Great plots aren’t borne of breathtakingly-perfect first drafts. Great plots are borne of polishing that first draft through revisions and editing. We’ve discussed beta reader feedback and the importance of making that story shiny to both stay true to your creative vision and potentially cut down on outside editing costs. Here are seven checks to make sure your plot is hitting the mark and the market!
1.) Check the problem and the solution
What is the problem/disruption/change in the protagonist’s life, and how are they going to solve it? This formula covers a multitude of genres. For a variation, you can also use a “question and answer” format. I used this when helping youth LARPers structure stories where they had to come up with backstory for existing characters. My students’ questions were things like “how did this character get to be this way” or “why was this lake given this name?” Then they reverse-engineered a plot. This goes back to the ancient use of stories to explain elements in geography and culture. You could also use a question and answer plot if you want to impart a truth or message within your narrative: “when this happens, this is is the right answer” — nicely buried in a really good narrative, of course!
2.) Check your genre
A good plot means nothing if it isn’t hitting genre conventions. Readers prefer a mixture of the familiar and the innovative (unless you’re in the “quirky innovative we don’t need no stinkin’ conventions” niche genre–which can be very finicky). If you’re writing a romance, make sure you have a happily-ever-after. Thrillers and mysteries better have plot twists. Speculative fiction better satisfy the world-building and character tropes for your subgenre (while also offering a fresh take). Make sure you have beta readers who are familiar with your genre so they can offer useful feedback!
3.) Write a summary
Yes, I know many writers hate the dreaded book blurb. But it is a fantastic way to make sure you are hitting all the key points in your stories. I’ll tell you a secret: I blurb my story before I even write it, just to make sure I have high enough stakes and enough elements to keep my interest (as well as my reader’s interest). Then I’ll redo the blurb throughout revisions. Do I always enjoy it? Well yes, but I like blurb-writing. It also has helped me catch innumerable plot issues.
Bottom line: use the blurb. Love the blurb. Make good plots.
4.) Write a logline
Sum the plot up in one sentence. Yup. I dare ya! It is a fantastic way to get a leg up on marketing, whether you’re going indie or submitting to a traditional publisher. There are great templates online that get assist you in getting that log line done. Plus, having a rough draft summary and log line can only help you with the next check. Go here and here for great log line advice and templates.
5.) Explain it to a friend
Sometimes, talking it out is the best method. Find an understanding friend or two and try to explain your plot to them. Preferably use friends who are familiar with the genre and those who aren’t familiar with the genre. Friends who are familiar with the genre make sure you’re hitting tropes. Friends who are unfamiliar with the genre can still follow basic plot structure, so it will force you to make sure you have your essential elements in line.
6.) Re-chart it on a plot structure organizer
If you’re a pantser, give this a shot to make sure you’re hitting all the important story points. If you’re a plotter? Try this anyway. You might be surprised at how events, character arcs, or even individual moments can get tweaked out of place. Or you might see that an element you nailed down in one part of your story could work so much better in another part.
7.) Get professional help
Even in this indie age where it’s all about hanging onto the money and doing things inexpensively so you can create that epic backlist, you still won’t sell those books if your plot isn’t hitting the fundamental marks. Investing in a session or two with a mentor or author coach can save you a lot of hassle down the line. Who wants to buy book covers, editing/proofreading, or marketing services for a book that won’t sell due to plot issues? If you do opt for professional help, go for someone who is reputable, trustworthy, experienced, and knows your genre and audience.