Three Causes of a Sucky Plot

Have you ever read a book or someone’s manuscript where lots of exciting stuff happens, but the book just sucks?

You know, the one where you roll your eyes because the plot went too far, but hey, you don’t even care. Because the book is that bad. 
I’ve read a few rough drafts like that. (Not from my current CPs, thank heavens.) It has me itching to help the poor souls who wrote them, but usually I back away. 
Why? You may ask. I am, after all, a no-shit sort of person. Well… As honest a critter as I may be, I draw the line at things that requires me to mark out the same problem through the entire manuscript. After all, more often or not, writers just stare incredulously and then disregard all my hard work. 
Still, I want to help the new kids out. In the interest of doing so, I thought I’d do a short list. 

1) Cause and effect. 

This is one serious rookie error. In fact, it’s the one that got me thinking about this subject in the first place. You’d think that putting lots of exciting events into your story makes it exciting. Eh… Not necessarily. 
It’s all very good and well if stuff happens to your characters, but what causes them? If all of your interesting events are coming from seemingly out of the blue (even if it’s from some off-stage villain pulling the strings), you have a problem. 
Rule of thumb: Events must at least partially be from character decisions and actions. Those that aren’t had better be the basis of an ENTIRE plot line. Think something happening out of the blue in the beginning. What does the character do because of it? 

2) Blah blah blah… blah blah. 

Ever read something major happening to a character and… well… you just don’t care? It’s pretty annoying. 
Oh wow. This guy’s whole family is going to get wiped out.  
And then they’re going to steal his million dollar fluffy bunny.  
So what? 
No matter how high you make the stakes, people aren’t going to care. In fact, stakes aren’t raised at all unless a reader becomes personally interested in how things turn out for a character. 
Whether the characters are likable or not, make them awesome. Make their emotions visceral. Make their fears real. Set the reader up to fall with the main character. Only then will a reader live into the story enough to care. 

3) Uhm… this doesn’t fit. 

Sometimes, stories don’t fit into their formats. Epic tales are squeezed into novellas. Novels are written where a drabble would have sufficed. 
Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the point. 
Some stories just aren’t big enough for 100+ thousand words. Others aren’t small enough for 40,000. So we readers are subjected to rambling to fill pages or unsatisfactory, stories. Usually with endings suddenly slamming down out of nowhere. As if someone had torn out entire pages and tacked an ending on. 
Don’t start writing a novel. Start writing a story. Don’t stop before or after it’s done. If you’ve already written it, take out what isn’t your story and/or put in what’s missing. It really is that simple.


Yes, these problems can seem daunting, but once you spot the issues in your plot, you’ll find it’s a lot easier to fix them than you thought. Don’t be scared of working on your own stories. They’re yours to improve, after all. 
So, veteran novelists, how do you solve the above issues? Any other reasons why a plot might suck? 

26 thoughts on “Three Causes of a Sucky Plot

  1. My novels aren't really long because I've never set out with a word count in mind – I just wrote until it was finished.
    Excessive detail can kill a story for me because it really slows down the plot.

  2. Hi, Mishi,

    I was I knew you when I wrote MY FIRST NOVEL. What terrific advice. I LEARNED THE HARD WAY…

    SO many errors, SO MANY YEARS to fix the problems… BUt the bottom line is THE STORY. If the story has merit, stick to it. I have read SO many wonderful premises only to be let down by poor writing. SKILLS CAN BE LEARNED. That is my advice. LEARN HOW TO WRITE. I am not the most structural person/writer. I am a true artist. I let my passions rule me. And this has a positive and MINUS… the PLUS is if the reader feels your passion, then they will relate to your story and characters because if feels REAL to them.

    BUT… if your story is ALL OVER THE PLACE, then your reader will get frustrated because they want to experience the passion and the premise you enticed the with, so my advice is to practice and LEARN to structure your story. Once that is in place let your passion for your story and characters rush with the wind.

  3. Yup. I think stories are 50% story, and 50% character, and in order to have a stellar plot, you have to factor in both aspects equally. In fact, I think you can get away with skewing the book toward the characters (even as far as 80%) and still come off better than if you skew it toward action, but then, I'm a woman. I hear we think that way. =)

  4. I'm trying to remember a novel like you've described but none come to mind. I guess I tend to be a very forgiving reader and just read for the experience and not for the critique. I have certainly read some books that I like better than others, but I guess I put myself more in the mind of the writer than whatever it is they have written. Also, I'm not overly focused on action and character as much as I am in ideas and story message. I may walk away from a book having totally forgotten what happened, but if the story made me think then the philosophy or message is what I remember.

    Wrote By Rote

  5. It's interesting how often I feel disconnected from the characters. I think we have turned to such plot driven reading that sometimes the character build gets a little neglected.

  6. One thing that can turn me off is when a character's actions just don't make sense. I read a story where a chick finds a body under the bed of her hotel room and, rather than dealing with that at the moment of discovery, she goes off to a meeting or something with the idea of doing something about the body later. Say what? SAY WHAT??? Grrr…
    Some Dark Romantic

  7. Great post! I'm now going through my Killer Stilettos because I know some of it really sucks right now. There were days I wrote when I didn't have a clue as to what to write. But there are gems under the crud.

    Hugs and chocolate,

  8. Excellent advice! One thing that helps is either a) plotting a little more beforehand or b) an honest edit after writing the first draft. Sometimes it's as simple as putting on our “reader” hats and honestly asking how we'd react to the story as a reader if we found it on the shelf.

  9. I've turned down critiquing more than one manuscript because it started out with a bunch of nonsensical action. I blame it on the whole “start in the middle of the action” crap that is so popular now. And wrong. That idea is just wrong, and the fact that so many people choose to start their stories with crap like “the earth begins to shake a fissure opens up right in front of MC” proves it.

  10. If you don't get readers caring about the character and involved in his or her life as if it were their own it won't matter what else you do with the story. It's going to fall flat.

  11. I had a lot of those issues in my earliest days of serious writing! I didn't have a good handle on character or plot development as a preteen or in my early teens, and so things often just happened.

    As a historical writer and reader, one big reason a story won't work for me is if it's too anachronistic. I think most realistic people can take a little bending of what was considered normal (e.g., a woman who wants to work or go to university instead of just being a secretary or homemaker), but if everyone behaves like that, it's going to turn me off. The Luxe and The Flappers series spring to mind, historical characters carrying on like modern people, with no real social repercussions for this scandalous behavior.

  12. So true. Once you have an idea about what's wrong, you can learn the skills needed to fix it.

    Until then, though, you can't really figure out why your book isn't doing what it should…

  13. You made some great points. Misha! All rookie mistakes I made when I was just starting out. As much as it hurt to hear those kinds of criticisms, it helped me become a better writer. I hope this post helps others so they can improve, too. 🙂

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