Plotting is hard. Thinking up things for your characters to do, the trouble they get into to make a story interesting, fast-paced, is a pain in the butt. Readers want things to happen; they want your characters moving. Characters who sit around are boring, and if they’re not talking about anything interesting, forget it.
Where are your characters going? How do you get them there?
Sometimes that’s where saggy middles come from. The beginning is exciting, lots of action, your characters are finding whatever trouble they’re going to get into for most of the book, be it fall in love with the wrong person, witness a murder, find a missing person, start a journey, whatever the case may be. The beginning of the book is always thrilling, full of promise, or at least, it should be.
And the end, oh the end! You know how it ends, the happy reunion of those two people in love, the satisfying conclusion to a journey, the missing child found. Endings can make a reader cry, close your book with a sigh and a smile, or throw the book (or Kindle, or tablet) across the room in frustration.
But the middle, the middle is difficult to write. You need scenes to move the story along, when you come up empty, it’s easy to reach for an old standby.
Plotting from A to Z is an art, a skill, a talent. Which is why so many books have been written on the subject.
And because plotting is so difficult at times, it’s easy to get caught up in what has worked for us in the past.
If you have a few books under your belt or saved on your memory stick, you probably have reused something, at some point. But is that a good idea?
Sometimes you have to. Take romances for instance. There are only so many plots to go around: boy meets girl, they break up, they reunite. Be it a case of mistaken identity, ending up in the wrong bed, best friends falling for each other, tropes are reused for a reason. That’s why they’re tropes. Same for mysteries. There’s always going to be the question of why, and how that question is answered.
And while all plots, to some extent, are recycled, that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the small things that we do in our books that we do over and over again. Take for example the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich. I hate calling out authors, but to explain what I mean, it’s the easiest way. For those of you who have never read a Stephanie Plum novel, it’s about an untrained, unprofessional bounty hunter named Stephanie. She works with her police detective boyfriend and another (male) bounty hunter.
You can probably already see where I’m going with this. Love triangle.
And that is fine. It’s perfect. It’s another plot/trope/plot device that lots of writers use. Hell, I have.
But Stephanie, being untrained, can’t do her job correctly. And it’s funny. The first couple times she does something. But the 5th time her car blew up, it wasn’t so funny anymore.
And the love triangle thing works GREAT for the first few books, but when you’re reading book nineteen, you’re practically screaming, “Choose one of them already!”
Not to mention that when Janet tries to be funny using these plot devices over and over again, we’re cheated out of a character’s emotional arc. You would think, in twenty-four books, that if Stephanie really wants to be a good bounty hunter, she’d go to school. Cop school, self-defense classes, at the very least. Gun safety, anyone? There isn’t any character growth, and that’s too bad. But Janet purposely did that so she can write about all these dumb things Stephanie does to make us laugh. And it works, for a long time. But Janet released book twenty-four, and it’s not working anymore. In fact, when did it stop working? I would say around book nineteen when I stopped reading the series.
So when should *you* reuse plot devices?
I ran one of my cool Twitter polls . . .
. . . and it does seem as if writers like using the same plot devices. I don’t know how many books these writers have out, if any, but in one of the comments Chuck said . . .
. . . and I agree. It may be easier to use a plot device because it fits, it doesn’t take a lot of work to incorporate it, but will your readers like reading the same thing over and over, or will they drop off because eventually, all your books will start to sound the same?
In the end, this is your call. Do all your characters eat chocolate cake? Do they all drive clunker cars? Do all your heroines at some point get lost, physically? Do all your heroes have the same tragic backstory?
In my own writing, I’ve been dealing with this. I think, oh, my characters reuniting on the beach would be beautiful . . . oh, wait. They did that in book two of my trilogy. Probably best not to end my new stand-alone that way.
I wanted my characters to find a cat or something, but my characters, yes in book two of my trilogy, found an abandoned dog at a state park. So, no homeless kittens in this new book.
It can be challenging to think of new material, but you can do it. Try a couple of these tips:
- Read in your genre, but outside your genre, too. You never know if a character’s situation will spark a whole new idea for you.
- Use writing prompts. Maybe a picture or a line of dialogue will land your characters their best/worst situation yet!
- Brainstorm. I love to brainstorm plots with people. Just because someone came up with an amazing idea, that doesn’t mean you can’t use it. I’ve used ideas people have thrown out in these sessions, but of course, as you write and as you adapt the idea to your characters, things change. Never be afraid of using something someone has throw out there. In the writing process, you’ll make it yours.
Brainstorming can be a great way to come up with plot bunnies!
- Listen to music. Maybe a lyric or the way that piece of music is played will spark an idea.
- Go for a walk and let your mind wander. Letting your mind think about whatever it wants is an incredible way for new ideas to pop into your head.
Empty your mind; let it wander. Let your characters speak to you.
Anyway, be careful when reusing plot devices. You’re a creative–you’re a writer. You can think of something original. Keep delighting your reader with new ideas, new situations, and they’ll keep coming back to you and your books over and over again.
And maybe at book nineteen, they won’t drop off.
Tell me what you think!