Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

What are common mistakes you see in the plots of writers who are new to writing?

Every writer encounters her own unique set of challenges. Still, there are some missteps I see often. Here are a few:

Too singular a focus on conflict: Good fiction needs conflict. However, focusing on that without fully developing other elements—like description, setting, and characterization—will make for an unsatisfying read. Keep in mind the symbiotic relationship of character and conflict. A character’s unique personality and choices should direct the action. Imagine L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz without careful characterization of Dorothy. Readers may find momentary thrills in the obstacles she and her friends meet on the yellow brick road, but Dorothy’s individuality creates tension and her deeper motivations for the journey give the story meaning and weight.

Too little or no conflict: On the other end of the spectrum are the stories that abandon conflict entirely for lavish description and exploration of character. No matter how vivid your details or how quirky or funny your character, a story will fizzle without conflict. Luce may have an eccentric family—a father who sits out front with a BB gun, a mother who spends her time making dolls that look like recently deceased celebrities, and a sister who steals bouquets from the cemetery. While their activities might entertain for a few pages, interest will quickly wane. Add in a member of the town’s zoning board who has a beef with Luce’s father and is working to oust them from their property and readers will be eager to find out how things settle.

Low stakes: A story can feel hollow without an understanding of why the action matters to the character. Joe is working to win his local division in badminton. Connie is unsettled by the same caller who keeps ringing her only to claim he has dialed the wrong number. Phil’s marriage is in peril. Even with conflicts like these, the reader is bound to shrug and mumble, “so what?” in the absence of high stakes. But perhaps Joe’s desire to win his local division is tied to his desire to prove his worth to his father. Connie may be worried about her safety and, under that concern is another one—the disintegration of her trust in her own independence, which started after a string of bad choices. And Phil’s marriage woes? They’ll take on much more meaning if the reader understands exactly what that marriage means to him. Is this about his disappointment over not being able to satisfy the commitment he made? Or is he losing companionship that he thinks he’s unable to do without?

These are just a few of the pitfalls in plotting, but they’re good ones to consider as you begin to cast an editorial eye on your own work.