Saturday, 9 July 2011

Problem solving - spotting plot flaws and mistakes

The importance of the read through.

A writer can breathe a sigh of relief when the first draft of a story or novel is complete. Months of blood, sweat and maybe a tear or two, have gone into creating your masterpiece, and any writer knows that the editing process is the most important part of writing a story. 

Reading through your narrative from start to finish means you get to digest the story as a whole, because while writing the story, you rarely focus on the intricate goings on. You might move from one scene to another or one chapter to another during the process. Some writers don’t write in chronological order – some write the ending before the beginning, so it’s hard to gauge how the story will actually read.

The purpose of a full read through is that you can read the whole thing in its entirety. This is where large problem areas - not just grammar and punctuation – things like plot holes and glaring continuity mistakes, pacing and characterisation should be addressed. 

What are the common problems?

Whenever I do critiques, I come across an array of common flaws and problems during the initial read through, which I’ve listed here. We’ll look at each one in closer detail later.

Plots - One of the main problems a writer encounters is the plot flaw, a structural weakness in the story when you read it back, for example, if a murder happens in chapter 4, don’t get carried away with the story and forget to tell reader who did it when the story concludes. They will spot this error even if you don’t.

Here’s another example: you have a character on the run from the police. He is able to use his mobile telephone and his bank account to help him, but during the read through you realise that the police will have the technology to track the cell phone, and the numbers he dialled, and they can also trace his whereabouts through the use of any ATMs. This in turn will affect the story outcome, and you end up changing it. 

These kinds of flaws are often overlooked because we become so engrossed in writing the story that we forget the smaller details. Those small details can be very important.

Making sense - There might be sections of the story that just don’t make much sense, or the story trails off on a tangent before returning to its path again. Often the narrative takes a strange turn from the actual theme of the novel or story, thus becoming something else. Plots should unravel logically, they should stick to the theme and they should conclude satisfactorily.   

Characters - Your characters don’t leap off the page, they seem flat and unappealing. That’s because they need emotional depth and personality and a fully formed background. They need individuality that gives different behaviours, qualities and traits. That means character continuity – don’t have Joe Bloggs with black hair in chapter 7, then suddenly change to brown hair and glasses in chapter 19.

Pace – You seem to read the story in no time, it feels a little rushed. That means there is not enough description within the narrative to balance the pace. If the story seems to plod, then it is likely lacking in some action and description to bolster the story. Narrative is flat without description.

Impossible situations - Another common flaw, and by far the easiest to make, is that writers often find that they’ve created impossible situations within the story. For example, the protagonist must infiltrate a tightly secured facility full of dozens of armed security guards…how does he accomplish this, single handed, in a believable manner?

Situations have to be believable – your protagonist is mortal and flawed, not a God or a superhero.

Continuity - We’re all guilty of this one. The rug in your protagonist’s front room is brown in chapter 2 and mysteriously turns white in chapter 6. Or the age of your characters change halfway through the story. The significance of an item that forms a murder clue in chapter 7 vanishes from then on, leaving your reader clueless...all these are common continuity errors. You should pick up on these during your read through and correct them.

Places - Place names, building names, countries and so on often cause problems particularly if there is significance attached to them. So many writers lose track of the names of places in their story that they are often overlooked, misspelled, or the name changes. For instance don’t have a character with properties in Spain on page 100 refer to the same properties in Bulgaria on page 170 during a conversation with another character. Watch out for spelling of certain place names too.  Make sure you get them right.

All these problems are easy done, but the read through is designed to weed these errors from your MS. Next time we'll look at these problems in more detail and the ways writers go about solving them.

Next week: Part 2 – looking at these problems in detail.

2 comments:

  1. If you record characteristics, names, locations in a profile folder you will find the continuity takes care of itself. It's a bit like a company's 'style' book - a definitive record of punctuation styles etc that are used in websites, adverts etc.

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  2. Quite right, this practice is very useful, and something old hands like me always do, but to new writers, this is not always at the forefront of their minds, and it just gives them a helping hand.

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