Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 55

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 54: Story Events That Don’t Move the Plot

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 54One of your chief jobs as a writer is to come up with story events—stuff that happens in your story. Coming up with these exciting elements is likely why you started writing in the first place. Like C.S. Lewis, you were zapped with the electrifying image of a faun carrying packages and an umbrella through the snow—and you thought, Hmm, that’s interesting, let’s see what’s happening here. A story is born! Unfortunately, so is the potential for random story events that fail to move your plot.

In their haste to make sure something happens in their stories, authors can sometimes end up including events for a number of faulty reasons. The result is a story that digresses from its true focus—often in ways that try readers’ patience.

This is an easy writing mistake to fall into, especially since authors sometimes don’t even realize the story events they’re creating don’t matter to the plot. But once you understand what to look for, you can find and fix even the most extraneous of story events before they derail your book.

3 Reasons You Might Accidentally Write an Extraneous Story Event

What defines an extraneous story event? Easy: it’s a scene that neither moves the plot nor evolves the character. Something does indeed happen within the story, but it doesn’t change the story. You could yank it right now and the character’s journey wouldn’t change at all.

There are several reasons you might find yourself writing an extraneous story event.

1. You Need to Kill Time in the Story

Sometimes writers feel obliged to follow their characters through the progression of time: as they’re going about their daily routines on their way to work, journeying across country, or waiting for long periods. Perhaps you want to show the progression of time as the character endures a three-day layover during the holidays (if time drags for the character, why shouldn’t it drag for readers too, eh?).

Granted, there will be moments in some stories where this will be necessary. But generally, there is absolutely no good reason you can’t just skip all this, both for the sake of your readers’ sanity and for the sake of your story’s pacing. Remember: the scene break is one of the author’s most powerful weapons.

How Not to Kill Time in Your Story

Let’s say your cavalryman hero got his horse shot by Apaches and he has to slog through the desert to the nearest outpost in Tucson. The journey itself isn’t important to the story, but you feel you have to account for the time somehow. So—brilliant idea!—a rattlesnake attacks him one morning. You dramatize an entire scene of the hero’s waking up in his bedroll to find a horrible snake rattling at his ear, staring him down, threatening his very life… until, of course, he demonstrates his Old West savvy by wrestling the reptile into submission with his bare hands.

creating-character-arcsIt’s a jazzy scene all right, but does it advance the plot? Does it tell us anything new about the hero’s character arc? Sure doesn’t (unless overcoming a fear of snakes is somehow key).

In short, there’s no reason for this scene to be in your story. Cut it, mercilessly. Don’t force readers to read through meaningless filler, however ostensibly exciting. Cut straight to the next morning when he staggers in through the gates of the fort with word of the Apache uprising.

How to Show the Progression of Time

For all the warnings against including scenes of your characters’ daily routines, there are always exceptions. But here’s the rule that always applies: never include passage-of-time filler unless it offers something to the story.

Robber Bride by Margaret AtwoodIn The Robber Bride, the ever-brilliant Margaret Atwood opens with a lengthy scene of a main character’s morning routine. And by lengthy, we’re talking several chapters’ worth of wandering around her house, brushing her teeth, and finally going to work and getting set up for her day of teaching students. Nothing much happens, but in this character-driven story, every detail of the character’s morning routine says something important about her and sets the stage for the conflict to come.

This is most definitely not a technique that will work in most stories (or with a less deft authorial hand). When it does work, it works because it is not wasted words, but rather a conscious effort to make sure even the most seemingly mundane detail matters.

Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s Robber Bride presents seemingly mundane story events that show the passage of time in her characters’ lives—but she made sure to do in a way that both advanced the plot and riveted readers’ attention.

2. You Want to Include a Cool Scene Idea

For most of us, scene ideas come to us in random snippets. We get an idea for one scene, then another, and another. And then we have to figure out how to string them together. As a result, we can sometimes unwittingly end up including a cool scene just because it’s cool.

This is where the old adage about “killing your darlings” comes into play. Analyze every scene in your story—especially the ones you take for granted because you love them so much. Every single one needs to advance the plot. If it doesn’t, you must either tweak it so it bears its rightful burden of cause and effect within the overall plot—or you must ruthlessly chop it.

When Not to Include a Cool Scene

You’ve created a stunning magic system for your fantasy novel, and you want to give your itinerant protagonist an opportunity to show how proficient and awesome she is in using it. So you create an early scene in which she’s wandering through a meaningless village and decides to engage with a group of local toughs who are bullying a child. Rainbows spurt from her fingers, she glows like an angel, the toughs cower on their knees, and then the protagonist smiles and wends her way out of town.

Did she come off looking awesome?

Yep.

Was the scene itself kinda cool?

Yep.

Does it advance the plot?

Nope, it does not—not unless this encounter will lead to those same toughs or that same child seeking out the protagonist for Very Important Reasons later in the story.

Fortunately, if you really, really love this scene, the fix for keeping it is pretty easy: just make sure it does matter. Tweak your plot to create cause and effect, so that your awesome scene is a necessary domino in your overall line of plot events.

When to Include a Cool Scene

Once an Eagle by Anton MyrerIn Anton Myrer’s antiwar epic Once an Eagle, the protagonist begins his legendary career as a soldier in a heroic scene during World War I, in which he takes an enemy machine gun nest nearly single-handedly. For this, he is awarded the Medal of Honor. It’s a scene that firmly proves his “awesomeness.”

But if that were all the scene did, it wouldn’t belong in the story—Medal of Honor or no. Myrer knew this. He included the scene with the firm intent of making it matter to the story. It is a defining moment in the protagonist’s life that either directly or indirectly influences everything to come.

Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer

Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle includes no random story events. Every interesting scene serves to advance the plot and the character development.

3. You Know Something’s Gotta Happen in This Scene

Another reason dead-end story events show up is because authors find themselves temporarily stuck. There you are, staring at the blinking cursor on the blank page. What happens next? Or perhaps you already know what happens next, but you’re just not quite sure how to get from the previous scene to the next one.

So you start typing, words come out, a scene happens. Problem solved, right? Maybe, but maybe not. Too often, in the worthy desire to make sure something is happening on the pages of your story, you can end up with a something that doesn’t actually deserve to happen.

Good scenes are more than just things happening for the sake of things happening. A good scene is one that is integral to the story on every level. If it isn’t, it’s the wrong scene.

How Not to Make Something Happen in Your Scene

Bad guys just got done shooting at your P.I. hero. Now what? Maybe he goes to talk to the head of Internal Affairs at the police department—who just happens to be an old flame. Shocked by the bullet graze on his face, she turns tender and patches him up. They talk, he tells her all about the case (stuff readers already know), then takes a tough-man swig from the bottle of Scotch hidden in her bottom drawer and heads back out to the streets.

This sounds like a totally reasonable progression of events. Why shouldn’t he take a breather while he gets himself patched up? The relationship aspect of the scene even sounds pretty interesting (ooooh, old flame!). But what actually happens in this scene?

You guessed it: nada. So they talk—so what? So she patches him up—big deal. So she gave him a drink—that was nice.

But did the plot get advanced?

As it stands, it did not. This was a total filler scene, designed simply to show something happening.

That kind of thing may work in real life. But not in fiction. In fiction, there always needs to be a diamond-hard point buried within even the most seemingly random realism of a scene. If Ms. Internal Affairs gave him a new clue—or spiked his drink—or even just promised to go out with him again, then you’d have a scene that matters.

This is easily the most difficult type of unnecessary story event to spot, since it masquerades as an important part of the story’s flow. But beware of even seemingly integral scenes that do not, in fact, add anything new to your narrative drive.

How to Make Something Happen in Your Scene

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson BurnettIn Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic A Little Princess, she includes an entertaining scene in which the rich neighbor’s monkey jumps into the mistreated orphan protagonist’s freezing attic room. She helps the neighbor’s servant chase and corral the monkey, revealing to him that she grew up in his native India.

By itself, this is just a fun little scene, showing a random event in the protagonist’s life. But is it just a random event? Definitely not. Burnett uses this seemingly casual scene as a tremendously important catalyst within the plot, allowing the neighbor to become interested in the protagonist, bestow her with gifts, and eventually adopt her.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

In A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett uses every scene in her protagonist’s life to create catalysts for future story events.

***

Within every scene is the possibility of something meaningful and entertaining. Evaluate each scene in your manuscript. What happens in each scene that advances the plot, the character development, or preferably both?

If you find scenes in which these necessaries are either missing outright or just flabby, ask yourself what you can do to strengthen them into meaningful segments that matter to the story.

And if you find there are no good ways to enhance these scenes, gird yourself to cut them ruthlessly. Your narrative will be the tighter for it, your characters will be more focused, and your readers will be much happier.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion? What necessary story events occur in the last chapter of your work-in-progress? 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. You know … the words that you can trim out to cut down on the word count? almost all of them are “telling” words instead of showing! So It’s a good change to realy look at the sentence and; I go is that deep enough?

    Then comes hard part fixing it. ACK.

    like this stuff:

    The man stepped around the counter. He held out his arms, palms up, a pleading look on his face.

    So this isn’t deep pov? :a pleading look on his face.

    Right? No it’s not. *nods* Trying to figure out what pleading looks like and then describe it. Just what does pleading look like? And on an old man (the me”merchant” is important hies one of the first plot twist. Fun, fun. So I can’t skimp on him.)

    Perhaps skip the face/eyes and do a hand description? Great; I’m stuck again. Blea.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This doesn’t mean you *can’t* simply tell readers the look is pleading. Sometimes that will be the best, most straightforward, vivid approach. But it’s always worth the while to think twice in these instances and see if you can come up with the more original alternative.

      • Um .. I know! For when you need to pull back?

        I fiddled with it some more:

        A merchant yelled from behind, his narrow counter several feet away.

        “Young lady, you shall find the finest delicacies here! Why, we have the rare Basitg fruit from across the five seas! Guaranteed to be of value!”

        His words had a honey quality to them that made her pause.

        “Some other time.” She steeped to the side where there was more space, while covering the wound.

        He was a tall man, wizened and stringy. His wind-weathered skin reminded her of an old soggy boot. His eyes were sharp and youthful for his age, and had a fiery glint to them. Odd.

        “No thank you.” She attempted to move past him, while covering the wound. Don’t need any poisoned fruit, thank you.

        The man stepped around the counter. He held out his arms with palms up.

        “But, wait! I am an aged man trying to pay the taxes here. Will not you reconsider?”

        His smile was forced and more a grimace that spread across his face and his eyes conflicted with this; a pain of some sort shone through.

        He laid his palms together gradually separating them; a dark energy ball formed between his hands. A rounded object grew in the center. After a few seconds, a precious golden pear appeared, its skin an iridescent yellowish color. His smile smoothed out returning to normal.

        “Young lady, why don’t you take this; it is a rare fruit, said to give extraordinary powers to those who eat it.” He moved it in his hands, the light reflecting off its sides.

        “I need to go.” The pain was flooding in it was hard to concentrate. Let me be.

        “A special offer today: only three hundred twenty-five, gold!”

        “If this is so rare, why aren’t you giving it to a noble?” She gripped the counter to stop her hands from shaking.

        Does that work?

        • Whoops! Too many thanks you’s and mentioning of the wound. *goes and edits*

        • Pretty good. I was able to visualize it well. Might need a few touches to the wording.

          “A merchant yelled from behind, his narrow counter several feet away.”

          From behind her or behind the counter? “Yelled” sounds angry, but he was trying to make a sale. “Called out” or “beckoned” sound better to me.

          “His eyes were sharp and youthful for his age, and had a fiery glint to them. Odd.”

          He..his…his; and then the ‘odd’ at the end. How about: “…while his eyes were oddly sharp and youthful for his age and had a fiery glint to them.” (I know – adverbs)

          • Thank you Joe, beckoned does sound better! The Odd part is her thought. If I have explain that it most not be very clear that it is yet (ack!) I’ll go revise it.

            I like that revision but I tripped over the “and” for some reason. how about:

            His eyes were oddly sharp and youthful for his age. The sun’s glare reflected

            [email protected]#$! blurg no, that’s not working.

            a fiery glint flashed in them, and the edges crinkled. no no no no … umm..

            The crinkled skin folded down around his eyes highlighting the fiery glow of youth that was so at odds with the rest of him.

            Ya, there we go! What do you think?

            Thanks I just needed a prompt. ^o^

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I like it! Kept my attention.

      • I didn’t know that; it’s to know that there’s some leeway with this. thank you! This should cut down on getting stuck on sentences for days, at least a little. I really like to try to show the emotion when I can. Even harder is describing how an emotion or physical sensation feels for the main pov. sometimes it’s easy like a twisted ankle (he just google it) other times it’s frustrating as heck, like when someone is embarrassed. I don’t use blushing much because my character (to me at least) is in her twenties so isn’t a teenager and must act the part.

        Off topic, I do wonder about those emotion lists that writers love so. If every writer is using them won’t they become cliché? So .. that makes me want to try even harder to come up with something new. Most of the time I make it other times okay fine, that character isn’t going to frown (as I’m sick of the word too.) *delete, delete*

        I’m on chapter 59 and I hate the little conjunction “and.” You need this along with the others for complex and the complex-compound sentences (I don’t use them much but sometimes have to), but I want to bring down the word count too. I can’t win. xP

  2. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M,

    In my novella I have my character Jewel helping someone on Planet Avanaria which she will do. She-Jewel is not Leilani’s grandmother yet but will be.

    Did someone do your dreamlander map for you? My novella will have 17 chapters total. Do you put directions in your book of dreamlander?

    I mean in mine Jewel needs to find the palace which is north west of where she is. I mean if you had a compass of north, south, east, and west.

  3. K.M.,

    Cool, I am getting my mermaid novella ready to be publishable hopefully on my birthday.

    Merry Christmas

  4. Yup, I hit a point in the novel I’m writing, 70K words in while introducing a new main character to the story. So I have this scene where a Princess (the new MC) is out on a hunting trip on the lawless fringes of her father’s kingdom. At one point, she wanders across a small mob of people attempting to execute an unarmed helpless man. She tries to intervene and things heat up fairly quickly because no one recognizes her initially and believe she was here to try and stop the execution. So we have a recipe for disaster on our hands.

    So the scene is action pack and full of dialogue, exposition and character development all rolled up into one. But at the same time, even as I was in the middle of writing it, something just felt… off about it all. While the scene itself illustrates a character goal, situation, and conflict, it lacks the most important ingredient of all. Plot progression. Everything that happens in this high action scene doesn’t have any longing repercussions later in the novel. I could literally cut the entire scene out and it’ll still flow the same way.

    I know I should cut it, but it does serve as good character development and exposition to the universe I’ve created… but that’s just the thing really lol. I’m still trying to use one of your pointers: try and rework the scene so that it can fit nicely in the plot, so there’s still hope I can salvage it. But for now, I’m split 50/50.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If I had a nickel for all the scenes I tried to write in which nothing happened and something felt “off”… well, you know… 😉 The good news is that once you start recognizing what’s going on, it gets much easier to avoid this problem in the future.

  5. Hannah Gaudette says:

    Thanks, a million times over! This post recently saved me from making a horrible mistake with an unnecessary scene (or chapters) that really would have messed up my WIP. So again, thanks. Your blog has more than once been a “go-to” in my writing.

    God Bless.

  6. This issue fits in with my duel plot problem. Today I shared a story with my beta reader dealing with my fictional characters called Bugfolk. They are bug people living in a parallel world to our world.
    The main characters come from an ant colony. Their army keeps beetles as their transport creatures. (Human equivalent: horses) Two of them happen to be sentient but are kept in the stable and treated as horses. One of them (a10-11 year old child) is trying to break free.

    There are two simultaneous plots in this story/ series:

    1. Plot following the beetle is focused on finding a friend to relate to and explore the human world outside their realm. He finds my child main character/ protagonist. Their plot is focused on exploring the human realm totally clueless to the real dangers. (besides getting swatted at by some humans.)

    The scenes following the beetle and his 5-6 year old friend are set in a child-like tone filled with wild wonder at what they see. Just amazed. Fascinated, taking in everything they see (often misinterpreting things too)

    2. Plot following the 5-6 year old’s father figure (older member of the colony) who is a soldier with a troubled past related to a war from fighting a colony. Plot wise he was ordered/ decided to totally destroy one of the enemy colonies. His plot deals with, first physical recovery from being gravely wounded in battle, then seeking redemption for his deeds, as well as working out issues with a former friend who committed a crime in battle.
    These read like side scenes/ extra stuff, but are essential for the series plot.

    I showed to my beta reader the book.

    Plot 1: The beetle and ant child find a bakery in the human world, eat cake, upset the baker, then explore the library inside a human elementary school.

    Plot line 2, follows the adult characters being worried, splitting up and searching for the child characters.
    Adult 1. (father figure) has to stay back in the nest. He’s too injured, not in physical health to seek out the children. He has to rely on a former friend who betrayed him in the past to find the children.

    Adult 2: Former friend of the soldier, goes on a mission to find the children and return them back home safely. He faces more dangerous situations dealing with fighting our real world bugs, etc as well as facing a magical being who is a survivor of the colony that his former soldier friend killed off. Sub-plot: focusing on helping a friend in an abusive relationship. This scene leads into a main story (following his story arc and the adult #1) later in the series.
    In the series all of these characters will cross paths, but how to keep readers engaged is the question?

    The beta reader was not engaged. He did not like the adult side of the story and forced me to skip over it to read the childlike wonder side of the story and more less told me to separate the two, that it did not belong in the same manuscript. Please help. Part of my flaws is that I am not an avid reader and he said it shows. I’ve been writing off and on since 1995, but no9t consistantly.
    He compared my writing to a toddler expecting to play a masterpiece after taking only a few violin classes. Ouch. I appreciate the feedback, though.

  7. I’ll add, the Beta reader liked both stories, but instead of reading them in one book he wanted to have them in two separate stories. He said together they ruined the book and made him hate the characters.

    I’m confused with how that would work to separate the adult side of the story and still keep it together. It sounds like he wants me to make them into two separate books. One from the adult side and the other from the child’s, but I rather not have two separate novels dealing with the same event.

    I’m confused with how to pull this off without having a book A and a book B about a same event but from different POV’s of that event.

  8. Robert Plowman says:

    Katie, I agree with you about story structure and plot. This topic seems like a good place to address an issue that puzzles me. A while ago, I tried to read a certain book by a very popular and respected author. His books have sold over a million copies. I respect your practice of not criticizing authors, so I won’t name it. This book was looong. I quickly became bored. The MC seemed a bit of a Gary Stu, the book only hinted at a plot, and don’t get me started on character arc. It felt more like a collection of short stories than a novel, IMO. At the 25% point I skipped ahead to the 75% point, in the middle of another of the MC’s adventures. I had missed nothing. There were a few more adventures after that, then the book just ended: no climax, no resolution, not even a cliffhanger, only a lingering mystery.

    A few years later the author published a sequel. I didn’t read it, but the negative reviews (only 2%!) said it rambled even more than the first, still with no end in sight.

    Fans of this windy book seem to love it for the journey, as opposed to the destination. So, I have to wonder, am I trying too hard to force my story into the perfect structure? What is your opinion on this general topic?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      First of all, I think we are all occasionally boggled by overwhelmingly popular books that seem, to us, to be objectively terrible. Chalk it up to the subjectivity of art–and also the fact that objectively bad art can still connect with people if it hits certain emotional buttons just right.

      That said, the fact that *you* disliked this book for all the problems you mentioned, including its structure, is a clear sign to me that this is not the type of fiction *you* want to be writing. Learn from what you didn’t like about this book to help you better understand the kind of book you do want to write.

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