Writing Mistakes of My Younger Self: Too Many Plans, Too Little Action

Hello and welcome! This article is the third part of a new, five-post series I’m doing on the blog. I recently unearthed a copy of the novel manuscript I wrote when I was 13 and reread parts of it. With the editing abilities I’ve gained in the last decade, I’ll be analyzing the major flaws in my manuscript in hopes of helping myself and other writers avoid the same pitfalls.

Writing mistakes 3

Onward to Major Flaw #3: too many plans, too little action.

As a young writer, I was constantly enthralled by details of the real world: a pretty necklace in a magazine, a cool sword in a movie, a beautiful horse in a roadside pasture. I wanted to combine all of these details into my novel, but the problem is, there just wasn’t enough room in the story for that many subplots. Nor did it make sense. I wrote about a special sword that had been passed down through generations until reaching my “chosen one” main character, which would have been fine, except that she also had a special ring with a similar backstory, and a special winged horse friend…and there’s a special dagger in there too…

Most fantasy stories have symbolic objects: the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, the Horcruxes in Harry Potter, the Stone Table in The Chronicles of Narnia, the sword of Martin the Warrior in Redwall, and so on. But my manuscript just has too many of these special objects. There are so many that they not only lose their significance in the story, but I didn’t have space in the manuscript to play out all the subplots connected with them.

The number of half-formed plot ideas in my manuscript show my inexperience as a writer at the time. I would get an idea, throw it into the story, and then fail to carry it out later on. Only recently, in the course of completing my movie script project, did I realize how much I’ve improved in this area. And I improved largely because I kept the subplots and symbolism to a minimum, letting the story dictate the ones I did include.

When you include a special subplot in your story, whether it’s connected to an object or not, you have to make sure this subplot will result in action for the story. Readers don’t want to slog through a long explanation about why an object is significant (see the previous post on exposition). They want a subplot that will enhance the momentum of the story: heighten the stakes, add a threat, create a deeper bond with the characters, etc. The subplot may be cool, but if it doesn’t improve the story, it’s got to go.

Moreover, you have to let your story tell you what subplots to create. As I’ve mentioned, there are a lot of cool subplots in literature, but most of them wouldn’t work very well in the context of a different novel. Just imagine how an evil, magic ring would mess up the plot of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In my manuscript, for example, the special ring idea didn’t add much to the story, but the special sword actually made sense for my main character and for the world’s history.

In short, you have to see what works for your novel. It’s okay to try a few things, but don’t be afraid to eliminate subplots that are slowing your story down instead of advancing the action. One or two solid, memorable subplots are far better than a dozen weak ones. Just make sure any subplot you add to the story pays off by the end.

What experience have you had with this writing pitfall? Leave me a comment below!

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