You’ve probably heard the idiom “the plot thickens.” It describes situations or events that lead to more complex twists in a story. Plots that lack depth are like watery gravy—unappealing to the consumer.
In the kitchen, a competent cook uses a handful of thickening agents to improve the texture, stability, and even the flavor of a dish. Similarly, a skilled writer tackles plot problems with an arsenal of techniques. And I’m going to show you three that you can experiment with to transform your story into something savory and delicious.
1. Texture: Don’t Be Afraid to Add the Unexpected
Writers often follow a traditional plot structure for their books: the introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. But the most engaging stories usually embed a smaller series of rising, climaxing, and falling actions into the overall plot.
In Jerry Spinelli’s classic middle-grade novel, Maniac Magee, an orphan boy searches for and ultimately finds a home. Along the way, the author stirs in a smattering of conflicts between the protagonist and other characters. Most of these interactions highlight themes of racism and inequality, which boost the impact of the main plot.
Author Heather Kaufman looks for these small opportunities too: “Plotting can be one of the most rewarding and frustrating aspects of writing fiction. In my own work, I’ve found that the unexpected has a way of enriching the plot and keeping readers’ interest.”
A character’s whims can be a vehicle for surprising moments. Have you ever started a story with an ending in mind only to discover that your protagonist deviated in a new direction and uncovered fresh (often deeper) layers of truth? Did her decisions change the outcome? That’s what happens when you release control to your characters and explore the possibilities.
Maybe you didn’t plan for your protagonist to develop a fear of fuzzy purple socks, or for your antagonist to have a soft spot for sharp-toothed snails. When these quirks emerge, the characters might stumble into obstacles you never imagined. Your audience probably won’t anticipate the bumps either—and the novelty delights them.
As you write, you might end up in an argument with major (or minor) characters who are eager to rebel. Embrace those conversations. Listen with your inner ear.
Heather understands how the ripples from a divergence can alter a plot. In her first book, The Story People, she created two characters who hated each other. One of them wasn’t even supposed to last beyond a few chapters. However, the sidekicks ignored Heather’s bidding and fell in love with each other. “This outrageous pairing ended up opening a whole new avenue for the book to explore. It was just the right amount of crazy to enliven the plot and further hook the reader.” Several fans have told her that this side story is their favorite part of the book.
Employing this strategy also serves another purpose: it can relieve writer’s block. Heather explains, “I believe the unexpected can be achieved even in small, subtle ways. I’ve pulled myself out of many a plotting slump by asking myself, What’s the least predictable thing I could do right now?”
Highly creative author of Legend of the Storm Sneezer, Kristiana Sfirlea, takes the idea of incorporating the unexpected to a whole new level. “Whether I’m writing an 80k-word novel or 800-word flash fiction, my plotting process is the same. I don’t start with the beginning, middle, or end. I start with the plot twist. (Or, as is often the case with my writing, plot twists.)
“Once I know the exact moment that shakes the book from front cover to back, I’m able to build a story around it. This is helpful in two ways: 1) It helps me with foreshadowing and gives a sense of urgency or anticipation to the plot, and 2) It helps me avoid that ‘murky middle’ by giving me a distinct and exciting anchoring point in the story.”
2. Stability: Vary the Intensity of the Action
When preparing a dish, thickening agents require extra care. Starches lose their quality if cooked too long or at too high of a temperature. At the other end of the spectrum, too little time or heat can give food an unpleasant taste. But, if handled correctly, these versatile ingredients provide necessary stability.
Writers need to exercise the same caution when crafting a plot. After all, your story, like potato gravy, must hold together. How do you avoid excessive or insufficient details? You can address this if you fluctuate the pacing of your sentences, thereby controlling the reader’s mental pulse.
Think of it like stirring the pot. Writers can create a relaxed mood and inspire reflection through sentences that contain lengthy descriptions, intricate prose, or thoughtful monologue. The reverse is true too. Short sentences. Strong verbs. Fewer beats. Fast conversation. Recurring phrases. These speed up the scene and draw readers into the racing heart of the conflict.
Consider the difference between the following two excerpts. The first is from one of my short stories, and the longer sentences support the plot by contributing to a feeling of despair and listlessness.
Matthew pulled into a driveway lined with weeds, a bleak welcoming party. Throwing his keys on an already cluttered counter, he grabbed a soda from the fridge and flopped on the couch. He looked for a coaster, but empty cans crowned them all. He balanced his drink on a stack of mail instead.
In this second example, the brevity and repetition convey a sense of urgency, which was necessary to reach the next plot point. (You’ll notice that the longer sentence in the middle slows the pacing, allowing readers to catch their breath along with the protagonist.)
I couldn’t call Mom. I couldn’t involve Coach. I had to find a solution. My own.
Nothing came to mind.
My mouth went dry.
Clenching my fists, I took a few deep breaths to steady myself.
What was the right thing to do?
Beside me, Gwen lay in a heap. Pale. Lifeless.
The phone weighed heavy in my hand. I typed 9-1-1.
Find a section of your manuscript that you want to strengthen. Ponder the overall mood and goal of the scene and play with your sentence structure until it accents the plot.
3. Flavor: Use Chapter Endings to Keep Your Audience Engaged
A seasoned chef knows that a tablespoon of tomato paste will not only thicken a sauce but also enhance the flavor. Likewise, the last lines of a chapter can heighten tension, enticing readers to continue.
The most common device is a cliff hanger, which taunts readers into turning one more page to learn the solution to an issue that arose in the previous chapter. The idea is to let the drama bubble to the rim of the pot without spilling over. If you study the final chapter lines from various books, you’ll see that leaving readers hanging makes them cling harder to the story.
- Light flashed into his cell. The guard passed. Joe Mack swung his feet to the floor. –Louis L’Amour, Last of the Breed
- He didn’t budge from her steady gaze. “Bethany told me that you’re an assassin, and that you would kill me.” –Terry Goodkind, The Law of Nines
- A door opened in the darkness ahead. A hand grabbed his arm and pulled him inside. –Lee Child, Blue Moon (A Jack Reacher novel)
A more subtle but equally compelling way to end a chapter is with a thought or question. This serves as foreshadowing, a taste of the future, or simply an open invitation for readers to speculate on what might happen next. Other options include presenting the protagonist with a terrible choice or new plan of action. As in the examples below, the uncertainty feeds readers’ curiosity.
- Chrysler Windsor was a beautiful machine. Seldom do dead men return to haunt the living in such style. –Dean Koontz, Husband
- Caris wiped the tears from her eyes and looked up at her aunt. “Oh, no, you won’t,” she said. –Ken Follett, World Without End
- “They decided that until a proper birth certificate is on file, you’re not eligible to play,” Mr. M said. –Mike Lupica, Heat
Examine the chapter endings in your current manuscript. Do the final lines tempt readers to keep going, even if it’s two in the morning and they have to get up for work at six?
Plot Perfected: The Implementation of All Three
Unexpected developments, effective pacing, and tantalizing chapter endings can be the missing ingredients you need to cook up a good tale. Case in point—the plot of master storyteller C. S. Lewis’s classic, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, can be summarized in a sentence: four siblings enter a magical world controlled by an evil witch and are enlisted by the true ruler to overthrow her and reclaim the kingdom. Lewis mixes in these add-ins to make the plot even more robust:
- Texture through the unexpected: When Lucy, the first to enter the magical wardrobe, seeks support from her brother Edmund (who followed her the second time), he insists that she’s fantasizing. What a surprise! The tension between the truth teller and the liar draws readers into the heart of the story with this mini battle between good and evil.
- Stability through varied pacing: Lewis ratchets up the action with short sentences:“Oh,” thought Lucy, “he’s been seen. She’s caught him!” And he gives readers an adrenaline break with longer, flowing prose: So, Mrs. Beaver and the children came bundling out of the cave, all blinking in the daylight, and with earth all over them, and looking very frosty and unbrushed and uncombed and with the sleep in their eyes.
- Flavor through engaging chapter endings: Lewis grabs readers with chapter endings like this: “If either of you mention that name again,” said the Witch, “he shall instantly be killed.”
Following these tips is a recipe for success your audience will eat up. Avid readers love sinking their teeth into a compelling story. Especially when the plot thickens.
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?