A few summers ago, I visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. Every little detail—the buildings, layout, animatronics, costumes, food, and music—whispered authenticity. As I explored, I got swept up in the magic and thrill of discovery. If I hadn’t known better, I would have believed that Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade actually existed, even if only on another plane that my muggle eyes couldn’t see. I wanted my surroundings to be real, so I embraced the playacting, which made the whole experience even more enjoyable.
As writers, we’re constantly striving to achieve that kind of power, to create fictional worlds so vivid and compelling that the people and places feel real—even beyond the hours that readers are immersed in the story. If our words can capture their imaginations, the environment, the events, and the emotions will envelop them.
That’s why we need to watch for cracks and lumps in our plots that can undermine believability and trip up readers. I’ve coined an acronym that outlines a process for evaluating each chapter in a manuscript and purging problematic areas.
F: Filling Your Story with Unnecessary Scenes
Every scene should advance your plot, whether developing a character, laying the groundwork for a future twist, or uncovering a truth. If it doesn’t, trim it. For example, in my latest WIP, I devote a chapter to a car conversation between a young girl and her mother. This deliberate setting choice sets up a crucial plot point later in the story. However, prior to their drive, the girl horsed around with friends on the bus ride home. Since that part was not related to the plot and slowed the pacing, I cut it.
Tina Radcliffe, Publishers Weekly best-selling author of inspirational romance, shares her secret: “I analyze my scenes using Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Author. To prevent scenes where ‘nothing happens,’ I look for goal, conflict, and disaster. Even in low tension books, scenes should end in disaster. It can be simply a question or worry.”
Radcliffe’s method helps her eliminate extraneous scenes, leaving behind only those that push the story, and readers, onward. Smooth forward motion maintains believability because readers never have a reason to stop and wonder why an incident is relevant.
L: Laying It on Too Thick
A story should unfold gradually, in a way that’s similar to daily life, or readers will struggle to invest in it. Whenever any of us meets new people, we don’t learn all about their motivations and pasts within the first few moments of interaction. Only through time and observation do we begin to understand why Emily hates dolls and Tim buys a lottery ticket every Tuesday. If a character’s introductory scene is saturated with backstory or description, it can jar readers or, worse, make them lose interest.
Toni Shiloh, author of An Unlikely Proposal, explains how she overcame this issue: “When I first started writing, I wanted everyone to know the character’s backstory right upfront so they could understand his/her motives. I thought that was essential. What I learned is that the best thing to do is sprinkle backstory throughout the book. This ups the tension for readers because they’ll naturally want to know more information and keep reading. It also helps you avoid overwhelming or boring them.”
Another friend in my critique group writes historical fiction. Since she shares her story with us one chapter at a time, I’m always dying to find out more. But the beginning of one crucial chapter dumped a huge amount of information that stalled the pacing. Her solution? She balanced the dialogue and narrative with action, ensuring that readers stayed firmly grounded.
A: Action Disconnect
Just as plot follows a pattern, so should your character’s gestures, reactions, and movements. If he behaves in a manner that doesn’t match his personality, he’ll seem artificial.
DiAnn Mills, best-selling author of Airborne, illustrates the effects of this pitfall: “My male protagonist took on too many characteristics of an antagonist. While I needed some antagonistic traits for the sake of the story, his change of heart lacked a strong, credible foundation. When I discovered my error, I reverted to the beginning of the manuscript and included subtle hints that showed he possessed the potential for growth.”
In my own WIP, one cornerstone of a minor character is her desire for the protagonist to pursue a certain path instead of her dreams. When she acted in direct opposition to that goal, her plausibility faltered. I had to comb through several preceding chapters to correct the inconsistency.
W: Wearisome Predictability
No matter how meticulously sequenced your plot is, if readers can foresee the outcome, the suspense will dwindle, reducing their incentive to continue. Romance author Tina Radcliffe chimes in again with her approach to happily-ever-afters: “It’s my responsibility to make the road to HEA as worrisome as possible. That way, each book, while promising HEA, still has enough freshness to keep the pages turning.” When readers start anticipating her plot’s trajectory, she digs deep into her characterization: “Although I plot, I must be willing to listen to my characters. When I wrote the ending of Finding the Road Home, it was all planned and tied in a neat bow, but my character said, ‘Nope. It’s not that easy.’ So, I changed his promise to the heroine.”
Several months ago, I submitted an article to Story Embers listing three ingredients that can beef up a plot: the unexpected, varied pacing, and engaging chapter hooks. The first is a surefire strategy to ward off predictability. Gabrielle also has a helpful article that discusses how Harry Potter pulls off breathtaking plot twists.
Need more tips? You’re in luck! Story Embers is hosting an Engaging Plots Summit next month. Steven James, a best-selling thriller novelist who’s taught at 2,000+ events, will talk about how to execute a masterful plot twist. You can view the complete lineup of speakers and register here.
S: Symbolism That’s Inconsistent or Excessive
Many writers embed symbolism in their stories. It’s a literary technique where objects, colors, words, or a combination of elements have an underlying meaning. Edgar Allan Poe is famous for it. In his classic short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” he equates the heart with a man’s guilt. And in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” a clock represents death. Both symbols add complexity. But beware—overdoing your usage of symbolism can confuse readers.
In one short story I wrote called “Cages,” the symbol of a cage not only drove the plot, it also provided a cohesive theme. However, the original version included symbols for death and despair as well. Neither were interconnected, which distracted readers. Ultimately, I weighed each idea, picked the best one, and discarded the other two, strengthening the story and clarifying the plot. (By the way, short stories are an ideal outlet for practicing moderation with symbolism. The limited word count forces you to keep the focus narrow.)
Even the best laid plots can go astray in the drafting stage. But by applying the F.L.A.W.S. acronym during revisions, you can identify weaknesses that could hurt your story’s authenticity. Be willing to chop out anything that’s disruptive, even if it’s beautiful prose. Then, word by word, mend the flaws and rebuild your world until it resonates with readers’ hearts and minds—so that they’ll believe it exists because they want it to. Perhaps that’s the real magic behind writing.
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?