Friday, 7 July 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 2 - The Dreaded Saggy Plot

– and How to Avoid It
by Lorna Fergusson

Images by JD Lewis 
So you’ve written that whizzy, grabby, punchy opening. You know your readers will be hooked and you’re saving an equally amazing ending for them. You can’t wait to see their reaction. Scene follows scene, chapter follows chapter, you’re keeping to your schedule of a thousand words a day or week … then something happens. Something bad.


The momentum slows, the story flags, your belief in it starts to evaporate. You were always aware of the risk of your plot flatlining, but it seems to be doing something even worse. It’s sagging. Your story started like the construction of a suspension bridge with sturdy towers at either side of the chasm – but the bridge itself is drooping into the canyon.

What can you do to save it? Here are 10 tips, plus an exercise to try out:

1 Think visually. Keep a grip on your plot with charts or colour-coding. This helps you to maintain a sense of its overall shape and of the interweaving of its elements.

2 Variety is the spice of plot: if you keep writing the same type of scene with the same kind of structure, you’ll weary your reader. Use dialogue, description, revelation, twists, changes of point of view. Intersperse the high-octane with the meditative. Open chapters in different ways. Have the calm before the storm, the false hope before destruction, the despair before redemption. Mix it up.

3 Nothing is set in stone. Maybe you wrote a route-map for this story but the road is heading straight to the Land of Boredom. Be prepared to retrace your steps to where you made a significant plot-choice, ready to take the road you didn’t travel first time round.

4 Complicate it. You have a main plot with main characters but they are not the be-all and end-all. They don’t exist in a vacuum. Who are the people around them and what are their stories? Don’t wheel on characters to do something in connection with the main character, then wheel them straight off again – give them their own wants, deeds and outcomes. Sub-plots, that’s the thing. Or dual narratives. Or multi-stranded thriller plots. Or multi-generational saga plots.

5 Raise the stakes. When your character has overcome a crisis, give them a bigger one. Unloose your inner sadist. Give them hell. Throw unexpected challenges at them or make the consequences of their choices turn bad on them. Give them trepidation, guilt and angst. Make them responsible. Give them, at all times, opposition, whether externally or internally.

6 Be unexpected. This is trickier than you might think – a twist in the plot that the writer chuckles complacently over, thinking they’ve outsmarted their reader, is often glaringly obvious to said reader. That said, when it works, it really works.

7 Create connectivity. Use flashbacks, repeated motifs, contrasts and counterpoints between plot and sub-plot, irony and foreshadowing. Be subtle with all that. Foreshadowing badly handled is telegraphing and as clunky as can be. Jump between groups or narrators or focal characters – spin those plates and keep them spinning.

8 Timing is everything. Seed information and revelations carefully so that the reader never thinks ‘deus ex machina’. That little breadcrumb trail will lead them inexorably into the heart of the forest.

9 Create mini-hooks. Every scene, chapter or section ending should have something in it that will encourage the reader to keep reading. The hook is usually an unanswered question. Keep your reader asking what will happen next. As soon as you answer one question, ask another.

10 Rev up. As the story progresses, give the reader a sense that it is going somewhere. Factor in highs and lows but make sure the overall effect is cumulative not sequential – you are building towards that superb ending you can’t wait to write, remember.



Here’s your plot scenario: a new boss joins the firm where your MC, a woman, works. Within a week the boss is telling her she will have to transfer to another town.

1 How does your MC react? Say yes or no? Is there a deadline for the decision?

2 What are the consequences of that choice likely to be? Jot the possibilities down.

3 If ‘No’, what are the reasons? Fear of moving? Commitments at home? What are those commitments? Children? An elderly parent?

4 If the MC says ‘Yes’ and moves, how does that play out? Regret? Whole new start? Does she rent her original house out? How does that go?

5 What might complicate that scenario? What if the elderly parent, for instance, has a fall and needs care?

6 If so, here’s your chance to thicken the plot. What if your MC has a sibling who has never carried his/her weight in terms of taking care of said relative? What now? Does MC ask for help? Does the sibling refuse? If so, a chance to complicate things further – what are the sibling’s reasons for refusing? Start inventing their life-situation.

7 What if the MC has no sibling and chooses instead to move the relative to the new town?
How does the parent feel about that? Grateful? Dislocated? Who are the friends/connections the parent is leaving? Is there a history there?

8 Review all this – maybe a plot has emerged as you mapped out these possibilities. There are a whole lot more, believe me! Start imagining where you could introduce the unexpected or where you could make the MC’s situation even more challenging. Before you know it, that narrative rope will be taut again.

Lorna Fergusson runs Fictionfire Literary Consultancy. She is a novelist and prize-winning short story writer, who has taught on various Oxford University writing programmes since 2002. She has republished her novel, The Chase, originally published by Bloomsbury, and contributed to Studying Creative Writing for the Creative Writing Studies imprint. Her ebook collection of historical short stories, An Oxford Vengeance, includes Salt, which won the Historical Novel Society’s London 2014 Short Story Award.


Twitter: @LornaFergusson

The Chase: Paperback via my website

An Oxford Vengeance:

Next week: The Invisible Spider with Rohan Quine

1 comment:

  1. Great piece, Lorna. Some really good advice and tips here