If the Problem’s Not Your Plot, What Is It?

Susan DeFclasses, craft, fictionLeave a Comment

two panel image with a cat on the left with a caption "What it looks like" and a tarsier on the right with a caption "What it is:"

There are a few major reasons people come to me as an editor and a book coach, and this is something I’ve been reflecting on as I prepare for the class I’m teaching for Jane Friedman this Thursday, Maybe It’s Not Your Plot.

Generally speaking, people come to me because:

  • They have an overwritten novel (sometimes hugely so; I’ve worked on novels that clocked in north of 200K words) and can’t figure out what to cut in revision
  • They’ve put their novel through a million drafts, and they know something is still wrong, but they don’t know what it is
  • They’re writing speculative fiction, and they’ve gotten so lost in the world building that they can’t seem to work out the actual story
  • They either can’t seem to figure out the ending of their novel or know that the ending they have isn’t quite right
  • They’ve reached the end of Draft One and just don’t know what they need to focus on in revision
  • They “pantsed it” with their first draft, and now need to figure out how to structure their novel
  • They’ve received lukewarm reader response, or
  • They’ve had their novel rejected by agents and editors

Here I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I help people solve all of these problems (and many others they’re not even aware of) by doing the exact same thing, and that’s helping them build a real character arc for their protagonist.

Which is to say, all of these issues might APPEAR to be problems with what happens in the story, when in reality, they’re problems with why it happens.

Plot is generally what’s obvious to us, as both writers and readers–familiar, like the cat in the graphic above.

Character arc is more like the tarsier, in that it’s not so obvious and familiar, because it operates on a deeper, more subterranean level. As readers, we’re generally not aware of character arc at all (at least until the end of the novel).

What we are aware of is the effect that character arc has on us, which is the effect of making us feel.

Character arc is often treated like a discrete element of craft–on par, say, with conflict, dialogue, or voice–when in reality, I believe, it’s a structural element, foundational to the story itself. That’s why it’s such a powerful tool for cutting through thorny plot problems.

Don’t know what to cut in revision? Look at your character arc; if the event or subplot doesn’t intersect clearly with the internal journey the protagonist takes over the course of the story, it probably doesn’t need to be there.

And this is hugely helpful when it comes to the endless possibilities presented by a fascinating speculative world: Think of the possibilities of that big world as a field. Putting the protagonist through a clear internal journey cuts a path through that field–which is to say, an actual story.

As for a novel’s ending, there are many ways that the events of the plot could conclude, but there are only a few ways that will deliver the moment of truth required by the protagonist’s character: The moment when they will finally see what it is they’ve been missing, or failed to understand, get out of their own way, and change.

Moreover, character arc is what determines the emotional quotient of the story: how invested the reader gets in it, and how much they care about what happens to the protagonist. So it’s often the key to turning around lukewarm reader response, and *crickets* from agents and editors as well.

I’ll be digging into all of this in further geeky detail this Thursday, April 14–so if you’re working on a novel, please! Save yourself some time, effort, and frustration by joining me for this class.

I promise I’ll break all of this down in a way that’s intuitive and easy to understand. (And if you need further incentive, there will be more cute animal photos like these. =)

Until next time,


PS. If you can’t make the live event, no worries–you can catch the replay later.

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