Ask the editor: How to untangle a plot

Q: An agent said my novel was “dense, over-plotted and difficult to follow.” I’m not sure what to do.

A: You might have too much action and not enough content. If that’s the problem, you need to punctuate any rapid fire twists and turns with dialogue, description, and the kind of pacing that’s easier to understand and more meaningful.

Dan Brown Syndrome

You’re not the only writer struggling with an over-plotted story. I’ve noticed a trend lately in submissions suffering from Dan Brown Syndrome.

Dan Brown is of course a highly regarded and hugely successful author, whose stories hold readers rapt through dozens of fast-speed fabulous surprises and a large cast of amazing characters who can evoke our cheers or catcalls.

But in his wake, we see too many authors producing stories with bewildering upsets and spins, a cast of characters larger than Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and dense, confusing plots that stumble back and forth in time and point of view. There’s often not a moment’s pause so we poor readers can catch our breath to figure out who’s who and what’s going on.

What Dan knows and so should you

It’s not a good idea to rush through the plot, chewing and churning up more and more material. Your story needs pacing and literary punctuation, breathing room, a space to interrupt and set off the action.

How an editor can help

When I find myself re-reading or tracing back a deluge of bewildering actions to figure out what’s going on, it’s time to suggest specific spots in the text for editorial intervention.

An author working with an experienced editor on detangling a plot should expect line-by-line recommendations for surgical pruning, and adding new dialogue and description in order to slow down the action so it’s understandable and more readable.

That’s what I provide my writer clients.

Best practices for storytelling

To engage readers in a story you need to limit the number of characters they identify with and care about enough to find out what happens to them. Pick two or three. We also want a discernable goal to the story, but not more than one, please, so we can follow the narrative arc from problem to development to solution. These aren’t rules set in stone, but general principles or best practices for storytelling.

So for example, if your heroine finds a dead body in the first scene, then suddenly another in scene two, and two more with no connection or explanation in scene three, yikes, please, take a break.

Tell us more about her, where she is, what she looks like. Let her speak to someone in words we can understand. Feather in some of her backstory and personality. Give us enough of a portrait so she becomes real and sympathetic; we’ll begin to worry about her safety. Even if she’s a villainess, we need to be fascinated, curious, to engage with her on some level.

A story needs focus and depth

This kind of dense, breathless pacing is not an uncommon phenomenon. I’ve worked on some very serious books that skittered across too many intentions and themes – political, historical, biographical, personal memoir – without resting enough to provide the details needed to make the book readable or meaningful.

In such cases, it often turns out to be a case of the writer not being able to decide which way to go, and plunging ahead in several directions at once without enough focus or depth.

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DIY plot pruning

If your latest draft feels stuck or has been having no luck getting an agent or publisher, read it through and check out the following symptoms and suggested solutions:

Symptom #1:  Dense movement from crisis to crisis

Solution: Slow down the pace and pause between actions. Breathe some air into the plot. Add space for dialogue, visual description, other ways of making the story come alive like small elements of character development and back story, plus random odors, surprising sounds, the grit or polish of how an object or person feels when touched by another.

Symptom #2Constant flashes back and forth in time

Solution: Stay in one time zone for a while. Try a whole chapter. Now consider limiting the number of basic periods of time in the entire story.

Symptom #3:  Rapid accumulation of dead bodies

Solution: Reduce the number in the first chapter to just one. Then stop to expand context, describe either the killer or whomever discovers the body . Have at least two more scenes of non-violent activity before another body turns up.

Symptom #4: Multiple narrative voices

Solution: Stick to one or two at the most. My favorite is first person, but you can shift to another first person or omniscient third person that focuses on one other character’s perspective. That’s my preference.

Symptom #5: Different story threads leading to various separate endings

Solution: Prune to one. Keep it simple. Find the Holy Grail, the true love, the lethal killer.

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Develop your rhythm

Ultimately you need to develop a good rhythm, a beat, a balance between the quick and the still, the action and the time for absorbing, observing the details, ruminating. If you have too much going on at once, you’ll burn out the reader and lose your audience.

Do you have a tangled plot?

Do you recognize any of the issues here?  I’ll do my best to answer questions, so fire away!

19 Responses to Ask the editor: How to untangle a plot

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  2. Linda Adams

    I’ve run into the same problem with an overplotted story–also got a comment from an agent. She didn’t call it overplotted, but that’s what the gist of her comments was.

    In my case, I know why, though I’m still working on the fix. There are two problems:

    1. I tend to run too short. Not like 10K short, but much shorter. The traditional advice for when you run short is “Add more plot.” So I added more plot, and more plot, and more plot until I got the word count to the right place.

    2. Subplots don’t develop naturally for me. Instead, I get what I call kudzu. These might be a sentence, a paragraph, a page that’s the hint of a subplot–and I’ll have 50 or more of them.

    For the second one, I literally had to just go over the manuscript to identify all of these. If I try to edit on screen, I will never catch them all. For the first one, well, I’m still working on it. I’m taking a course on how to revise your novel to see if I can solve the length issue without overplotting.

  3. Scooter Carlyle

    My first draft of my novel was breathless and overly twisty. I didn’t have a clear picture of some plot and setting details, and was horrified when I figured it out. I’m still trying to sort it out, and your advice comes at just the right time.

    I’m not trying to brown nose, but since I found your blog I’ve found every post useful. From a self-taught author, thank you!

  4. Olivia Tejeda

    This is helpful and directed advice, and I’ll be putting it to use on my novel.

    I just found your site by chance and expect to spend most of the day reading through all the information. Thank you for sharing your expertise. I’m going to post a link on my blog to share with my readers. Such a good resource, I can’t keep it to myself, and I know they’ll find great information here, too. Thanks again.

  5. Sheila Cull

    Super great, informative reading, thank you Alan.

  6. Marilyn Peake

    I do recognize some of the issues here as relevant to my latest WIP, GODS IN THE MACHINE. I’m working hard to untangle a complicated story. :)

    Sometimes writers are able to introduce many characters with a complicated plot and rapid accumulation of dead bodies and do it well. I envy the ability to pull that off. Right now, I’m reading A GAME OF THRONES by George R. R. Martin. There are so many characters even at the beginning of this novel, I finally had to go back to the beginning and write down their names and some details about them, in order to have any hope of remembering who they are in case their names appear again. And lots of characters, including main characters, die in this novel. But George R. R. Martin still manages to weave an awesome, captivating story. I admire his talent.

  7. Jeff Rivera

    Great tips, Alan. I’m working on a rewrite now and I’ll have to keep these in mind. I like how you mentioned several ways to give the reader a break so that they can digest what just happened, especially when there’s back-to-back murders in the story.

    Jeff Rivera
    Author / Editor-in-Chief of The Gatekeepers Post

  8. Mario Evans

    “My favorite is first person, but you can shift to another first person or omniscient third person that focuses on one other character’s perspective. That’s my preference.”

    Thanks for the helpful suggestions. Can you provide an example or two of a contemporary mystery or thriller that successfully employs this narrative approach?

    Mario Evans

  9. Alan Rinzler

    Mario,

    Scott Turow writes beautifully crafted bestselling literary thrillers (Presumed Innocent, The Burden of Proof) with multiple narrative voices. His latest book is Innocent. This time the primary first person narrative seems to be Turow’s recurring character Rusty Sabich, but eventually shifts to his lover Anna as first person narrator, and then again to his son Nat, another first person narrator. The three alternate at no regular intervals, while at the same time there’s a running third person focused on the point of view of Tommy Molto, the prosecuting attorney investigating the death of Rusty’s wife Barbara. The book is a real tour-de-force.

  10. Inês Cruz

    I happened to find this for accident, but I’m glad that I did, because the tips you gave are really usefull.
    Thank you!
    I have been trying to writte a novel myself and sometimes I do have the problem of overplotting the story. The tips really helped me. Thanks again.

  11. Dawn Pier

    You’ve hit the nail on the head again Alan.

    You wrote: “We also want a discernable goal to the story, but not more than one, please, so we can follow the narrative arc from problem to development to solution.”

    My WIP, a memoir, was giving me trouble until I defined my primary goal. What originally seemed like the main story – woman moves from Canada to Mexico to try to save an endangered coral reef – is now clearly secondary to the story about the process by which a woman metamorphoses from a little toad into a beautiful flower. What was missing and made it difficult to elucidate the primary storyline and therefore where to start the story was INTENT. I didn’t move to Mexico to force my evolution, but that was what happened. The challenge now is to find the right balance of primary, secondary and tertiary (my dream of learning to surf) storylines so that the story remains unique and interesting. Any suggestions off the top of yer ‘ead?

  12. Dawn Pier

    Or wait, am I confusing “narrative arc” with theme? Ack. I guess I’m still figuring it out.

  13. Benoit Lelievre

    “Rinzler, you’re a credit to your race” like HST already said. Great field proofed advice again. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Troy

    I find it helps to find ways to make sure that EVERYTHING introduced into the story ends up mattering IN A BIG WAY to the plot. As I began my current WIP, I didn’t know where or how I could bring certain things back in that early on. I was sort of adding interesting sounding things that fit the theme of my book. Now that I’m 50k in, my story wouldn’t work without them. But a few chapters in is where I -stopped- adding new things, and focused on tying -every little thing- I had put in there as ‘garnishment’ together. At this point, it seems like I had planned the whole thing out in a brilliant fashion that is FAR beyond my actual ability. The law of conservation applies.

  15. Judi Romaine

    Love this discussion. Whatever you think about Stieg Larsson’s writing, his books are great. While he does break the one to two character rule you have here, like Swedish films, his writing is slow, with great character development. I love giving myself permission to pause and to go deeper into characterization. PS – no wonder I could never read a Dan Brown book–or Nicholas Sparks.

  16. Olga Oliver

    Mr. Rinzler: Just found your site. Wonderbar! I would like to ask a question on a different subject: Is this the correct place? Almost through my first draft, I’m realizing that 95% of my story is in dialogue. This is a hangover from early studying days – get inside your characters and stay there. Any suggestions on how to release my narrator? Thanks.

  17. Alan Rinzler

    Olga,

    Great question.

    95 percent seems a bit unbalanced. I can’t tell you precisely how to release your narrator without reading the book, but you could try to internalize some of what is now dialogue into a first-person narrator’s point of view, thereby eliminating the need for some of the dialogue. Then restrict yourself to quoting only dialogue heard in the scene — then prune that down by half again.

    Going beyond these suggestions would require my reading the draft itself, since every book has its own special needs.

  18. Olga Oliver

    Mr. Rinzler:

    Thank you for your reply to my question. Your suggestion makes sense. I will try it. Ah, to be able to open up and spill out pages and pages of narrative. However, I’m reading a book just out and it’s nearly all narrative, telling. It feels a bit flat with so little dialogue. Balance is the key.

    Thanks again.

    Olga Oliver

  19. The Dan Brown Syndrome: How to Untangle a Plot | The Passive Voice

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