How to solve plot problems with a simple technique

In this article, you’ll learn a simple, yet powerful technique to solve all of your plot problems. If you’ve come here from Wattpad, you probably just want the Solving Plot Problems Template that you can use for your own plot problem today.

Especially in science fiction and fantasy, or in any longer story with a large number of elements or characters to keep track of, there are the inevitable plot problems that can really stump you.

plot problems

Writer’s Block by Jonno Witts on Flickr

I’m sure you’ve experienced it…. “If Character X does this, then that will affect Character Y in this way, which doesn’t work because people in World Z don’t do that kind of thing. But if Character X doesn’t do that, then how does she do it?”

In my own experience, these plot problems can be so severe and frustrating that I can give up working on my novel for weeks at a time, waiting for the answers to “hit” me like a bolt of magical inspiration lightening. Sometimes they did hit me — sometimes in the strangest places, like in the shower, or driving my car, or just after waking up. But often they didn’t hit me and I was left with plot problems that felt like I’d never be able to solve. EVER.

This can lead to an incredibly defeating bout of the dreaded WRITERS BLOCK! 

Then I discovered this technique, which I’m about to show you. And now, whenever I run into a plot problem, I use it, and it ALWAYS works. I’m not lying. 100% of the time, it works.

This simple technique will take you less than 30 minutes to learn how to use for your own story.

At the Surrey International Writer’s Conference this last fall, I took a course with Larry Brooks. He talked about how writers suffer from magical thinking; that the writing we do is often so difficult that we believe it is imbued with magical qualities. What he stressed over and over was that most of the time, the first solution we come up with is NOT the best one. It might be okay. It might even ‘work,’ but it might not be the BEST POSSIBLE SOLUTION. So how do you find that solution? Read on!

How it works

Basically, this system let’s you track your ideas, in a type of mathematical coding way. You open up each problem like a box, and pull out the boxes inside the box, and then you open up those boxes, and pull out any other boxes you find inside them. Each box is a plot problem, or a snag that you run into in your WIP.

Interested? Here’s how you do it. You might think you can just do this your own, way, but I highly recommend you just follow the instructions.

STEP 1

Open a fresh word document and at the top put the problem as a title. Save the file with the name of the problem.

Now, hit enter and on the next line start writing about the problem. Just as if you were telling a writer friend about it (someone who actually cared). Write as much as you want. I usually just write a few sentences, but sometimes I write an entire page worth of crap, depending on how big the problem is and how much it is affecting other characters or elements of the story.

STEP 2

Now, below your paragraph explaining the problem, create a bullet list. Write down all the possible solutions to your problem. One solution for each bullet. Open your mind and try to forget some of the more obvious stuff you might have been stuck on. Just really try to brainstorm. If you want, you can ask a friend to help. You should have at least 5 solutions.

For example, I actually did this just a while ago with the problem/question, how does Character X get pregnant? I came up with 5 possible solutions:

  • Falls in love, has sex, gets pregnant
  • Doesn’t fall in love, but has sex, and gets pregnant
  • Gets artificially inseminated, gets pregnant
  • Gets raped, gets pregnant
  • Wakes up one day and finds out she’s pregnant, doesn’t know how it happened.

STEP 3

So, once you have your list of potential solutions, hit enter after each solution and indent that bullet. For each solution, write a sentence or two with what’s good about that solution and what’s not good about it.

For example:

  • Falls in love, has sex, gets pregnant
    • I like this because it’s romantic and what I would wish for this character, but I don’t think it would work because she isn’t the type to fall in love, plus she is ostracized by this community and I can’t imagine anyone breaking the social code and falling in love with her.

Do this with all of your potential solutions. Try to be open-minded. Don’t just dismiss any potential solution. Remember, the solution IS there, you just need to find it, and for some reason you can’t see it because you’re blinded by your prejudice. It’s like looking for your car keys that you KNOW you haven’t lost, but you can’t find them anywhere. This technique is like suddenly looking down and seeing that your keys are on the coffee table and they’ve been there all along. You were looking in the wrong place.

STEP 3

Okay, so now you have your list of potential solutions, but you also have a bunch of reasons for why each solution might work and might not work. This is where it gets interesting.

Hit enter below each explanation of each solution (why it works and doesn’t work), and you will create another bullet. Indent this bullet in once. It’s important to use bullets because, as you can see, your page is getting full of writing, and the bullets are the only way to visually track your progress. This is like the box. Each bullet is a box inside the box. You’re identifying plot problems connected to other plot problems, so you can find the solution.

So indent the next bullet once, to show that you’re talking about the paragraph above (about why it works and does not work). For each reason that it doesn’t work, create ANOTHER bullet.

For example:

  • Falls in love, has sex, gets pregnant
    • I like this because it’s romantic and what I would wish for this character, but I don’t think it would work because she isn’t the type to fall in love, plus she is ostracized by this community and I can’t imagine anyone breaking the social code and falling in love with her.
      • She’s not the type to fall in love.
      • No one would break the social code.

Now, for each of your bullets that show why that solution wouldn’t work, begin to brainstorm all the possible ways to get around that potential problem.

For example:

  • Falls in love, has sex, gets pregnant
    • I like this because it’s romantic and it’s what I would wish for this character, but I don’t think it would work because she isn’t the type to fall in love, plus she is ostracized by this community and I can’t imagine anyone breaking the social code and falling in love with her.
      • She’s not the type to fall in love.
        • Maybe she changes. BUT HOW? I mean, what would cause her to change?
        • Maybe she meets someone who is an outsider like her.
        • Maybe someone hypnotizes her or gives her a love potion.
        • Maybe she hits her head, gets amnesia, and forgets that she’s a cold-hearted bitch.
      • No one would break the social code.
        • Okay, same like above, maybe it’s an outsider who comes in. HOW?
        • Maybe there is someone who is strong enough to risk it. BUT WHO? WHY?
        • Maybe the social code gets broken down or betrayed by someone? BUT HOW?

STEP 4

Go through all of your solutions like this. You’ve reached the third layer deep. By this time, you’re going to have lots and lots of ideas floating around. You probably have at least 3 pages of bulleted writing.

Some of the potential solutions will feel ‘right’ and you might have had your aha moment already. It just clicked. But sometimes the aha moment hasn’t come because the solution to the problem you really like is tied in with other plot elements, and giving you OTHER problems. So, now you need to work through those….

If that’s the case, see above how I wrote new questions/problems in ALL CAPS? That’s because I want to be able to see them easily. Being able to visualize the problems and solutions in this way really helps me keep track of what is clearly a rabbit hole of information. Besides using bullets and ALL CAPS, I will also often highlight with green the solutions that seem the most promising. And red for the the problems that I still have. I strike out any solutions that absolutely don’t work.

If you haven’t had your aha moment, don’t worry. Yes this is taking time, but believe me, if you persist you will find your solution. THE solution that works for YOUR story.

So, take the questions in ALL CAPS, and start an entirely new paragraph. If you want, you can create a new bullet and indent it to deal with the ALL CAP questions/problems, but I prefer a new paragraph to have a fresh start. You can deal with one problem at a time, or you can copy all the the ALL CAP problems and create new paragraphs so you don’t forget to explore them. Then do the whole exercise over again. Come up with 3-5 possible solutions for HOW or WHY.

Example:

  • Maybe she changes. BUT HOW? I mean, what would cause her to change?
    • Solution 1
    • Solution 2
    • Solution 3

I won’t keep going with examples, because I hope you catch my drift. By this point you’ll be 4 layers deep into your novel and I can guarantee that you will be learning stuff through this that you never thought you would, related to completely different characters and completely different plot problems because… it’s all connected.

So, good luck, and hope this technique helps you as much as it has helped me! Please let me know how I can improve this document, or if my technique works for you, or if you don’t understand.

Feel free to download this Solving Plot Problems Template that you can use for your own plot problems today.

Ask the Next Question

Although I developed this technique entirely on my own, I’ve since listened to a podcast on Writing Excuses about Writers Block, starring Mercedes Lackey. In it she discussed a technique by Theodore Sturgeon, called “Ask The Next Question” that she used in her early days to help her solve plot problems. Sturgeon used his technique on a philosophical basis, as a way of helping him be a better person.

 

 

 

8 thoughts on “How to solve plot problems with a simple technique

  1. That looks too complicated, I just go back a few chapters realy take my time reading them and let my brain mull over the the problem. Then go back to the chapter with the plot problem and fix it. If nothing logical for the story shows up I keep revising it until it becomes so. But then I’m a pantser so … I’m guessing this won’t work for those that are plotters.

    • Hi Mimsy,
      I am 100% pantser and that is exactly why I have so many frigging plot problems!!! hahahahah!!! :’)

      This technique LOOKS complicated, but believe me, before you are halfway through, you will find a solution that just screams–THIS IS IT! This is exactly what I am looking for. It works every time for me.

      Basically, I think you and I are doing the same thing: looking for various solutions until we find the right one. However, you actually write each of your solutions until you find the right one. I’m writing a novel with 5 POV characters, time travel and basically a big plot mess. I need to be able to fix my plot holes without actually writing the solutions out completely. This technique is the ticket!

  2. I like this technique very much. I would have never thought to go back and list more problems/solutions. I would have been stuck trying to figure it all out before writing the next scenario down.

    Thanks for the template. I’ll be sure to refer to it by placing it into Scrivener while I’m working on my next story.

  3. Shalon, I’m excited after having read your plot solution. It might just be the breakthrough I’ve been struggling to find.

    Many, many thanks! I’m off to implement it, and feel REALLY excited. Thanks again!

    • Hi Charles, so happy to hear that you’re excited. I do hope you get notified of my response and let me know if it helped you in the end!

  4. This method is extremely helpful. Thanks Shalon. I am much more relaxed now. With a machine to generate ideas so quickly, it feels like I can get through anything. I wish I had seen this sooner!

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