4 Plotting Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Diane Callahan
Jan 7 · 20 min read
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There’s no such thing as a perfectly plotted book. In any story, you’re bound to find plot holes, flawed character logic, and boring scenes. Plus, it’s just not possible to please every reader. When you’re constructing your plot, take some of that pressure off of yourself and focus on telling a story that makes you excited to share it with the world.

To create that confidence in your work, you can avoid these four common plotting pitfalls I’ve encountered as a developmental editor, reader, and writer.

1. Lack of personal stakes

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What do the characters stand to lose that’s meaningful to them?

In many stories, the stakes include physical death — but death can come in different forms. There’s the death of a relationship, of one’s pride or reputation, of one’s hopes and dreams.

In Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, the Paris Uprising of 1832 as well as illness threaten the characters’ lives, but they also face more personal types of death:

  • Escaped convict Jean Valjean stands to lose his freedom
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Whether it’s the loss of a loved one, the character’s homeland, or their sense of self-worth, these fates are often worse than death because they must grapple with the pain after the fact.

What’s at stake should be specific to the protagonist and close to their heart. If our hero wants to defeat the Big Bad for the good of humanity, that’s very noble of them. But it’s not as emotionally compelling as learning that the Big Bad is the heroine’s father, and she feels she’s the only one who can stop him.

A character could be driven by their loyalty to their king, or their thirst for revenge against someone who hurt their loved one, or an unhealthy obsession with someone they want to claim as their own. And because of those powerful personal relationships, they can’t just ignore the problem; they are driven to solve it.

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Novels with highly personal stakes, including (respectively) a protagonist with loyalty to a king, a thirst for revenge, and an unhealthy obsession

An example of highly personal stakes comes from The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine, a children’s fantasy novel. The protagonist, Addie, is perpetually fearful and depends on her sister Meryl’s bravery. Then Meryl falls ill with the Gray Death, and Addie aches to find the cure before her sister dies, even though she’s not the brave adventurer her sister is. If Addie were simply motivated to find a cure for her entire kingdom, that would be an admirable goal, but with her sister dying, it adds a personal motivation, along with a ticking time bomb. What’s more, she must overcome her own fears to achieve her goal.

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With novels that are primarily character-driven, the personal stakes often involve damaging or changing relationships with other people, particularly when it comes to their perception of others or themselves.

Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed features nine interconnected stories, all with characters caught in troubled relationships. In one story, a boy’s positive opinion of his father is at stake; instead of being a good man, his dad might actually be a war criminal. In another tale, a woman’s daughter becomes sick and she fears the worst — childhood leukemia or lymphoma. A parent at risk of losing their child is a deeply personal heartache, as we can feel in the woman’s thoughts:

“She is furious with herself for her own stupidity. Opening herself up like this, voluntarily, to a lifetime of worry and anguish. It was madness. Sheer lunacy. A spectacularly foolish and baseless faith, against enormous odds, that a world you do not control will not take from you the one thing you cannot bear to lose. Faith that the world will not destroy you. I don’t have the heart for this. She actually says this under her breath. I don’t have the heart for this. At that moment, she cannot think of a more reckless, irrational thing than choosing to become a parent.”

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Think about personal stakes in terms of character relationships.

  • Can they protect their family from harm?
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Personal stakes related to the character relationships listed above

The story happens because of the main character; their role couldn’t be filled by just anyone. Ask yourself, “What happens if the protagonist walks away?” If there are no negative consequences that only affect the main character, the stakes aren’t personal enough.

Give the protagonist someone to care about.

2. Unfocused trajectory

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As readers, we want books to surprise us. At the same time, too much randomness can leave us wondering, “Where’s this story going? What’s the character even trying to accomplish?”

This is often a result of unclear character goals. When the protagonist is wandering aimlessly, there’s nothing for the reader to anticipate or look forward to.

Say you have a story where a young boy witnesses his parents’ accidental deaths. Then he joins a traveling circus. After that, he becomes a chef’s apprentice. The book ends with him falling in love with a girl at a festival. This is an interesting sequence of events, but without any thread connecting them all, it doesn’t have as much emotional impact as it could. This episodic story would benefit from greater focus.

On her Fiction University blog, author Janice Hardy states that some stories are all premise and no plot, meaning they’re based on an appealing main idea, but there’s no real plot because the story lacks character goals, conflict, and stakes. Hardy compares examples from The Wizard of Oz:

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Hardy also says, “If you can’t describe what your novel is about in one sentence (even a bad sentence) using the standard ‘protagonist has X problem and she needs to do Y to win Z or A happens’ then you might have a premise novel.”

The premise vs. plot problem is the issue in my example with the young boy. His parents die, and he wanders from place to place — that’s just a premise, not a plot.

Adding an external goal could help. After his parents’ deaths, maybe the protagonist wants his family name to become famous, which had been his mom and dad’s dying wish. He joins the circus his mom once worked at in hopes of becoming a headliner. But then he gets kicked out for trying to rescue the lions, and he decides to become a famous chef, working for the man his father washed dishes for. Then, while cooking food at a festival, he falls in love with a girl and feels that instead of finding immortality through fame, he wants to attain that by passing along his family name to their future children.

You could also add an internal character arc. The protagonist feels lost after his parents’ deaths, and no longer knows how to define his identity. So, each of these destinations and the people he meets — at the circus, the chef’s kitchen, the festival — are his attempts at finding his place in the world again.

Having both an external goal and an internal arc is ideal. Usually, they’re intertwined. In the above example, the protagonist’s quest for fame overlaps with his desire to find a new version of home.

Character goals can transform over the course of the story as part of the trajectory. A well-constructed plot often moves along a cause-and-effect chain, with the previous event motivating the character to pursue the next plot point. Take the classic adventure novel and revenge tale The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.

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  • Edmond Dantès is at the pinnacle of his life — he has a beautiful fiancée, a burgeoning career as a ship’s captain, and a stellar reputation. All that is ruined when four men, jealous of his successes or fearing the secrets he knows, frame him for treason.

“He doomed these unknown men to every torment that his inflamed imagination could devise, while still considering that the most frightful were too mild and, above all, too brief for them…”

It’s easy to trace the cause-and-effect chain of events. Dantès’ internal arc also gives the narrative a sense of structure, as he shifts from optimistic to jaded. His revenge mission is clear throughout, as we can see in his dialogue:

“What is truly desirable? A possession that we cannot have. So, my life is devoted to seeing things that I cannot understand and obtaining things that are impossible to have. I succeed by two means: money and will.”

If it’s not clear what your story is really about, you might be chasing too many character goals. Will he find his mother’s killer and discover who stole his car and be promoted at work and get the girl? You could also be trying to tackle too many internal arcs or themes. How will she come to terms with her divorce, understand her sexuality, forgive her mother, and learn what it means to be a good teacher?

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You can definitely have multiple threads at once, but it can help to view them as three interwoven trajectories:

  • The characters’ external goals (what they want to go out and do in the world, whether it’s attend school, find their father, or destroy a city)

If your plot feels unfocused, define how the characters’ goals, attitudes, and relationships change over time, and use that to create a thread connecting the beginning, middle, and end.

3. Slow middle

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For many writers, the “muddy middle” is responsible for slow pacing. Point A and Point B are clear enough, but the path to get there can seem unclear, resulting in the characters just running in place, with the plot not really going anywhere.

You might have a slow middle if the protagonist is…

  • Comfortable where they are

The best way to test for slow pacing is to ask your beta readers or critique partners, “What parts felt slow to you?” Ask why those parts felt slow, then determine if you can a) cut those scenes or b) replace those scenes with something more exciting that accomplishes the same objectives, which is what my “Adding Conflict to a Scene” writing exercise is all about.

If your story is on the lengthy side, think of the most boring or repetitive scene — and cut that one. Then think of the next least exciting scene and consider cutting that one, and so on, until you reach your ideal word count.

However, pacing isn’t really about word count; the key is forward momentum. A novel can be 400,000 words and still have great pacing because things are constantly changing — there are new plot developments, the character relationships are evolving, the setting shifts.

What keeps readers reading are unanswered questions. This applies to all genres. What’s in the envelope? Why does Richard hate his father? What will happen when Carol confronts her abusive ex-husband?

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You can present a cycle of questions and reveals. One of these reveals might even be a midpoint reversal. This is when something major changes for the main character around the 40-to-60% mark.

If the character’s goal was to reach the Floating Castle to find her husband — oops, now it’s in ruins, destroyed in battle. Or the character thought for years that his dad had killed his brother — nope, his mom was the culprit and his dad entirely innocent. It doesn’t need to be a huge plot twist, but rather something that forces the protagonist to take a different action than they had originally planned. This breaks up the monotony and gives the characters new things to worry and wonder about.

The young adult sci-fi novel Unwind by Neal Shusterman uses the midpoint reversal to maintain the opening’s fast pace. In this near-future dystopia, parents can choose to have their unruly teenagers “unwound,” meaning all of the child’s organs are transplanted into new donors. The story opens with a bang — three teenagers scheduled for an unwinding cross paths and flee together. The teens encounter obstacle after obstacle, but they manage to escape through an Underground Railroad type of system that leads them to a place called “the graveyard,” where other unwinds are in hiding, including a bully antagonist.

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At the end of the chapter, Shusterman builds narrative questions around this new setting before revealing it. Here, Roland is the antagonist, while Risa is one of the protagonists. They’re all in a truck with some other kids, being transported to what they’ve been told is a safe haven:

Roland, sitting toward the front, turns to the driver and asks, “Where are we going?”

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” the driver answers. “They give me an address. I go there, I look the other way, and I get paid.”

“This is how it works,” says another kid who had already been in the truck when it arrived at Sonia’s. “We get shuffled around. One safe house for a few days, then another, and then another. Each one is a little bit closer to where we’re going.”

“You gonna tell us where that is?” asks Roland.

The kid looks around, hoping someone else might answer for him, but no one comes to his aid. So he says, “Well, it’s only what I hear, but they say we end up in a place called . . . ‘the graveyard.’”

No response from the kids, just the rattling of the truck.

The graveyard. The thought of it makes Risa even colder.

Shusterman generates intrigue by not giving the characters, or the readers, all the information at once.

  • We start with the question, “Where are they being taken?”

All these new narrative uncertainties prevent the book’s middle chunk from dragging.

  • What will the characters do in the graveyard?

The midpoint reversal reinvigorates the plot by changing the setting, introducing new characters, and adding new complications.

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Now I really want to write this Floating Castle story…

If you’re really struggling with a slow middle, it might help to have the character achieve their primary objective at the midpoint — but it’s not what they expected, so they have to reevaluate what they want. That can serve as your midpoint reversal.

Take the example from earlier: with the Floating Castle destroyed, the protagonist discovers her husband was taken captive and is to be executed, which increases the stakes. A ticking time bomb hovers over her head as she races to infiltrate the enemy camp and save him before it’s too late.

Most books with slow middles should have made their ending the midpoint reversal and then followed the story from there in a new direction. Room by Emma Donoghue does this effectively. A mother and son have been locked in a room for years by a rapist, and the mother desperately wants to escape. I somewhat expected the story to end with her escaping the room, but to my surprise, that was the midpoint.

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The story continues after they leave the room, to show that things don’t end happily ever after the moment she’s saved; she and her son still have to deal with the trauma of their time in the room. Those narrative questions drive the story into the last act:

  • How will this boy who has never seen the outside world react to it?

This adds a layer of realism and allows Donoghue to explore deeper questions about human psychology.

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At the midpoint, you might…

  • Take away the protagonist’s support system (such as killing off or having them argue with a friend, or perhaps they lose all their money)

Adding a midpoint reversal allows you to continue that cycle of questions and reveals.

4. Unsatisfying payoffs

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If narrative questions are what keep the pace moving forward, then the answers — the reveals, the payoffs — to those questions are what drive your readers to leave positive reviews.

With an unsatisfying payoff, the author has made a promise to the reader and not delivered on it. Say there’s a character who always talks about how much they loathe their brother and how they’ll kill him if they ever see him again. As a reader, I’m going “Ooh, this is juicy,” and I’m expecting that confrontation. But if the brothers never confront each other, I’ll be disappointed. The author has promised me future conflict and then not delivered any payoff.

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Even when the author does deliver on that promise, the payoff might be weak. All that build-up, but then…it fizzles out. Instead of heating up, the story cools down. This is usually a result of not pushing the characters to their limits. The author doesn’t introduce any bigger conflict, plot twists, or surprises.

To use my earlier examples, say the wife who’s searching for her husband goes to the Floating Castle and discovers…he moved to the next village over. Or the son who thinks his father murdered his brother finds out…yeah, he was right all along, even about his dad’s motivations, no surprises here. These are boring answers to the narrative questions because there’s no conflict for the characters to wrestle with.

The situation should go from bad to worse — out of the frying pan and into the fire. The musical and adapted novel Dear Evan Hansen has a plot that naturally crescendos, increasing in intensity. The main character gets trapped in a lie, and he decides to roll with it because it’s easier than telling the truth. But then his subsequent lies grow bigger and bigger, until he’s dug himself in a hole that’s impossible to escape without ruining his life.

It’s like you’re inflating a balloon, until the air pressure becomes too great, and it has to pop. And for Evan Hansen, the audience expects that his lies will be exposed — and we’re waiting for the moment when that balloon pops.

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Unsatisfying payoffs can happen at any point in a story, but endings are especially susceptible to this problem. The climax ends with a whimper, instead of with a bang. A few methods for ending with a BIG BANG include plot twists, death, character turning points, and earned triumph — oftentimes a combination of all four.

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Books with strong plot twists

Plot twists are a reversal of expectations, where the story seems to be heading toward one ending but suddenly changes course. The character receives or reveals new information that makes you view the whole story in a new light. I won’t spoil them, but some books with great twist endings are Gone Girl, Fight Club, Dark Matter, Atonement, Ender’s Game, Life of Pi, These Broken Stars, and Mockingjay.

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Books with big character deaths

Death can also act as a type of plot twist if it comes as a surprise to the reader. This could be the death of a villain, the main character, or an important minor character — and it should always serve a purpose beyond shock value. It might prove a point about the novel’s theme, or up the stakes by showcasing the villain’s villainy, or serve as a heroic sacrifice. Maybe it’s the culmination of tensions between different characters. It could be an expected death that you hope doesn’t happen, like in tragic tearjerkers.

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Books with significant character turning points

With a character turning point, the protagonist must make a big choice — the one they’ve been confronting for most of the novel. This is the moment Jane Eyre decides if she wants to be with Mr. Rochester. This is when Winston chooses whether or not to continue rebelling against Big Brother. This is the choice between immortality and death in Tuck Everlasting.

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Books that end with earned triumphs

An earned triumph shows the characters have experienced hardship, changed, and lost things important to them. These endings are bittersweet, but ultimately happy. Through perseverance, suffering, and sacrifice, they have made it out the other side. They defeat their enemy, they arrive at their destination, they find freedom — almost always at a cost. Everything in life and in story comes at a price.

After a lot of death, Mockingjay and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows end in earned triumph. So does East of Eden, with a father finally forgiving his son. Children’s stories often focus on a main character going on an adventure and coming out better off in the end. They follow their heart without losing their values, like Charlie does in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, resisting the greed that caused the other children to fall into a chocolate river or inflate into a giant blueberry.

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A book that uses all four strategies in its ending is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. I’m going to spoil the end of this book, so if you want to skip this part, scroll down to the bottom of the page.

As the story goes, four human children travel into the magical world of Narnia, where the White Witch has cast a spell of eternal winter. The four children join forces with the lion Aslan to defeat the witch.

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Amazing cover art by Jeffrey Nguyen, used with permission
  • A character turning point happens at the midpoint, when one of the children, Edmund, chooses to betray the others by siding with the White Witch. However, at the end of the book, he regrets his decision and rejoins the side of good, fighting alongside his siblings.

He assures them:

“Yes, of course you’ll get back to Narnia again some day. Once a King in Narnia, always a King in Narnia. But don’t go trying to use the same route twice. Indeed, don’t try to get there at all. It’ll happen when you’re not looking for it. And don’t talk too much about it even among yourselves. And don’t mention it to anyone else unless you find that they’ve had adventures of the same sort themselves.”

The narrator ends the story on a more open-ended note, informing the reader that more tales are to come:

“And that is the very end of the adventure of the wardrobe. But if the Professor was right it was only the beginning of the adventures of Narnia.”

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Another work of art by Jeffrey Nguyen

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of the most influential children’s novels of all time, in part due to the author delivering on the promises he’s made to the reader, with questions like “How will the great battle between good and evil turn out? What will happen to Edmund, the traitor? Will the children ever return home?” Even if the ending didn’t work for you personally, it showcases how one writer has created a cohesive narrative.

Think about the promises you’ve made to your readers. What questions have you got them excited about? If the answers make the reader go “Oh…” instead of “Oh!” try brainstorming a list of ten other ways that question could be answered and choose the path that would stir up the most conflict and excitement.

Key Takeaways

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To avoid these pitfalls, remember that plot grows from who the characters are, what they want, and what they’re willing to do to get it. Try to surprise your readers by letting your characters face tremendous obstacles and their greatest fears — and let them have some satisfying successes along the way.

The Hunger Games is an example of an incredibly well-plotted book that has high personal stakes, a focused trajectory, smooth pacing, and satisfying payoffs, but it’s been analyzed to death in other blogs and videos; I enjoyed the breakdown on “Writer’s Edit.” Suzanne Collins uses a three-act dramatic structure, and that’s one of many frameworks that might help you nail down your plot.

Our characters change within the crucible of conflict — and choosing change over stagnation is the essence of story.

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What plotting problems have you faced recently? I’d love to hear your angst in the comments.

Whatever you do, keep writing.

This post was adapted from a video on my YouTube channel Quotidian Writer. You can watch the full video below!

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

Diane Callahan

Written by

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

Diane Callahan

Written by

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

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