Critique Technique, Part 21–Unclear Plot

This is the first of a 3-part series on critiquing a story’s plot.

Signpost: puzzled, unsure, confused, etc.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

The basic concept of plot is simple: it’s the series of events that the characters experience and are involved in that builds in intensity, leading to the story’s climax and resolution. Every story—fiction or non-fiction—has one. In a so-called “literary” story, most of the “action” may be internal to the characters (emotional and/or psychological) rather than external. It may seem like there isn’t much plot, but there has to be some. At the other extreme, pick up any Tom Clancy novel and there’s tons of external activity—chases, explosions, spycraft, you name it—as well as internal action.

The point of this post isn’t to examine ​how much​ plot there is, or how little, but whether what is going on makes sense. Plot events build on each other, doing those things I’ve written about before, such as providing conflict, creating tension, and putting obstacles in the characters’ ways. Every scene has its own set of plot points (the very briefest may have just one) that, if done right, build to a high point, then fall away to leave the reader wanting to know more. The same is true of each chapter, and of course of the entire story. These are the scene, chapter, and story arcs.

Building Blocks That Don’t Build

An unclear plot will fail to build that arc in one or more ways. Plot and characters are inseparable, so if the plot events seem unrelated to the characters’ goals, needs, desires, or conflicts, that may be a problem. Even in experimental fiction, events don’t happen truly at random or for no reason, they just may not happen in a linear sequence. The connection between a plot event and a character’s motivations may not be apparent right away, especially early in the story, but the author must eventually make that connection. Unfortunately, it may be hard, even impossible, for you to see it if the motivation isn’t revealed in the part of a longer piece you’re reading. As Les Edgerton notes in Hooked, the final pieces of the “story-worthy problem” may not be revealed until the very end. In that case, your discussion with the author about the plot events should reveal the link.

Similarly, there might be no clear connection between individual events. Now, if the story contains several plot lines, some events on the different lines may never be connected, or the connection may not be apparent until later in the story. That’s fine. But within a plot line, unconnected, disjointed events will just confuse the reader. In a case like this, the author may know what the connection is but has failed or chosen not to show it on the page. Sometimes this is a good thing, because the way it surprises the reader can increase her tension and curiosity about the story. Again, this is something you’ll want to discuss with the author.

Irrelevant events fall into the same category. If, for example, in the middle of a spy thriller, the protagonist waxes poetic about his Aunt Tillie’s prize-winning mac-and-cheese recipe, there’d better be a darn good reason for that. If there isn’t (and the excuse is likely to be, “it’s character development”), you need to flag it.

In an early draft, especially if the author is a “pantser” (that is, someone who writes “by the seat of their pants”), they may be throwing literary mud against the wall to see what will stick. This kind of writing can be hard to evaluate productively because the author herself may not have any idea what the story’s overall structure will be or how the pieces will fit together. This is a good argument for not critiquing a story’s first draft.

Also, plot events need to fall in some kind of logical order, but I’m going to save that discussion for Part 23.

An unclear plot doesn’t build tension or move the story forward. Flashbacks and backstory can do that if they add a new wrinkle to the story or demonstrate a bit of a character’s motivation, but anything that stops or retards that forward motion, takes the story off on a tangent, or leaves it wandering is something you need to call to the author’s attention.

Questions for You

Here are some questions for you to ask about the plot as you read a piece.

  • Do the plot events relate to the characters’ goals, needs, desires, motivations, or conflicts?
    • If not, what’s missing? Will this be revealed later?
  • As best I can tell, are the plot events relevant to the overall story?
    • If not, why don’t they seem relevant? What don’t I understand?
  • Can I see the connections between the plot’s events?
    • If not, can the author explain their connections to me, or how those connections will be revealed later?
  • Do the plot events continue to make life more difficult for the characters in believable ways?
    • If not, what’s the problem? Are the characters’ situations not getting worse, or are they getting worse in unbelievable ways?
    • What does the author need to fix?
    • If a plot event solves a problem, does it create new ones?
  • Do the plot events make sense, or do they leave me wondering, in a bad way, what’s going on?
    • If I’m confused, what am I confused about?
  • Do the plot events continue to pique my interest and keep me reading?
    • If not, why not? What about these events caused me to lose interest, and why?

A poorly constructed plot leaves the reader at sea without a paddle or sail. Writers don’t let writers plot badly. What do you look for when evaluating a plot for clarity? Plot out your clear suggestions in the comments box below.

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