minutes to write down anything and everything that might come next. Record every idea that comes to you, even if it seems ridiculous or awful. Keep going. If you do this with a feeling of open exploration, you will come up with a good idea of what should come next.
I once had a student challenge this technique, saying, “It’s all well and good to just vomit out everything you can. But how am I supposed to get from vomit to good writing?”
The answer is a paradox: The more honestly and thoroughly you brainstorm, the sooner your material will sort itself out. The chaff will be obvious—and there will be wheat.
Have confidence that as a writer, you are by nature a bit of a mystic. We take the creative journey others fear to take, and we return with something no one’s ever seen before. You can’t force it, but when you shift into a place of non-judging receptivity, you’ll be amazed at what you get.
6. I’ve Got a Complex Plot, and All My Final Unraveling Feels Forced
You’re proud of your plot, and you want to show the reader that you’ve thought of everything. This one’s as tight as a drum! But now it feels as if you’re ticking off boxes on a checklist, and the effect is artificial.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Choose some loose ends to leave loose.
Readers will know they’re in good hands if you pay off your suspense. This is key, and it bears repeating: Suspense is the most important aspect of a book to build and bring to a satisfying climax and conclusion. This holds true in any genre; even the most sedate literary novels are built on a foundation of suspense. In this way, Mrs. Dalloway and her flowers have everything in common with Hannibal Lecter and his fava beans.
It follows, then, that not every loose end needs to be tied up. Granted, some bestselling authors commonly knot theirs meticulously—Harlan Coben comes to mind—but others, like Elizabeth George, make a point of not doing so. Leaving your readers with a little bit of hmmm can be a good thing (especially if you’re writing a series).
Even if you don’t want to keep readers wondering, it’s still true that some ends just don’t need to be wrapped up. For example, if you have a minor character who served a function early on, but who dropped out halfway through the book, by the end the reader will either have forgotten about her, or will understand that particular loose end
Challenge your impulse to wrap up everything with a bow, and you might achieve a more natural result.
7. I Need a Bridge Between Two Scenes, But I’m At a Loss
Transitions can be the bane of fiction writers. I think this goes back to composition teachers in high school, who insist that there “be a link” between every idea. Oh, the contortions we used to go through to satisfy that requirement!
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Insert a chapter break, or use the magic word.
An excellent way to bridge two scenes is to actually separate them. A chapter break can eliminate the need for a bridge altogether. Pick a novel you like and study the last and subsequent first pages of chapters. You’ll find that most modern novels freely jump forward (even backward) in time, or sideways in space (from one character’s viewpoint to another’s, for example), and the overall effect is smooth. Give it a try.
Now, what about this magic word? In olden times, radio westerns provided masterful entertainment, packed with action, sound effects, dialogue and big story. Narrators would routinely say, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch …”
The magic word is meanwhile. Rather than a big-deal transition, meanwhile might be all you need.
8. My Ending Made My Critique Group go, “So What?”
You’ve written your novel, you’re at the point of bravely hearing any and all criticism, and you’ve just found out that your ending leaves your writing buddies cold. You feel (understandably) frustrated, and maybe a little angry. Now what?
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Add passion, violence or both.
A weak ending, of course, may signify major problems with the rest of the book. But not necessarily. If you’ve built convincing characters and worked out a believable, suspenseful story, but things still fall flat at the end, this could be because you haven’t gone far enough. Some authors simply take their foot off the accelerator toward the end, either from fatigue or from an unnecessary sense of restraint. Whatever the case, if you discover you’re one of them, you’ve got to ramp up the emotion.
Now, you don’t want to be cheap but be advised that exploitation works. Readers expect to be knocked out of their socks, and it’s really OK to give them that.
So try heightening the ending you’ve already got. A good way to do it is to add passion or violence—or both.
Think of The Great Gatsby. It’s memorable not only because Jay Gatsby fails to attain the object of his obsession (see plot solution No. 3), but because he gets shot to death in his pool.
When trying to figure out how to amp up your ending, your genre can help you decide. Every romantic story from Pride and Prejudice to Sweet, Savage Love ends with love, love and more love, so if you’re writing a romance, adding passion is a no-brainer.
On the other hand, if you’ve got a thriller or mystery, or even a literary novel, violence goes a long way toward making readers feel excited and, ultimately, satisfied.
If the police come to arrest the bad guy, make it a shootout. If your tragic hero dies, make him die horribly. If your heroine is happy at the end, make her happy and rich. If your novel already ends with a bang, make it louder!
9. My Agent/Editor Wants Me To Cust 10,000 Words!
Many authors on the brink of getting published are told by a prospective agent or editor, “I love this novel, but it’s too long. If you can cut it by about 10,000 words (or whatever terrifyingly high number), I think I can sell (or publish) this.” They don’t want any specific cuts at this point; they just want the manuscript to better fit a common format.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Micro-edit your way to success.
You can spend lots of time rereading your manuscript and painfully strategizing what hunks to cut, but an excellent way to quickly trim it to size is to cut one word per sentence. This technique is pure magic. Or, you can divide the number of words you need to cut by the number of pages you have, and come up with an average words-to-cut per page. Of course, you won’t be able to whittle down your whole manuscript in 10 minutes, but take it as a challenge: Time yourself, and I bet that once you get the hang of it, you can blow through 10 pages of a draft in 10 minutes. This is a job you can do in the interstices of your day; you don’t have to find large spans of time for it.
As a former newspaper reporter and editor, I got good at cutting excess verbiage early in my writing career. But every so often, for the heck of it, I challenge myself to cut one word per sentence. If I can do that too easily, I know I’ve gotten sloppy.
10. The Whole Thing Stinks
Every author is stricken, at least once per book, by Creeping Rot Disease. CRD begins as a dark feeling that takes over your mind and heart when you least expect it. You look at your manuscript and the feeling creeps over you that all you’ve done is foul a perfectly good stack of paper. It’s lousy. It’s not original. It’s nothing any agent, let alone editor, would look at twice. I’m wasting my life, you think. I’m a fool.
10-MINUTE SOLUTION: Take a break!
Believe me, when CRD strikes, you are in plentiful, excellent company. Terrific authors have drunk themselves to death trying to self-medicate against CRD.
The better solution is to take a break. Turn off your computer, close your notebook, cap your pen (because the problem is not with your manuscript, it’s with you) and do something completely different, like:
- Walk outside. Pay attention to the first great-looking tree you see. Hang out with it for a while.
- Get some good coffee.
- Phone a friend and spill your guts.
- Prepare a mini picnic lunch and open the window.
- Make a sketch of a simple object, like a bowl or a bottle.
Or do anything else you can to break the stream of negative thoughts.
Can you become a great author in 10 minutes? No, but between careless abandon and paralyzing overanalysis, you can find a lot of solutions to help you move forward. The goal is to work past problems as they arise so you can keep writing. You can always go back and smooth over any rough edges later.