Avoid this plotting pitfall when writing drafts at speed

Nail Your Novel - pitfall of writing at speedHusband Dave and I have recently been watching the Showtime series Ray Donovan. And sometimes, we’re finding the storytelling is rather uneven.

Interesting developments pop up that seem to promise a new and unexpected direction for the plot. Instead, though, they’re defused and then the main story trots along again, pretty much unaffected.

Here’s an example. Ray is a hired troubleshooter for the rich and famous, and has a few skeletons in the closet. In the first season he’s pursued by an FBI agent of formidable reputation; we’re told he always gets his man. This seems to be setting up a potent adversary. But then the writers then did their best to hustle him out of the story.

First they made him into a figure of fun by spiking his coffee with LSD. Then he’s shot by one of the characters. It’s clear the writers didn’t want to let him cause big trouble, so they got rid of him. (And in case you’re wondering, the shooting doesn’t seem to have had any consequences either.)

This seems to happen a lot in the Ray Donovan scripts. Interesting obstacles pop up that promise a swerve into a more serious gear. But they’re neutralised, and in a way that looks rushed or unbelievable.

For the audience, it’s terribly frustrating. If a serious problem arises, we want to see it cause lasting trouble. And we want it to have serious, unpredictable consequences. We don’t want it to be solved, and for everything to continue as before.

Tunnel vision

Last week I talked about rookie plotting errors, and this was one of them. Tunnel vision; not giving brilliant plot ideas enough development. No of course I’m not suggesting the Ray Donovan writers are rookies. But there’s another characteristic reason that this problem arises – when writing to a deadline. When a daily quota must be filled. And when the writer has to fit an overall outline.

In TV, a writer probably doesn’t have much leeway to alter the master series arc. They have to fit the show runner’s mission. But if you’re writing a novel, you’re the master. If you’ve made an outline, you can change it, even if you’re rattling the words out against a deadline.

Here’s a plan to examine a show-stopping idea without losing control.

  1. Acknowledge – stop and look that idea firmly in the eye. Might it upset your plans? A sure sign is if you’re already looking for a way to stifle its effects. Take a moment and let it breathe.
  2. Assess the consequences. Step away from your outline. Open a new file or Evernote tab or grab a pen. Make a what-if list – if you incorporated this development fully into the story, what would the consequences be? Explore them in this safe space.
  3. Run the comparisons. Make another list. In one column write the reasons to change. Perhaps a character’s motivation would be stronger. The setting might be used more effectively. In another, write the reasons not to. It might cause inconvenience – perhaps you’d have to rethink earlier passages. (Might that be so bad?) It might take the story into territory you’re not interested in or would be off genre. (That’s a stronger reason not to.) Be honest. Sit and mull.
  4. If you decide to keep the idea, adapt your outline – and sail onwards with a more robust story.

Thanks for the pic, Pixabay. Discreet cough… There are a lot more tips on outlining and on making the most of plot developments in the Nail Your Novel books.

Become a ghost-writer Roz MorrisAnother discreet cough… if you’re interested in ghost-writing, my course starts its live period tomorrow. The course will be available after that period as well, but for the next four weeks, you get to take part in a secret online forum and I’ll be holding live Q&A sessions where you can pick my brains. Learn more here.


Back to plots etc. Do you write using an outline or a daily quota? Do you find this sometimes hampers your creativity, or you feel you can’t use an off-the-cuff idea? Or do you have a method for harnessing these brainwaves and making the most of them?

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  1. #1 by DRMarvello on May 23, 2016 - 2:19 pm

    The problem you describe is one reason I take a layered approach to story planning. I’ve learned that trying to devise a detailed story plot in advance doesn’t work for me. Instead, I lay out the main plot at a high level and do more detailed planning before I start each act. (I plot in 4 acts.)

    My approach is sort of a combination of Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method and Bell’s Headlights Method. I know where I’m going, but I don’t know the details of how I’ll get there until I get close to that point in the story. It gives me a lot of latitude for incorporating new subplot ideas and scenes as I go along, without as many loose ends and dead-ends as pure pantsing. For me, characters drive the action, and I have to write them for a while to fully understand how they will react to story developments. New plot ideas rarely change the planned outcome of my story, but they do often change the route I’ll take to get there.

    When I do come up with a new idea, I do the four evaluation steps exactly as you advise. I’m usually free to incorporate new ideas because they aren’t likely to torpedo my rough outline. I’ve found that the more work I put into the outline, the less inclined I am to accept plot twists that will mess with it.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 24, 2016 - 6:38 pm

      Aha, hooded Marvello. Glad to see we’re on the same page.

    • #3 by jrhandleyblog on July 21, 2016 - 3:43 am

      This is similar to how I write too, leaves room for spontaneity while keeping the plot moving along.

  2. #4 by dgkaye on May 23, 2016 - 5:46 pm

    Great post Roz. I agree with you about the Ray Donovan series. It’s always so much easier to find those plot holes when we’re watching TV than in our writing sometimes. 🙂

    • #5 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 24, 2016 - 6:40 pm

      Thanks, Debby. Actually we’ve just finished watching series 2 and the last 4 episodes really kicked up a gear. I guess they didn’t spend much time polishing the midriff episodes, just concentrated on the end. But I’m glad to hear you felt that too.

      • #6 by dgkaye on May 24, 2016 - 11:15 pm

        I agree with you on the last few episodes. 🙂

  3. #7 by morgenbailey on May 30, 2016 - 10:39 pm

    Reblogged this on MorgEn Bailey's Creative Writing Blog and commented:
    Some great tips… and another reason why I should bring Ray Donovan to the top of the ‘to be watched’ pile.

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