Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 60: Flat Plots
One of the most deflating criticisms authors hear is that “they’re writing flat plots.” Not only does this (seem to) indicate a certain lack of personal depth, it’s also a sign the story is boring and forgettable. Fortunately, there’s no reason you need ever fall prey to this pitfall.
In our last installment of the Most Common Writing Mistakes series, I talked about the problems of overlycomplex plots. Almost immediately, I started receiving requests from authors concerned about the opposite problem: flat plots. On Instagram, @GabriellaJoy614 asked:
Could you do one with under complex plots, @AuthorKMWeiland? I feel like my story needs more plot, but I love it too much to give it up.
Ultimately, the pursuit of dimensional plots is the pursuit of all of writing. Although we might sometimes create misguidedly overly complex plots in an effort to boost our writing, the only time we create flat plots—that is, plots lacking complexity—is when we’re struggling with one of the basic tenets of rich storytelling.
Today, we’re going to take a look at three of the most common culprits causing flat plots. But, remember, the subject is far vaster than this post can cover. If you feel you’re struggling to add dimension to your plots, keep digging deeper into all things story theory.
What’s the Difference Between Simple Plots and Flat Plots?
First off, let’s address a common misconception.
Is a flat plot the same as a simple plot?
The answer: not necessarily.
In fact, as we discussed in the post on overly-complex plots, simplicity is the hallmark of a masterful author. By this we mean two things:
1. The author is able to mine complexity out of even simple subjects.
2. The author is able to present even complex ideas so they seem simple.
Note that complexity is inherent to masterful simplicity.
Therefore, we can draw the obvious conclusion that if a story lacks complexity, it’s not simple in a good way, but rather just flat.
So what is complexity/dimension/etc., etc., etc.?
Again: the answer encompasses all of good storytelling. But summed up (simply!), complexity and dimension in fiction result when the author creates layers of contrast in order to discover their ultimate harmony or disharmony. This is, of course, the essence of conflict, just as it is also the foundation of all functional character arcs and thematic principles.
3 Ways to Turn Your Flat Plots Into Fabulous Plots
Let’s take a look at the three most obvious (and important) entry points to creating strong, dimensional storylines, rather than boring ol’ flat plots.
Problem #1: Your Plot Is a Straight Line From A to B
When most people think “flat plots,” this is most likely what they’re thinking. The plot isn’t really much of a plot at all. It’s a straight shot from the character’s conception of a desire right on through to the acquisition of his goal.
Basically, the problem is a lack of conflict. Remember: conflict is nothing more or less than an obstacle to a character’s goal. If the character meets no obstacles on her way to her goal (or, worse, if she doesn’t really have a goalto start with), you don’t have a plot, but rather just an iteration of straightforward events.
For example, “Mom went to town and bought groceries” is not a plot. A plot is “Mom tried to go to town and buy groceries.” Or as E.M. Forster famously put it:
[Story] can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next…. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality—“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. But “the king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.
Solution: Create Meaningful Subplots by Layering Your Antagonistic Forces
As they say, “no conflict, no story.” If you haven’t yet set up a proper relationship between goal and obstacles, you don’t yet have any kind of plot at all. But even if you’ve got the basics in place, you can sometimes still end up with a one-dimensional tale. The character has a goal, meets an obvious obstacle, overcomes obstacles, gets his goal, yay-hooray. That might work in some stories, but what if you want to take things to the next level?
At this point, you might, quite logically, be thinking: Subplots! They’re the obvious way to add complexity to any story, right?
Yes, they are. But it’s important to realize subplots onlywork when they are organic to the main plot. Just tossing in extra characters and complications is a sure way to end up with an overly complex plot (as we discussed in the previous post). The only way to create meaningful subplots is to refer to your story’s hierarchy of antagonistic stakes.
Every story offers the possibility for five different levels of antagonistic obstacles (although not every story will offer the necessary scope to take advantage of them all). Inherent within each of these layers is the opportunity for an organic and thematically pertinent subplot that can meaningfully complicate your conflict and add worthwhile complexity to your plot.
Problem #2: Your Characters Are On-the-Nose
“Flat” is just another word for “on the nose.” And what is “on the nose”? On-the-nose writing tells it exactly like it is—no nuance, no subtext, no room for questions but only answers. On-the-nose writing tells readers a character is “a good man,” rather than showing his virtuous traits through his actions—and then shading them with the nuanced gray of equally vivid flaws and weaknesses.
The epitome of the on-the-nose character is the Mary Sue/Marty Stu trope. This is an idealized and seemingly perfect person, who is exactly who she or he seems to be. She starts out as a happy, optimistic, virtuous person who wants to save the world? Guess what—she ends up as that same happy, optimistic, unvarying person at the end. There is no evolution, no arc—and no reason to read about this person’s journey, since she never really goes anywhere.
(Please note, however, that this is different from a character who is demonstrating a Flat Character Arc—in which she does not change herself, beyond overcoming some doubts, but rather uses an understanding of a specific Truth to change the lives of characters around her.)
Solution: Beef Up Your Character Arc and Your Thematic Throughline
Even stories that succeed in creating dimensional conflicts often feel flat because they lack thematic dimension, as demonstrated in the inner journeys of their characters. (Hello, 90% of action blockbusters.) Or you might even see stories that try earnestly for thematic maturity in asking hard questions of the world, but… ultimately lack “muchness” because the thematic questions never truly impact the protagonist. (Hello, way too many gritty navel-gazing indie films.)
Theme—and its manifestation in the lives of your characters—is the secret to creating stories that can operate on the simplest and most streamlined of plots while still offering a mother lode of rich complexity.
Every story—no matter how simple, epic, silly, or dark—offers the opportunity for character arcs. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that every story can be vastly improved by including meaningful beats of character evolution within the plot structure.
I have, of course, discussed this topic at length elsewhere, including my book Creating Character Arcs. But suffice it that your thematic principle should be founded upon two contrasting views of the world: a Lie and a Truth. Your character’s journey toward his goal in the exterior plot is ultimately both a metaphor and a catalyst for this inner war between light and darkness. However large or small the thematic Truth, it has the ability to instantly deepen any story.
Problem #3: Your Story Offers No Surprises
A problem inherent in both the above symptoms is a story that unfolds exactly as readers expect. Usually, this is the result of the author making choices that cop to clichés or fail to deviate from storylines with which readers are already overly familiar.
Like the Mary-Sue stereotype for characters, a lack of creativity within the plot choices can often be a type of wish-fulfillment on the author’s part. Enjoying someone else’s story and wanting to live it over again by basically recreating it can not only risk edging over into plagiarism, it also robs the author of the ability to tap his own personal brand of creativity.
Please note: I’m not talking about bucking proper story structure. These time-honored dramatic principles are not plot, in themselves, but rather just the guidelines for achieving emotionally resonant plots. Within the boundaries of structure, authors have the opportunity for unbounded ingenuity.
I’m also not talking about genre conventions. When readers pick up a romance, they naturally expect the two leads to get together in the end. That’s the whole point. But when the journey to that end offers no surprises, no deep personal questions, and no morally-complicated obstacles—that’s when the plot risks becoming flat.
Solution: Seek Out and Create Plot Reveals
You have two choices for how to let your story play out:
1. Let it develop in a straightforward linear fashion, telling readers and characters everything they need to know exactly when they need to know it.
2. Strategically hold back and dole out your story’s necessary information to enhance suspense and create further opportunities for conflict.
Every scene in your story should ideally contain some kind of plot reveal. This doesn’t mean every scene must offer an earth-shattering revelation. But by carefully choosing how and when you disseminate your story’s information—to both your readers and your characters—you will be able to enhance your story’s existing complexity.
So how do you come up with all these great plot reveals? For starters, you brainstorm your way past the clichés. This is why one of the first steps in my outlining process is ruthlessly asking myself: “What would readers expect from this type of story?” and “What wouldn’t they expect?”
By its very nature, originality, all by itself, offers dimension and complexity.
Caution: Don’t Add Stuff Just for the Sake of Adding
The desire to avoid flat plots and create meaningful complexity is always a worthwhile goal. But in your pursuit
of multiple dimensions for your fiction, don’t get sucked into the trap of adding “stuff” just for the sake of adding it. That’s a short road to overly complex plots, which also fail to offer cohesive thematic meaning while ending up as big fat messes.
Study your favorite stories to understand how to create plots that execute dimensional complexity with the fewest possible moving parts. Then plan your own approach to take full advantage of your story’s unique opportunities for originality in plot, character, and theme.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you find you’re more likely to struggle with flat plots or overly-complex plots? Tell me in the comments!