Most Common Writing Mistakes (Flat Plots)

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 60: Flat Plots

Most Common Writing Mistakes (Flat Plots)One of the most deflating criticisms authors hear is that “they’re writing flat plots.” Not only does this (seem to) indicate a certain lack of personal depth, it’s also a sign the story is boring and forgettable. Fortunately, there’s no reason you need ever fall prey to this pitfall.

In our last installment of the Most Common Writing Mistakes series, I talked about the problems of overly complex plots. Almost immediately, I started receiving requests from authors concerned about the opposite problem: flat plots. On Instagram, @GabriellaJoy614 asked:

Could you do one with under complex plots, @AuthorKMWeiland? I feel like my story needs more plot, but I love it too much to give it up.

Ultimately, the pursuit of dimensional plots is the pursuit of all of writing. Although we might sometimes create misguidedly overly complex plots in an effort to boost our writing, the only time we create flat plots—that is, plots lacking complexity—is when we’re struggling with one of the basic tenets of rich storytelling.

Today, we’re going to take a look at three of the most common culprits causing flat plots. But, remember, the subject is far vaster than this post can cover. If you feel you’re struggling to add dimension to your plots, keep digging deeper into all things story theory.

What’s the Difference Between Simple Plots and Flat Plots?

First off, let’s address a common misconception.

Is a flat plot the same as a simple plot?

The answer: not necessarily.

In fact, as we discussed in the post on overly-complex plotssimplicity is the hallmark of a masterful author. By this we mean two things:

1. The author is able to mine complexity out of even simple subjects.

2. The author is able to present even complex ideas so they seem simple.

William Zinsser

Note that complexity is inherent to masterful simplicity.

Therefore, we can draw the obvious conclusion that if a story lacks complexity, it’s not simple in a good way, but rather just flat.

So what is complexity/dimension/etc., etc., etc.?

Again: the answer encompasses all of good storytelling. But summed up (simply!), complexity and dimension in fiction result when the author creates layers of contrast in order to discover their ultimate harmony or disharmony. This is, of course, the essence of conflict, just as it is also the foundation of all functional character arcs and thematic principles.

3 Ways to Turn Your Flat Plots Into Fabulous Plots

Let’s take a look at the three most obvious (and important) entry points to creating strong, dimensional storylines, rather than boring ol’ flat plots.

Problem #1: Your Plot Is a Straight Line From A to B

When most people think “flat plots,” this is most likely what they’re thinking. The plot isn’t really much of a plot at all. It’s a straight shot from the character’s conception of a desire right on through to the acquisition of his goal.

Yay! Snore…

Basically, the problem is a lack of conflict. Remember: conflict is nothing more or less than an obstacle to a character’s goal. If the character meets no obstacles on her way to her goal (or, worse, if she doesn’t really have a goal to start with), you don’t have a plot, but rather just an iteration of straightforward events.

For example, “Mom went to town and bought groceries” is not a plot. A plot is “Mom tried to go to town and buy groceries.” Or as E.M. Forster famously put it:

[Story] can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next…. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality—“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. But “the king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.

Solution: Create Meaningful Subplots by Layering Your Antagonistic Forces

As they say, “no conflict, no story.” If you haven’t yet set up a proper relationship between goal and obstacles, you don’t yet have any kind of plot at all. But even if you’ve got the basics in place, you can sometimes still end up with a one-dimensional tale. The character has a goal, meets an obvious obstacle, overcomes obstacles, gets his goal, yay-hooray. That might work in some stories, but what if you want to take things to the next level?

At this point, you might, quite logically, be thinking: Subplots! They’re the obvious way to add complexity to any story, right?

Yes, they are. But it’s important to realize subplots only work when they are organic to the main plot. Just tossing in extra characters and complications is a sure way to end up with an overly complex plot (as we discussed in the previous post). The only way to create meaningful subplots is to refer to your story’s hierarchy of antagonistic stakes.

Every story offers the possibility for five different levels of antagonistic obstacles (although not every story will offer the necessary scope to take advantage of them all). Inherent within each of these layers is the opportunity for an organic and thematically pertinent subplot that can meaningfully complicate your conflict and add worthwhile complexity to your plot.

>Click here to read more about enhancing the different levels of antagonistic stakes and here to explore the four different aspects of conflict.

Problem #2: Your Characters Are On-the-Nose

“Flat” is just another word for “on the nose.” And what is “on the nose”? On-the-nose writing tells it exactly like it is—no nuance, no subtext, no room for questions but only answers. On-the-nose writing tells readers a character is “a good man,” rather than showing his virtuous traits through his actions—and then shading them with the nuanced gray of equally vivid flaws and weaknesses.

The epitome of the on-the-nose character is the Mary Sue/Marty Stu trope. This is an idealized and seemingly perfect person, who is exactly who she or he seems to be. She starts out as a happy, optimistic, virtuous person who wants to save the world? Guess what—she ends up as that same happy, optimistic, unvarying person at the end. There is no evolution, no arc—and no reason to read about this person’s journey, since she never really goes anywhere.

(Please note, however, that this is different from a character who is demonstrating a Flat Character Arc—in which she does not change herself, beyond overcoming some doubts, but rather uses an understanding of a specific Truth to change the lives of characters around her.)

Solution: Beef Up Your Character Arc and Your Thematic Throughline

Even stories that succeed in creating dimensional conflicts often feel flat because they lack thematic dimension, as demonstrated in the inner journeys of their characters. (Hello, 90% of action blockbusters.) Or you might even see stories that try earnestly for thematic maturity in asking hard questions of the world, but… ultimately lack “muchness” because the thematic questions never truly impact the protagonist. (Hello, way too many gritty navel-gazing indie films.)

Theme—and its manifestation in the lives of your characters—is the secret to creating stories that can operate on the simplest and most streamlined of plots while still offering a mother lode of rich complexity.

Every story—no matter how simple, epic, silly, or dark—offers the opportunity for character arcs. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that every story can be vastly improved by including meaningful beats of character evolution within the plot structure.

I have, of course, discussed this topic at length elsewhere, including my book Creating Character Arcs. But suffice it that your thematic principle should be founded upon two contrasting views of the world: a Lie and a Truth. Your character’s journey toward his goal in the exterior plot is ultimately both a metaphor and a catalyst for this inner war between light and darkness. However large or small the thematic Truth, it has the ability to instantly deepen any story.

Problem #3: Your Story Offers No Surprises

A problem inherent in both the above symptoms is a story that unfolds exactly as readers expect. Usually, this is the result of the author making choices that cop to clichés or fail to deviate from storylines with which readers are already overly familiar.

Like the Mary-Sue stereotype for characters, a lack of creativity within the plot choices can often be a type of wish-fulfillment on the author’s part. Enjoying someone else’s story and wanting to live it over again by basically recreating it can not only risk edging over into plagiarism, it also robs the author of the ability to tap his own personal brand of creativity.Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Please note: I’m not talking about bucking proper story structure. These time-honored dramatic principles are not plot, in themselves, but rather just the guidelines for achieving emotionally resonant plots. Within the boundaries of structure, authors have the opportunity for unbounded ingenuity.

I’m also not talking about genre conventions. When readers pick up a romance, they naturally expect the two leads to get together in the end. That’s the whole point. But when the journey to that end offers no surprises, no deep personal questions, and no morally-complicated obstacles—that’s when the plot risks becoming flat.

Solution: Seek Out and Create Plot Reveals

You have two choices for how to let your story play out:

1. Let it develop in a straightforward linear fashion, telling readers and characters everything they need to know exactly when they need to know it.

2. Strategically hold back and dole out your story’s necessary information to enhance suspense and create further opportunities for conflict.

Every scene in your story should ideally contain some kind of plot reveal. This doesn’t mean every scene must offer an earth-shattering revelation. But by carefully choosing how and when you disseminate your story’s information—to both your readers and your characters—you will be able to enhance your story’s existing complexity.

So how do you come up with all these great plot reveals? For starters, you brainstorm your way past the clichés. This is why one of the first steps in my outlining process is ruthlessly asking myself: “What would readers expect from this type of story?” and “What wouldn’t they expect?”

By its very nature, originality, all by itself, offers dimension and complexity.

Caution: Don’t Add Stuff Just for the Sake of Adding

The desire to avoid flat plots and create meaningful complexity is always a worthwhile goal. But in your pursuit of multiple dimensions for your fiction, don’t get sucked into the trap of adding “stuff” just for the sake of adding it. That’s a short road to overly complex plots, which also fail to offer cohesive thematic meaning while ending up as big fat messes.

Study your favorite stories to understand how to create plots that execute dimensional complexity with the fewest possible moving parts. Then plan your own approach to take full advantage of your story’s unique opportunities for originality in plot, character, and theme.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you find you’re more likely to struggle with flat plots or overly-complex plots? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. The Zinsser quote was about psychological professionals in writing to their clients, not about writing fiction.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Still applies to good fiction writing. 🙂

      • “Four basic premises of [nonfiction] writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity.” In terms of “plot” and “story complexity,” which is how you’ve applied this quote, twice, recently, I can’t see any NYT adult bestsellers fitting comfortably under the umbrella of “simplicity.” But I’m not trying to begrudge you the truth of the quote with respect to constructing sentences and paragraphs. Of course it applies to writing. I’m just saying it was not meant to apply to plot and story structure. But what do I know?

      • Okay. On pages 89 and 90 (hardback) of James N. Frey’s How To Write a Damn Good Thriller he warns against overly complex plots three times.

  2. I found this helpful. I’m writing a short story to spec right now and was finding it flat. I see several places where I can improve things now. Thanks! 🙂

  3. Very astute — I think you are right that stories so often seem flat because they are reproductions of another story. But the line between imitation and inspiration is tricky. I bet we all started writing because we loved reading, and because we wanted to write “something like” our favorite stories. And stories that are inspired by other stories can be the richest of all, weaving together allusion and new raw material, bringing freshness to old images and themes. Yet it’s hard to tell the difference between inspiration and imitation in the moment of writing (and so easy to tell the difference when we’re reading someone else’s work). I hope, at least, that if the story uses ideas from MANY different stories and not just one, it’s more likely to be allusive than derivative.

  4. onewordtest says:

    Thinking about it, I struggled with overly complex plots when I was a younger writer, in some of my stories (I think the ones I never took as seriously as others had very tight, good plots, looking back), but I haven’t struggled with that recently. I have more a problem now with overthinking the themes of the story and motivations of my characters, that if I stopped trying to *make* it meaningful, I realize that those things shine through strongly and naturally through the plot anyway.

  5. You mentioned genre conventions. I know someone who writes novels for Harlequin. She said they can be very formulaic by design. Harlequin will dictate, for example, that the two main characters meet in a bakery on page 23, they’ll hook up by page 52, they’ll have a major falling out on page 86, and wind up together by the end of the novel. That’s how they can crank out novels so fast. In a related story, Harlequin will be closing 5 of its romance series by the end of 2018. One of these is the Nocturne series, where I know a different author who writes for that.

  6. Peter Hill says:

    Katie, how long do you plan out these posts? You’ve answered three questions I would have asked you, had you not have answered them already. 😉

    Great post, as usual, thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This one’s been in the cooker for a couple months. Glad the timing was good for you!

  7. I am revising a WIP and feel often it is dull. The protagonist develops a goal after some bad stuff happening around her in the first act. She pursues it through to the climax. The conflict is obvious often.
    Having the antagonist drive plot elements gives me a new angle to consider. Thanks for the usual informational post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My pleasure! Conflict is really the dynamic born of the push and pull between the protagonist’s goals and the antagonist’s goals. If one of those is out of whack, the whole conflict ends up out of whack.

  8. Gregory MacDougall says:

    I am stuck at finishing my book. I have two really well written climactic scenes ready to add to my eighth chapter of a 9 chapter book and my “intuition” is telling me I need some hefty story-telling before I get there! Again, I found that story structure comes into play as this is really the second pinch point (that I thought I could get away without doing). As it is right now, there is a huge disconnect before I can get to the climax at the end of chapter 8. In its current form I find that A to B is too straight, not very exciting, and more importantly to me and my writing style, not very realistic. So, more research on conflict!!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Story structure makes everything work. 🙂 Honestly, it’s one of the most exciting things in the world when you have a story that’s not working, and you realize it’s because one of the structural elements has been left out. It means you know exactly how to fix the problem!

  9. Watching Ghost recently, I had the “oh crap” reaction. The characters weren’t thinking “oh crap” and nothing was explained to the auduence, but the story was so simple and so deep that the viewers UNDERSTOOD and RELATED. That’s a great plot right there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When simple equates to primal–in the sense that we all understand the fundamental human subtext–that’s when magic happens.

  10. I think I’ve been guilty of all 3 things, and still doing penance in my current draft — re: flat character and not knowing how to layer reveals. I’m learning now and applying the touches carefully. In the case of my flat character, I really needed to spend more time showing his virtues though action, and that meant a bold move: I wrote a 70 page opening, based on the montage-style life summary in 5 pages I’d originally tacked on to set up what was basically inciting indicent on page 1 (think of the prologue of the movie Up, works well in fim, not in a novel). I was worried the new material (it became 3 chapters) was all going to be prologue that didn’t matter, but I dove in knowing at least I’d have some better backstory. Now, that opening has turned into the foundation of the new, improved character arc in the current draft, and the whole novel is working better. When it comes to character, you never can dig too much, especially if it leads you to turn the camera on and show where it matters.

    Thanks for the Zinsser quote. On Writing Well is on my shelf, a good reminder to make it the next craft book I pick up (current reading Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, great book).

  11. Ms. Albina says:

    Katie, You write great articles as all ways. I am doing two projects a novella and a novel.

    In my novel that I am writing it is about an illness and also the main character who is the narrator also has to find a talisman to help the sick humans when she gets there and also meeting Zane who eventually becomes her husband but not in the first book.

    The novella is about an arrange marriage and also that Jewel’s sister gets kidnapped by someone unknown person then she will have to find her so also she can get married.

    Do you keep track of how many words you write for your books? Do you have a force field or a force shield in one of your books? By that I mean a covering that is invisible to human eyes.

    All of my characters live on a fictional planet. The planet has about thousands of islands and a lot of seas.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      No force fields in my novels so far.

      I always keep track of word count, since I tend to overwrite and it helps me keep my overall word count manageable.

  12. Super helpful infographics. Plot is one of the hardest things for me to figure out, and I’m still figuring it out. But I think the concept of a flat plot is interesting, because many writers use it to great acclaim. I guess you have to know your audience?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s always the exception, but flat plots rarely get published much less acclaimed.

  13. DirectorNoah says:

    I tend to struggle not just with overly complex plots, but with flat scenes too.
    I like my stories to be grand, exciting epics, and I usually make sure I have plot reveals spread throughout the story, to introduce readers steadily to the world I’ve created. But I have to be aware not to overcomplicate things too much, as I have a habit of sometimes getting enthusiastic in my worldbuilding, and including unnecessary flat scenes, just to explore and expand the fantasy elements of the story.
    Unfortunately, I do have problems deciding what information *is* neccesary to add, so that the readers understand how the world works.

    And I definitely agree, that some flat plots are due to being replicas of other stories. One book I read was almost a exact copy of another book. The plot was very similar, and the only real thing that was changed, was the protagonist’s gender!

    Thanks as always, K.M, for another great post! 😀

  14. Absolutely fascinating post, thank you so much. I have to confess to having my heart in my mouth when I started to read: is the entire post going to be a list of everything I’ve done writing my story so far? Happily, not entirely, but what an amazing resource to draw upon and come back to for guidance.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yay! Good for you. Nothing better than realizing all the things you’re doing right. 🙂

  15. Usually, my stories come out shorter than I originally hoped. I like the idea of rounding out theme a bit more to increase length and make it even better than when I started out.

Trackbacks

  1. […] When we start writing, we have to figure out how we’re going to get from idea to final product. Clare Langley-Hawthorne takes us from idea to novel, Becca Puglisi shares her 3-step plan for outlining a novel, and K.M. Weiland explains flat plots. […]

  2. […] story. She has a load of good stuff on her website. One article I particularly liked was this one: Common Writing Mistakes: Flat Plots . It tells you what mistakes you’re making in your storytelling, and how to inject some […]

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