Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
A reader recently asked:
The part I find challenging is plotting even though I know about story structure. Do you have any suggestions so that the plot is not episodic?
A great question, especially when your story actually feels episodic, as if each story event starts, plays out, and then finishes up with few or no links to other story events. If your story feels more like loosely linked vignettes rather than a flow of events caused by and causing other events, you may be writing episodes rather than a fully integrated story.
But there are ways to shift the emphasis away from individual episodes and toward a complete story, whole only when all the events are linked not only by causal factors but by other threads.
My answer, expanded from its original form—
One key is to make sure you have multiple threads and links from scene to scene. So not only do events lead from one scene to the next, but little tidbits of commonalities or other connections need to lace through your stories.
Say that you use a revelation about a character’s past to set up an event in chapter 5. If you take something else out of that revelation—maybe something that seems offhand when the revelation is addressed in chapter 5—and you put it to use in chapter 11 and then put something else that you mentioned in that revelation to use in chapter 22, you’re linking more than just events—you’re connecting the story through other kinds of ties, ties that underlie events and action.
You can also use events to lead to multiple responses. So say that you have an event that one character responds to in chapter 10. That event, the stimulus, might lead to several related responses, as in a chain. But you could also have a second character respond and use that response to start a second chain of linked responses. You wouldn’t have to include responses of both characters in every chapter, but the different chains of responses—even though they lead in different directions—are ultimately linked through the event that set them off. And thus multiple events—multiple strands of events—are linked.
Another way to link parts of a story is to revisit events or dialogue. So rather than characters dealing with an issue only once, bring it up again at a different time and with other characters. Extend the problem to multiple characters and make it affect them and their responses to story issues.
A classic example of this is the use of anger. Two people fight and they deal with the problem, but if it’s not really resolved, they take that anger with them and when they’re talking with someone else, the anger is rekindled. Readers will know where the anger came from, but the character getting dumped on might have no idea what brought on the anger. Still, the anger, the emotion, is linking different parts of the story.
Think about linking threads, about linking anything, from one end of the story to the other. Link emotions and objects and even noteworthy colors. Link dialogue. Link characters and their habits. Link one character to another character through a third character that they have in common.
If each of your scenes is complete, with nothing to propel characters and readers forward toward other events, then your story will feel episodic. Leaving questions unanswered at the end of a scene is a great way to prevent that episodic feel. Characters shouldn’t always discover what they’re looking for in any one scene. They should be denied or at least delayed in the discovery of answers. They should be compelled to go somewhere else or to another person to get their answers.
Scenes, unless you’re creating the episodic feel on purpose, shouldn’t read like full ministories where every issue is resolved. Problems should instead spill over into other scenes and affect other characters. They could maybe even compound problems.
Think in terms of building up and layering problems rather than isolating and solving them one at a time.
Pile on the Problems
Piling up problems is fairly easy to do. So if in chapter 3 you have a missing senator, you’d want more going on by chapter 6—perhaps characters and readers discover that the missing senator had “borrowed” sensitive materials and now both the senator and those materials are missing. By chapter 8 readers may discover that the criminal mastermind being tracked by some secret government agency had gone missing four days earlier, two days before the senator disappeared.
When you pile on problems, characters and events from earlier in the story can be linked to characters that show up and to events that unfold later in the story. In this way you wrap story threads around a variety of characters, events, story locales, and other story elements, creating a tightly woven whole.
Objects that show up from scene to scene—even if they go unseen for many pages—will definitely tie scenes and events together.
A weapon or an item of value that one character needs to cart around in order to protect it can become a link. A piece of evidence shown to a string of characters becomes a link and leads to more links when those characters mention it to others.
I mentioned this in passing, but it’s important that story events are causally related. This means that events cause other events; action is followed by reaction which leads to other actions and so on throughout the story.
When major and minor story events arise out of what came before—what someone said or what they did—then you’ve got solid links, a strong supporting frame, to hang the story on. And when one cause leads to multiple events, you’ve created a web of links.
Think organic when you’re working on plot events; each must rise out of what has come before (whether what came before happened on the page, off the page, or earlier in the lives of the characters). Story events could seem episodic if they arise independent of other story events.
Keep in mind that you can use characters, even secondary and background characters, in multiple scenes. And each time a character shows up, you can link back to any earlier element related to that character. Well, any element that makes sense to mention in the newest scene. So the main character and a sidekick can talk about the important issue that they’re trying to solve in a scene, and yet they can also talk about the fight they had over the number of new employees they can afford to hire and talk about the main character’s father, who is scheduled to show up in town at any moment.
And any of these sections of dialogue can bring out back story or character motivation, two story elements that can then reach out tendrils to create links of their own.
The point is, you can link backward—and project forward—easily. Scenes don’t need to be episodic or self-contained, with no ties to other scenes or to the characters or objects in them.
Scenes should be so tied to other scenes, events, and characters that were you to remove a scene, you would need to do some serious rewriting to close the gaps you created and to reconnect story elements whose connections you removed.
When you plot, don’t limit yourself to only the obvious events that must take place in your story. Introduce elements that can be linked and then link them from beginning to end and tie them together using multiple characters.
Link major events, yes. But link dialogue, secondary characters, important objects, particular story locations, colors or scents or sounds, emotions, and even a character’s favorite phrases or his quirks.
Make readers think back on what came before and make characters project into possible future events. Make readers link scenes because of a similar phrasing used in both scenes or because multiple characters notice the same object.
Echoing a phrase or a sentence rhythm is a subtle but effective way to link different sections of a story.
Leave major issues unresolved at the ends of scenes so that characters have to move ever forward, taking what they’ve learned with them, literally carrying parts of the story into the next scenes and chapters with them.
That’s another great way to link scenes and events—make sure characters carry forward what they gain in earlier scenes. It’s quite okay for characters to mention earlier events and the knowledge gained through those events. It’s even okay for characters to come to a realization about an earlier revelation many chapters later.
A character wouldn’t have to baldly say—Oh, I get it. When Victor told me about his mother, he meant that she learned the secret before her marriage. But the character could have an epiphany, one that harkened back to the earlier scene or bit of dialogue.
The thing is, you don’t have to leave every bit of information in the scene or chapter in which it first appeared. You can always have characters revisit events that mean something to them or that they don’t understand and are seeking clarity for. And while we tend to focus on looking ahead in stories, linking back is a useful way to make events and objects in the future even more meaningful.