As the video says, fake plot can take many forms.

Often, fake plot is simply a form of "pre-writing," of "feeling your way into the fictional world."

When you start a new project, you aren't sure what this "thing" really is, and so you start writing as a way of creating the story you intend to tell. And this is great! But sometimes writers confuse this "pre-writing" with actual storytelling, and try to construct an actual plot from what was just supposed to be inspiration, seeds, a fertile ground.

These clunky elements, ossified and preserved, become "fake plots" that can derail the whole project. It becomes very hard to detect them in one's own works in progress. Usually an editor or teacher has to intervene.

Here are a few of the common forms of fake plot. I'm not saying you have to remove them if you recognise them in your story. Indeed, many successful novels do these "bad" things and achieve great success with them.

However, I am saying that if you are stuck, or you feel like something isn't right in your draft, or readers keep complaining, AND you notice you've done one of these things, maybe removing it would help.

1. And then...

Sometimes when we aren't sure how to build a satisfying, escalating, developing plot, we starting moving our protagonist from location to location, or we throw a series of problems at her, one after another. Things are happening, but they feel somewhat random, and they could be rearranged in order with little impact on the story. If you find yourself writing a synopsis or pitch that uses the word "then" frequently, it may be that you are just subjecting the protagonist to one mishap or switch in circumstances after another. However, the good news is that in one of those switches or mini-catastrophes, there is a great plot waiting to be found. Often one of these shifts turns out to be the seed of a real story.

2. Childhood

I once attended a craft talk in which a professional novel editor said that she advised every client to remove the first 150 pages of their novel. What she meant was that aspiring writers love to present their protagonists' childhood, formative years -- just to help the reader understand the character better. But the reality was that the actual story began on page 151, and so that was where the novel should actually begin.

Now, if you are telling a compelling, well-structured story in your protagonist's childhood, which they are challenged, and their different goals come into conflict with one another, then starting the novel there may work.

But if the reason for starting so early is primarily to explain, justify, or throw extra light on the character as a grown up, then this is probably unnecessary material. If the character is irritable and romantically self-sabotaging because of her childhood, then you can just show her being that way, as a grown up, in the present. Show her going about her plot, and also messing up one romantic fling after another. Plus you can drip in commentary, reflective moments, and flashbacks about her unhappy childhood as the story proceeds. 

Similarly, if you are writing a story about an adult character recovering from a loved one's death the year before, it's probably best to start the story with the dead character already dead. There's no need to begin the tale "in the past." You don't need to show them hanging out, not beyond a prologue or prelude. Instead, get your protagonist moving with their project, and also grieving for their lost friend, as the novel begins chapter one.

3. Duplicates

A very common writer's tic, in a new writing project, is the creation of excessive secondary characters. I think this happens because, at the beginning, we are feeling out the plot, and as new threads and motifs whisper to our artistic unconscious, we tend to dream up a character to represent each one of them.

But as a result, we can tend to end up with a lot of secondary characters. And then we need to figure out ways to keep them alive, give them time on the page. This crowd of characters can rapidly become a huge strain on your organisational skills, as you try to invent ways for them to return.

It's useful to keep out for "duplicate" characters, and maybe combine them / remove them. If your dashing artist protagonist was in love with two different women during university, one in his first year and the other in his third year, and one was a film buff from Singapore, and the other was a champion fencer, maybe these two "characters" are really duplicates of the same impulse, the same artistic seed, and you should either combine them into one person, or simply remove the more boring of the two. 

PS Perhaps this is why orphans are so popular in classic literature: it's easier when you don't have to worry about your protagonist's parents.


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Action Steps for Fake Plot

Here's how to apply this technique to your writing

1

Step 1 - Look for examples of "fake plot."

Do any of my examples (in the video and in the text) sound familiar? Is there some large and unwieldy part of your story that is making it hard for you to see it as an ABC plot?

2

Step 2 - Can you remove it? 

What if that section, character, or passage of writing could be saved for a sequel, or turned into a companion short story (fans often want to read this sort of in-universe, spin-off fiction)? Write for a minute or two, meditating on its removal from this project, and its rebirth in another.

3

Step 3 - Make a plan. 

If you DID remove it, what scenes would have to change? Would the story get simpler, easier to write? What stresses would you lose with it gone?

  • herbert.green.one says:

    Bummers! Looks like I’m going to have to throw out 8 years of effort; 8 years of stumbling through the desert.

    • I feel your pain, along with the stumbling around 🙂

    • Totally agree. I don’t know what to do now!

  • Your lesson script states, “There’s no need to begin the tale “in the past.” You don’t need to show them hanging out, not beyond a prologue or prelude. Instead, get your protagonist moving with their project….”

    My story has two protagonists, with one a generation older than the second. In order to tell the older protagonist’s plot, we have to start with the younger protagonists as a child. Both of the protagonists impact each other, at the age they are as the story progresses. So it might appear that the younger protagonists backstory is being told, but in fact the younger protagonists IS moving forward.

  • I noticed the duplicate element when editing drafts, and it’s a good one to remove. It’s also good to watch out for duplicate words, because you’re more likely to reuse a word you’ve just written than come up with a new one.
    I think that’s the mind unconsciously repeating elements because it takes less mental energy than coming up with new ones, and in searching for words or ideas to use, we’re most likely to use words or objects we recently heard or saw.
    To combat this, try a technique from Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA: put a jar on your desk and fill it with strips of paper containing words. Draw four or five and see if you can incorporate them into your writing. To avoid straying too far from your scene, you could stick to nouns that would fit with your story world.

    • John Scanlan says:

      Malina,
      I am not sure this provides a solution. Instead by adding three or four more items from the jar, it would seem to exacerbate the duplicate issue problem Daniel Speaks too. I was wondering if you might expand on your thoughts. I may be totally missing the concept in your proposed solution. I am still trying to understand how you tell if you are having this problem in the first place. I like your proposed idea for breaking through a writing block but I am unsure how it resolves a problem of writing the wrong thing like too much back story. Thanks much.

      • Hi John,
        It’s just an idea to draw words from another source, instead of your subconscious. So instead of writing the first adjective that comes to mind or the closest object you see in the room, you can draw one from the jar. You don’t have to keep it if it doesn’t fit, but it could add an unexpected element.
        Or ask someone to tell you a noun, adjective or verb.

  • The fake plot explains so well why my story is making loops all over the place without actually going anywhere & I can’t figure out how to end it. It’s hard to give up hot ideas that feel good but really need to go to the compost heap. So, Daniel, I’m sure that you will have more surprises in store to set us on the clear path to a good story.

  • wsattelmeyer says:

    Dear Daniel,

    I stopped following this course just before this lesson… not because I was bored, but because you had provided content that I might have known intellectually , but wasn’t able to follow in my writing. I had planned to write a sequel to a previous novel, but I realized that while I had characters and a setting, I didn’t have either the protagonists motivation or a plot to move it forward.

    But the content in this course so far started me thinking about character first and a protagonist who had a project separate from the plot. The clarity of that explanation was enough to stimulate an entirely different story and the result has been an intense period of working on the characters in the story before inserting them into the plot. It has been a revelation. While I have loved my time working on short stories and other novels, I am more inspired than I have been in a long time.

    As a college professor (not in writing), I am energized by your teaching style… and so glad I chose to take this course. Thank you.

    • I am so happy to hear that. I put a lot of work into the pedagogy of how these courses are designed and it is lovely to know it has been valuable to you!

  • sabrinawrites1 says:

    Aha I’ve done alllll of these things, but I’ve been digging dip to read and craft, and read again and I’m still continuing to do that so as to get better at seeing the crud! I can’t promote enough the clarity you give Daniel. For me I realised that recognising what you are prone to doing or when a new thing pops up that hinders your story comes with practice, and naturally it helps to know what you’re looking for, so thanks for the highlights. I’m still working on this for sure.

  • michellebarnesnz says:

    Guilty of this… I think I’ve nearly written half a new novel, lol. When I get stuck on plotting forward I just write and write. Some of it is pretty and some completely superfluous. Editing time. But just like a hoarder I shall file it away somewhere safe for future reference .

  • provspa329 says:

    I’m considering cutting out the long version of my protagonist’s relationship with her co-author. I think it will make a good book on it’s own. He’ll remain as a support character but cutting this might make for a cleaner storytelling line while leaving open the possibility of a sequel for those intrigued by their relationship.

  • I’m going to earmark this lesson for a possible future reference as I am only in the beginning stages of the novel I’m writing. There isn’t really a beginning yet to cut anything from. I only have ghostly sketches of the first possible scenes written out.

  • This lesson really resonated with me. I’ve often found that it’s much easier to write my protagonist thinking about their life, remembering the past, or going about their daily business than to actually move forward on the plot. Plus, if I am trying to meet some kind of daily word count goal, this is a great way to generate pages, but as you point out, it’s not a great way to generate an actual story. I’m still not going to rule it out as a method – if nothing else, it’s useful to get to know the characters. But I’m hoping this course is going to give me some advice on how to more efficiently develop (or, in my existing pages, discern) a plot so that when I’m done prewriting I know how to move the story forward.

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