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Plotline 101: 10 Outlining Mistakes Every Writer Makes

In this month's plotline writing series we're covered what plotline planning is, how to create a basic outline, and the seven different types of outlines. Now it's time to turn our attention to the small details. As you're writing, you'll probably be focusing on where you need certain events to be and what characters and settings you'll need to make it work. What you might not realize is that you may be making some common, easily-corrected mistakes as you go. While your outline doesn't need to be perfect, it is important to keep out any preventable errors, as this will make your writing stronger.

Here are the top 10 mistakes writers make while plotline planning:

1. More premise than plot

Problem: One of the first steps when outlining is to come up with your premise sentence. This is the generalized, vague statement that tells us broadly what your story is about. The problem arises when you tell us your premise, but don't develop it properly.

We'll use Alice in Wonderland as an example:

Saying "Alice fell down the rabbit hole into a magical wonderland" is a great concept. But without any indication of what she does when she gets to wonderland, this is not a complete premise statement.

Solution: Take your general statement and add in the action. Instead of "Alice fell down the rabbit hole into a magical wonderland" it should read: "Alice fell down the rabbit hole into a magical wonderland and must defeat the Red Queen in order to restore order and return home". Now your premise sentence is complete and you now know two vital things: 1) what the stakes are and 2) what the outcome will be.

2. Not enough choices

Problem: Many writers make the mistake of thinking that a series of scenes make up a plot. Your character may be moving and doing things, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're fulfilling their full potential. After all, anyone can sit down and eat a sandwich but that doesn't make it interesting.

The issue here is that there's not enough conflict to propel the plot forward. Your character needs intentional events that are going to force them to make tough decisions, and ones they're not going to like or be comfortable with.

Another aspect of this mistake is giving your characters circumstances or reactions that are predictable and boring. Eating the sandwich was bad enough, don't make us watch them throw the scraps away after.

Solution: Give your characters multiple options when it comes to solving (or trying to solve) their problems. Make sure they are complex and intriguing. They should lead to other problems, tangled emotions, complications- the harder the problem, the more interesting the story becomes. You should also make sure that these problems have realistic and high stake ends. The payoff should be enough to satisfy the reader regardless of the outcome. There needs to be appropriate consequences for your character's actions.

3. It's all internal monologue

Problem: You're planning a novel, but it is heavily focused on what's going on in your protagonist's mind. The problem is that your character doesn't have much going on upstairs because there's not a lot going on outside of their mind. Perpetually happy or content characters don't make good story leads. This is because there is no turmoil or conflict (and emotional turmoil is what makes the story in these cases).

Solution: You don't need to completely change your approach, but you do need to ensure that you are managing expectations in a way that best benefits your story. Give them realistic goals. Goals that require them to do things out of their comfort zone, that challenge them, or that are seemingly impossible, even ridiculous. Let them fumble, make mistakes, and agonize over the results. Then repeatedly torment them. You think I'm joking, I'm not. Make them miserable, then make them laugh. Let them despair one moment and feel uplifted and motivated the next. The better the emotional roller coaster ride is, so to speak, the more readers will be riveted by the journey overall.

4. No reason to act

Problem: Plots often unravel because your protagonist is only doing what you, the writer, tell them to do. When they have no personal reasons for acting, no motives, and no stakes urging them onward, everything else comes to a grinding halt.

Think about the movie Avatar. Jake Sully would have no reason to switch sides and fight with the Na'vi if he hadn't fallen in love with Neytiri. Without his romantic attachment to her, he most likely would have continued helping Colonel Quaritch and we would have had a very different story on our hands.

To diagnose whether this is an issue in your plot, ask yourself what would happen if your character simply walked away. Would the story change? Could your second most important character take their place without anything being disrupted? If the answer is yes to either of these, then you have a problem.

Solution: The quickest way to solve this issue is to ask your character what they would die for, as in who or what do they want most in the world. This may be a person, a material object, a job, money- there's plenty of motives out there to choose from. Once you've narrowed it down go back to your plotline and give things a second look. See how your new motive changes what you have on paper. There should be a much stronger force driving your character now that you've added it in.

5. A weak antagonist

Problem: Every protagonist deserves a worthy antagonist. Your villain needs to be on equal footing when it comes to emotional development and skill level. When you have a weak opponent, you have a weak plot because it's the antagonist's job to create and cause havoc in your protagonist's life. Without them, you don't have a story or a solid base for your plotline. This is because every decision, downfall, and mistake your protagonist makes is somehow related to the over-arching problem brought on by your antagonist.

Solution: Ask yourself what your antagonist's motivations are. Do they make sense for the situation? Are they strong enough to justify the extreme actions they will take to try and stop your protagonist from achieving their goal? How far will they go to succeed? What will they gain or lose from the experience? By answering these questions, you should be able to further develop your antagonist and their motives, which in turn will lead you to the challenges that your protagonist will need to overcome throughout your story.

6. A "perfect" life

Problem: You love your characters and never want anything bad to happen to them ever. You want them to have the perfect life you never got to have. Well. I hate to burst your bubble, but if this is your approach, you are in the wrong profession, my friend. Writers are sadists and we not only want to make our characters suffer, we enjoy it. Readers are even worse.

All joking aside, there really is no such thing as perfection when it comes to your protagonist...and, you know, life. But the good news is that there shouldn't be. Your story needs to have a sense of realism in order for things to work and that means that there needs to be a balance of highs and lows. The more your protagonist has to face and recover from/overcome, the more "real" they become to your readers. This is a good thing. You want them to be able to relate and become emotionally attached. You want them to be able to root for them, cry for them, and yell at them when it's called for. This is what keeps people coming back for more.

Solution: Think about things logically. Based on your antagonist and your character's motivations/circumstances, come up with a list of possible issues and troubles that could befall your protagonist. Choose the ones that make the most sense and work them into your plotline. Remember, your protagonist is not your child, they are your hero. Heroes overcome impossible circumstances, do the right thing (even when it costs them), and save who they set out to save. If you protect them, then they aren't heroes anymore- and they'll stay locked in your mind or notebook before they ever have a chance to go out and save the world.

7. Too philosophical

Problem: Another common problem that writers sometimes fall into is trying to be too clever. While we all want people to see us for the talented beings that we are, it's not something we should ever aim to gloat about. Brilliance comes from subtlety, not boastfulness.

We see this a lot in writing aimed for a literary audience especially. When you're trying to create a piece of work that reflects a societal issue or deliver a message, it's difficult to not sound preachy or to get derailed because we're trying to imprint an idea into our reader's brains. No one wants to feel like they're being lectured or talked down to. If you want to be read, you need to find a way to balance your overall intent with your literary abilities.

Solution: Refer back to the classics. These are the bodies of work that have withstood the test of time, and the ones that have reached the level of everlasting notoriety. What you'll discover is that they don't skimp on the elements of writing. They have intricate plots, highly developed characters, immersive settings, and superb stylistic narratives. Write down the pieces that make these works successful. What are they doing to make sure the reader understands their message without going off on tangents? I bet you won't find Shakespeare, Hemingway, or Twain screaming about how great they are mid-story or talking you to death over a social injustice.

8. Sending a message

Problem: Similar to being too philosophical, when you are writing a story with a moral in mind, it's easy to focus too much on making sure your audience gets the message. If you find that your outline focuses heavily on every piece being "symbolic", chances are you're overdoing it. While you want your elements to be intentional and to reinforce your overall agenda, you don't want it to be so obvious that the reader rolls their eyes.

Solution: Show don't tell. For example, if your protagonist is a feminist, don't have her yell from the rooftops that she's a feminist or have her make appearances at rallies (unless there's a specific reason she needs to be there to move the plot forward). Instead, have her defend a female coworker from office gossips after said coworker wears a short dress to an after hours work gathering. Have her stand up for herself when confronted with a man who's being overly friendly on her walk home from the grocery store. Have her insist on paying for dinner while out for Valentine's Day with her significant other. By showing us what she stands up for, you are demonstrating that she is a feminist without directly telling us so. This is the appropriate way to deliver your message, mainly because it will be understood without blatant resistance.

9. Being too on the nose

Problem: If you're writing a suspense or mystery novel, you'll want to watch out for this mistake. It happens when you're trying to guide and mislead your audience. The biggest mistake you can make is to fall into the category of the obvious, or worse, the realm of stereotypes.

For example, say you're writing a crime thriller. You have to make the readers think that someone else other than the killer is responsible for the murders, so you choose to write a "creepy next door neighbor" character. This man turns out to be innocent and is only written into the story as a scapegoat. The problem is that it's too obvious. Your reader is going to know immediately that this character not only didn't commit the crime, but that he's clearly a stock character to boot. If you do this you'll lose credibility and your audience will binge read someone else's work instead.

Solution: Diversify your cast and choose unexpected characters to mislead your readers. If you're going to write about a neighbor who's a little "off", give him redeeming qualities to balance him out. Like say he's socially awkward and not the best when it comes to personal hygiene, but it turns out he really loves his toy poodle Molly, whom he treats like a queen. On the flip side, pick neighbors that seem perfectly normal from the outside- like Dan and Heather who win perfect lawn every year and have two straight A students as children and make them absolutely demented. Then choose a middle ground, for instance a mixed family with adopted children and a slightly run-down house and give them hearts of gold and inside knowledge of who committed the crime. Now make none of these characters the killer. From the outside, everyone seems like a plausible suspect. But the truth is much darker-and more thrilling-than that.

10. An unworthy cause

Problem: Last but not least, this issue occurs when your protagonist has nothing to fight for. At it's heart it's a motivation issue. If Hercules (in the Disney version) didn't want to rejoin his parents on Mt. Olympus and take his rightful place as a god, he never would have grown up to be a hero. If Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden hadn't been longing to transform the garden into a place of belonging, she never would have found a home. If Jack and Rose from the Titanic had met and ultimately didn't fall in love, then there would be no tragic romance and the ship would have sunk with two more miserable people on board. My point is that if your protagonist has nothing or no one to fight for, you have no story.

Solution: Give them someone or something to strive for, then create obstacles that keep them from gaining what they want most. Throw other people, circumstances, challenges, and tragedies in their way. Have their reactions or solutions fail and fail again. Make it get worse before it gets better (if it gets better). Push them to the breaking point- we need to see if their commitment to what they want is strong enough to face and overcome the odds stacked against them. Leave us biting our nails wondering if they will bend or break. Then finally give us a resolution that leaves us feeling like they- and we- have won a prize. The more you put in your protagonist's way, the more we will cheer for them at the end simply because we know how hard they had to fight to get what they want.

Outlining is supposed to help you identify problems before you begin writing. With this list of 10 common mistakes, you can save yourself time and effort later by fixing these issues before you ever commit them. Once you're done you'll have an outline that's ready to turn into a proper novel.

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