Ensuring Your Plot “Flows”

A couple weeks ago, I commented on an article from sfnovelists.com that was part of their Skills List Project. James Alan Gardner posted another great article in that series about making your plot “flow.” I am only now getting to it, but I think it will be useful for those participating in NaNoWriMo or those who have decided to use a plotting board.

Citing South Park creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Gardner notes that scenes should be joined by a “therefore,” or a “but.” In other words, is Scene B a consequence of Scene A, or does Scene B introduce a conflict with Scene A? Gardner also provides some alternative links between scenes. The first is “likewise,” or the use of parallelism. But Gardner warns against boring readers by making parallel scenes too similar or having too many of them. The second alternative structure Gardner suggests is “independent flows,” or telling your story through the eyes of several characters participating in the story. In order to ensure proper plot “flow,” Gardner advises that you include common elements within the flows so that the reader can keep track of the plot. Gardner also warns against automatically switching between characters, say from Character A, to B, C, to A, to B, to C. Instead of falling into that routine, use the “but”/”therefore” rule to help link scenes–switching to the character that would be most useful to advance the plot.

Gardner offers some great advice. These are simple rules to keep in the back of your head when outlining or writing your story. It helps you avoid plot holes while also introducing conflict and surprise. For those participating in NaNoWriMo, you’re on the downhill slope. This can be a time when your plot gets bogged down. Have you relied too much on “therefore” and not enough on “but”? Maybe your story could use more conflict or surprise. Or have you tried to introduce too many “but” moments, accidentally creating a plot that seems too random or incoherent? Might your readers prefer a few more “therefore” links to give your story a sense of orderliness and consequence? For those using plotting boards, as you scan across your Post-it Notes, can you see the links between each scene? Do they vary between “but” and “therefore”? If you are color-coding by character, are your switches too routine? Did you follow a pattern and accidentally harm your plot?

Good luck to all the NaNoWriMo folks! You’re almost there! Heck, good luck to everyone else–make those plots “flow”!