Thursday, November 26, 2015

Plot Problems Solved in 3 Questions

Before you get into the post from Henry McLaughlin today, all of us at The Write Conversation want to wish you a Happy & Blessed Thanksgiving!

Plot Problems solved in 3 Questions
by Henry McLaughlin @RiverBendSagas

Here is a tool that may prove helpful. Best-selling author Steven James presented this material at an intensive novel writing retreat I attended.

Whether you’re an outliner or an organic author, these simple, yet intriguing questions, will get your creative juices flowing.

The questions open doors into areas of our story we may not have explored before and will lead us to more compelling stories.
What would this character naturally do in this situation?

Believability is the first priority. If our character does something he would not naturally do, it will the strain the reader’s investment in him and in our story.

For example, say our character is an inspector with the National Transportation Safety Board. What’s the first thing he would do at the scene of a plane crash? Would he ask where is the nearest Starbucks? Or would he ask if the black box has been found or if there are any survivors?

Or, he’s an ER doctor and the paramedics have brought in a victim of a gunshot wound. Would he ask when the next available tee time is? Or, would he assess the patient’s need for immediate surgery?

If the reader notices our character is acting unbelievably, than another character must also notice it and comment on it. Otherwise, our story loses credibility.

How can I make things worse?

Escalate the tension by throwing more obstacles at our character. Increase the tension to keep the reader interested. But remember—it has to be believable.

Say my story involves terrorists taking over a nuclear power plant and holding the staff hostage. How can I make things worse? Here are some examples:
  • They strap bombs to the core.
  • There is a group of school kids there on a field trip.
  • They start killing the hostages.
  • The daughter of the chief government negotiator works at the plant.
  • She’s aiding the terrorists.

The key is to avoid coincidence because this will destroy believability. Everything must build on something that happened before.
How can I end this in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable?

Readers don’t want endings to come out of nowhere. The ending needs to be natural and inherent to the story. We want the reader to be surprised and satisfied.

In my novel, Journey to Riverbend, I established throughout the story that my hero believed he killed his father and that he would never kill again. At the end of the story, I put him in the position where, to save someone, he has to kill the villain. The ending was inevitable yet surprising and satisfying to the readers. It was also be believable because of the foreshadowing I layered in.

Steven James writes, “The first question will help focus your believability. The second will keep it escalating toward an unforgettable climax. The third will help build your story scene by twisting, turning scene.”

What plot problems do you typically encounter? How would these three questions help resolve them?


Henry’s debut novel, Journey to Riverbend, won the 2009 Operation First Novel contest. 

He serves as Associate Director of North Texas Christian Writers. 

Henry edits novels, leads critique groups, and teaches at conferences and workshops. He enjoys mentoring and coaching individual writers. 

Connect with Henry on his blogTwitter and Facebook.


  1. Thank you. I am embarking on my first fiction novel after Christmas. This has been a great help. Happy Thanksgiving.

  2. The first novel is always exciting. And can, at times, seem overwhelming. Please let me know if I can help.
    Happy Thanksgiving/

  3. I'm well into my first novel and also a Steven James fan. Thanks so much for sharing these questions.on plot. I see them as great macro guides during the crafting of my first draft and then spawning a lot of micro questions for the first edit. I'd be interested in any checklist questions you may have that would be parts of each of these 3. Thanks for posting.

    1. Thanks, Jay. I'll see what I can do to answer your request for some checklist questions.