Plot Waste: The Hidden Problem in Plain Sight

Every story has an ideal execution, a way of unfolding most magically on the page. This post is about how to find the magic. 

Not only am I a voracious reader —3 is the number of novels I’m currently reading — I also love movies. You could say I’m a story junkie. 

Every story is –  at it’s core – a dramatic struggle. There are infinite variations of character, conflict, setting, complications and plot. 

Each story also comes with a particular set of challenges and choices. Choices that can make or break the narrative experience. 

Here is where so many storytellers fumble, plucking only the low hanging fruit from the orchard of ideas, trading extraordinary for enough, spectacle for satisfactory, transcendence for trope.


Plot Waste: The Hidden Problem in Plain Sight

The idea in your head is bright, luminous. But how to transfer that fire to the page? How do you avoid under-executing the idea? How do you avoid plot waste? 

Plot Waste: The untapped  potential of a story 

Examine the following four areas and ask the following questions to avoid Plot Waste and expose the magic of your story: 

  1. Character – Is this the best character for this story? What would make this  character more thematic? What kind of character would be the most challenging, unique or emotionally rich for this story? What kind of character creates the most contrast, conflict, complications? What emotional problem makes it more difficult to resolve the physical problem? What strengths, flaws, talents or powers can you highlight? 
  2. Conflict – Is this the worst thing that can happen to this character? How can it be even worse for them, thier family, the world? How can you magnify the problem? How can you make it more personal? More emotional? What are the stakes? Is there a time clock – a deadline? How many deadlines can you add to scenes, acts or the whole story? 
  3. Setting – What setting(s) best illustrates the theme? What setting contrasts and exposes the characters? What setting makes it most difficult for the characters to resolve thier problems? What setting adds mood, tone, texture? 
  4. Plot – What is the major physical conflict? What is the major emotional conflict? How do they intersect? What is the inciting event? What major events best dramatize the core conflicts? What is the most emotional end to this conflict? 


5 Critical Elements of Plot Waste

The above four areas are where I most often encounter Plot Waste. Here is another way to think about this concept: 

  • The feeling of Plot Waste is disappointment.
  • The thought of Plot Waste is, “This could have been so much better.”
  • The action of Plot Waste is just enough.
  • The result of Plot Waste is a sub par story with lackluster appeal. 
  • The hope of Plot Waste is all that untapped potential.

Shortcuts to Eliminating Plot Waste Forever 

  1. The easiest time to uncover Plot Waste is while developing the idea, concept and outline. Read my post on bestseller premise development
  2. Think of the highlight reel or the movie trailer for your story. There should be multiple big, vivid, emotional scenes. 
  3. Most of the time the problem is one of size and depth: the story is not “big” enough and/or the story doesn’t dig deep enough into the dark, painful parts of the theme. 


Real Life Example

My Past Lives series is about a guy discovering under hypnosis that he is a reincarnated serial killer. 

Not just any killer, the worst in history. This magnifies the personal story into worldwide stakes. If the character doesn’t cure himself, thousands of innocent lives are at stake. 

The themes of the series include identity, evil, violence, free will and overcoming the past. 

Far from letting my characters dance on the surface of these themes, the story is designed to force them to deal with and choose who they are and want to be (identity), how close to evil they get, how to deal with violence (thier own and others) and the dark seeds of thier pasts. 

To hopefully make it very clear, the first chapter of the first novel in the series begins with the murder of a pregnant woman in a Louisville, KY parking garage. 

This event is thematic. Who is the killer? (Identity). Murder (evil). This event ties to the main character’s past as a serial killer (overcoming the past), drops the main character into an ongoing criminal investigation (inciting event) and serves to connect all the main characters together for the entire series. 

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Christopher Kokoski is a speaker, trainer and author of Wicker Hollow and the Past Lives novel series.

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