Worldbuilding Wednesday: De-Clutter Your Plot

“So…what’s your book about?”

As soon as someone finds out you’ve written or are writing a book, that’s the first question that’s going to come out of their mouths. Mostly to be polite (unless they’re an editor or agent by trade, in which case they’re smart enough NOT to ask unless they really do want to know…and if that’s the case, you’d better have something savvy, catchy, and direct to respond).

“Well, there’s this guy, who gets called away from work, but like, this other guy has a bike, and–okay, the first guy is like, married to this woman who really doesn’t like him, so he’s not really focusing when there’s an accident and the bike is damaged and the two guys fight, but it’s not really about the bike, it’s about a woman they both knew back when they were–well, okay, they went to school together and then there’s this goldfish that belongs to the other guy’s kid, that’s really a metaphor for how fragile life is…But it’s really all about how we all want a really cool red bike when we’re eight. And did I mention the guy works for a really famous actor who’s really a magician, and–“

Aaaannnnddd…you’ve lost them. In fact, after the above, if they haven’t started drilling into their own foreheads with hand tools, you’re lucky.

Kurt Vonnegut said it best when asked about plots. He summed it up in four words. Four. Man In A Hole. Somebody has a Problem, and the story is in how that problem affects that somebody, and what they do about it.

Your Character Is Not Special

“But my story’s so much more complex than that! It’s got a goldfish metaphor, for Pete’s sake!”

No. Your theme uses a goldfish to express itself. Your story has relatively little to do with the goldfish. Your story is about a Man In A Hole. So…who’s your man, and what’s his hole? I know, I know, sounds filthy, but if you want a well-paced book, you’ve got to have a tight plot.A tight plot will hook your reader in and soften their conscious mind up enough for your brilliant metaphors and Life Lessons to sneak in behind all the other sensory static plaguing the average reader.

They don’t care about the goldfish.

They want to know about the Man In The Hole.

Think about it. If you ask somebody what their story is about and they tell you, “It’s about a man in a hole,” first thing you want to know is how he got there? Why is he there? Will he get out? On the way towards finding out the answers to all those questions, you can show that reader your goldfish and later on, they’ll think about how that goldfish sat there glup-glupping in his little bowl, insulated from danger in a carefully-controlled world, and yet still so very vulnerable to the unreliable habits of an 8-year-old and maybe come to a conclusion or two about life.

Declutter Through Distillation

I’m not saying you have to give up the goldfish. Far from it. That goldfish is what’s going to make your book unique and memorable and special. But not if it’s caught up in a bunch of white noise disguising itself as a “complex” plot. Throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the pit between “Once Upon A Time” and “Happily Ever After” is not making the story deeper. It’s clutter. If you can’t distill your plot down into Man In A Hole, sit down and think about it until you can.

For many stories, it’s that first problem that is the Hole. In Star Wars, it’s the Stolen Plans. The Man in this particular Hole is Darth Vader (yes, I know, we’re all rooting for the rebel scum, but the Man in the Hole is Darth Vader–the plans for the Death Star have fallen into enemy hands, and everything that drives the plot happens because Vader is trying to get those plans back. On the way, we learn about scrappy rebels, scruffy nerf-herders, hokey religions & ancient weapons, and walking carpets that rip people’s arms off, and how trusting your feelings can give you really good aim at really critical times. But all those events and ideas manifest because Darth Vader Is In Trouble.

There’s nothing that says you only need one Hole, either. Luke Skywalker’s a Man In A Hole (literally–he’s stuck in a below-ground-level dirt farm). He needs to leave home. He wants to go to flight school, then later he has to leave home to find a runaway robot, then later, there’s no home to go back to. Then a crazy old man wants him to learn the Force and he wants to rescue the princess. Luke Skywalker is a man in so many holes, he speaks gopher. But all those holes are oriented towards the same place–getting Luke to Leave Home (and they’re all products of Vader’s need to Get His Plans Back).

Declutter your plot until you can find the Man In The Hole and they’ll be yours. Don’t believe me? Here, listen to a guy who knows his shit.

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Athena Grayson Written by:

Space Opera with Sizzle | Sorcery with Spice | Fun Fantasy with Feels


  1. January 25, 2012

    Great post! I have a tendency to clutter. . .LOVED the video! It’s a keeper.

  2. January 27, 2012

    OMG it’s a little too early in the morning for me to be this effusive, but here it comes. This post ROCKED! I LOVED IT. It’s such a simple concept but so essential. And your writing was funny and entertaining, which made the whole thing a delight. So I was already delighted…and then I watched the video… Now I want to have Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant, charming, funny little babies. Bookmarked!

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