by Steven James
2020 Keynote Speaker, Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference
- Failing to Anticipate the Readers’ Response
A plot flaw is, simply put, a glitch in believability or causality. When a character acts in a way that doesn’t make sense, or when one scene doesn’t naturally follow from the one that precedes it, readers will stumble.
Imagine your protagonist hears that a killer is in the neighborhood and then, in the next scene, decides to spend a cozy evening in the kitchen making homemade pasta. Readers will think, What? Why doesn’t she lock all the doors and windows, or call the police, or run to her car and get out of the area? Thus, at the very moment where you want them to be drawn deeper into the narrative, your readers pull away and start to question your character’s actions—and, to some degree, your storytelling ability.
As soon as an event isn’t believable, it becomes a distraction. Ask yourself at every plot point: “Is there enough stimulus to motivate this action?” And then make sure there is. Always anticipate your readers’ response.
Try to step back and read your work-in-progress as objectively as you can, through the eyes of a reader who has never seen it before. If you come to a place where you think, Why doesn’t she just … ? or, Wait, that doesn’t make sense … that’s where you have to do some revising. And the solution doesn’t have to be complicated. Often you can solve a plot flaw in your story simply by having your characters point it out. If your protagonist says something like, “I couldn’t believe she would do such a thing—it just didn’t compute,” readers will think, Yes, exactly—I thought the same thing! There’s more going on here than meets the eye. The more you admit that the scene has a believability problem, the less readers will hold you responsible for it.
With this in mind, make sure every special skill or gadget needed in the climax is foreshadowed earlier in the story. Coincidences drive a wedge in believability. Foreshadowing removes them. If the diver suddenly needs a harpoon to fight off the killer barracuda, and he reaches down and—how convenient!—just happens to find one, readers won’t buy it. Show us the harpoon earlier so it makes sense when it reappears at the climactic battle.
- Using a Hook as a Gimmick
Many well-meaning writing instructors will tell you that you need to start your story with a good “hook” to snag your readers’ attention. And they’re right—to a certain degree.
While I was teaching at one writing conference, a woman gave me her story for a critique. It started with an exciting car chase. I said, “Great, so this is an action story.”
“No,” she told me. “It’s a romance. The woman goes to the hospital and falls in love with the doctor.”
“But it starts with a car chase and explosion. Readers will expect it to escalate from there.”
“I had a different opening,” she admitted, “but my critique group told me I needed a good hook.”
It may have been true that her story needed a better hook, but she landed on the wrong one. Hooks become gimmicks if they don’t provide the platform for escalation.
Too many times a writer will grab readers’ attention early on with a scene that’s clearly been contrived just for that purpose, without introducing the characters or the setting of the story. Consequently, the writer is forced to insert excessive backstory into the next scene—thus undermining the forward momentum of the plot. Take your time, trust your readers, and craft a hook that orients them to the world you’ve created. Then drive the story forward without having to explain why you started it the way you did.
- Leaving Readers Hanging
Never annoy your readers.
Sometimes I read books in which the author withholds key information from readers, presumably in an effort to create suspense. But failing to give readers what they want doesn’t create suspense, it causes dissatisfaction.
For example, don’t leave a point-of-view character in the middle of an action sequence. If, in the final sentence of a chase scene, you write that your protagonist “careened around the bend and crashed into the cement pylon jutting up from the side of the road,” readers will turn to the next chapter wanting to find out if she is conscious, dead, etc.
But if that next chapter instead begins with another point-of-view character, one in a less stressful situation, readers will be impatient. They don’t want to wait to come back to the woman in the car (or maybe she’s in the hospital by then) a chapter later.
If readers are tempted to skip over part of your story to get to a part they want to read, you need to fix that section. As you write, constantly ask yourself what the readers want at this moment of the story.
Then give it to them—or surprise them with something even better.
Copyright 2012. Used by permission. Originally published in Writer’s Digest, June 2012, https://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/5-story-mistakes-even-good-writers-make
Steven James is the critically acclaimed author of seventeen novels.
He has served as a contributing editor to Writer’s Digest magazine and is the author of the groundbreaking book Story Trumps Structure as well as the guidebook used by thousands of novelists, Troubleshooting Your Novel, both from Writer’s Digest Books.
When he’s not working on his next novel, Steven teaches at writers conferences and retreats around the globe. Steven’s latest book, a near-future sci-fi thriller called Synapse, released on October 8.
For more information, visit his website at https://www.stevenjames.net.