Friday, August 27, 2010

The Plot That Swam Away

The goal of a fiction writer is to engage the reader in the emotional life of a character who will face the thing we humans fear most: change. Even if your character wants this change—even if she is excited by it—readers expect part of her will also fear it. To take us on the full ride you need to constantly apply new pressures that create a catalyst for change, and then let us in on that change in glorious detail.

Take, for example, evolution—that's some serious change. When the fish first flopped onto land he didn't grow feet and hop around to commune with others of his kind that very day. The reader wouldn't buy that anyway; she knows how things work. Growing appendages was a process and the reader wants in on it. What did the fish notice first? How did it feel—did it hurt?

The reader will empathize with the fish as he faces his perceived disfigurement, relate with his abandonment by his fellow fishes, feel dizzy with him as he gets used to breathing all that fresh air, worry for him as he explores the dangers and rewards of his new place in the food chain, root for him as he experiments with the legs, and applaud him when he learns new ways to attract mates to perpetuate the change in the species. If you detail the adaptation of your fish through a series of emotional turning points, you will continue to involve your reader in the tale.

But in order for him to adapt, you must find a way to keep that fish on land (this is often referred to as crucible of story). If you let him swim away, the story has stalled.

This really annoys your reader.

Turning away from the challenge of change is normal and human, and if you’ve critiqued any number of manuscripts you know that writers try to use it as a plot complication all the time. There are inherent dangers in doing this, though. It often comes across as a delay tactic more than a complication, for one thing. And your protagonist may come across as weak—your book’s inciting incident set that challenge and we kept reading because we believed your character was strong enough to accept it; to dive back in the pond now has the feel of negating the entire purpose of your book.

Here are a few suggestions to help keep your plot from swimming away from you.

Even God rested on the seventh day. Instead of having your protagonist turn from his challenge, think in terms of rest. Try to figure out a way that your supporting cast (man, animal, or nature) could provide a diversion that could restore your protagonist’s spirit.

Show that “going back” is impossible. Your character might turn back and try to once again swim with the fish, and it might temporarily restore his spirit, but what about those leg buds? He realizes he is forever changed and must return to his path.

Keep the heat on and the crucible clamped. Your reader knows that in the world of story, as in life, considerable pressure is needed to effect change. Your character knows that, too, and despite reservations has reported for duty. Don't let either of them down by failing to provide the pressures needed to push your character, again and again, into the plot. Identify the need that creates the crucible for your story and then find ways to turn up the heat and create urgency.

In a former post, Patricia Stoltey told us how to identify sections that drag down a narrative. Turning from the goal is another one of these. Once you have let readers into the emotional life of this fish, we who fear the change in our own lives want to see this fish prevail! We want to know that while growing new legs might hurt, we can endure it—and find meaning and even hope beyond the pain.

Slow down at each emotional turning point and let your reader in on the evolution. This is not the kind of detail that drags down your narrative—this is the relevant detail your reader wanted when she picked up your book.

She’ll not only thank you; she might just find new legs of her own on which to stand.

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist for 19 years, she now writes literary women's fiction.

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  1. Excellent tips! Thanks for sharing!

  2. You use such great illustrations to make your points, Kathryn. I always learn something from you.

  3. Great way to explain this- thanks!

  4. Brilliantly written, Kathryn. And very helpful!

  5. As a big fan of thrillers with non-stop, edge of my seat action, I have to admit the occasional pause to catch my breath is welcome. If the pause gives the main character a chance to regroup, find allies, or make a plan, that's good. If the pause lets the main character go wimpy and wander away from the challenge, then you've probably lost the reader. Excellent post, Kathryn.


  6. Very well put, Kathryn. It makes it very easy to grasp the concept of keeping the plot moving forward.

    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

  7. Of course, I know this, but somehow I always need to be reminded. Thanks for the push.

  8. Great advice, and good analogies. Since I write romantic suspense, when it's time for a mystery "break" I shift to a relationship scene. That way something is always moving forward.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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