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The 3 Questions That Will Solve Every “Plot Problem” You’ll Ever Have

The following excerpt is from Steven James’ book Story Trumps Structure. Prior to the 2018 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference, Steven will present a special hands-on workshop that helps writers dig into the concepts he presents in his book. Don’t miss this exciting special event.

Whether you’re an outliner or an organic writer, the solution to almost every plot problem can be found by answering three simple questions.

Initially, most authors land somewhere on the continuum between outlining and organic writing. If you try to fit your Story into a predetermined number of acts or a novel template, you’re more of an outliner.

If you don’t care how many acts your story has as long as you let your characters struggle through the escalating tension of your story in a believable way, you’re more organic.

Both organic writing and outlining have their inherent strengths and weaknesses. (Yes, even organic writing can, in some cases, lead you astray if you don’t let all three questions listed on the next page guide your writing.) Outliners often have great high-concept climax ideas. Th eir stories might escalate exponentially and build to unforgettable endings. However, characters will sometimes act in inexplicable ways on their journey toward the climax. You’ll find gaps in logic. People will do things that don’t really make sense but that are necessary to reach the climax the writer has decided to build toward.

Organic writers are usually pretty good at craft ing stories that flow well. The events are believable and make sense. However, sometimes the narratives can wander, and although the stories are believable, they might also end up being anticlimactic as they just fizzle out and don’t really go anywhere.

So outlining often results in problems with continuity and causality, while organic writers often stumble in the areas of focus and escalation.

Outliners tend to have cause-effect problems because they know where they need to go but don’t know how to get there. Organic writers tend to have directionality problems because they don’t necessarily know where they’re going, but things follow logically even if they lead into a dead end.

… [W]hichever approach you’ve been using, you can build on its strengths and solve its weaknesses by asking the following three questions and letting the answers influence the direction of your story.

1. “What would this character naturally do in this situation?”

This focuses on the story’s believability and causality—everything that happens in a novel needs to be believable even if it’s impossible, and because of the contingent nature of fiction, everything needs to follow causally from what precedes it.

2. “How can I make things worse?”

This dials us in to the story’s escalation. Readers always want the tension to tighten. If the
story doesn’t build, it’ll become boring and they’ll put it aside.

3. “How can I end this in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable?”

Here we’re shaping the scenes, and the story as a whole, around satisfaction and surprise. So the story has to move logically, one step at a time, in a direction readers can track—but then angle away from it as they realize that this new direction is the one the story was heading in all along. However, readers don’t want that ending to come out of nowhere. It needs to be natural and inherent to the story.

The first question will improve your story’s believability. The second will keep it escalating toward an unforgettable climax. The third will help you build your story, scene by twisting, turning scene.

Organic writers are good at asking that first question; outliners are good at asking the second one. As far as the third, organic writers will tend to have believable endings and outliners will tend to have unpredictable ones.

The way you approach writing will determine which of those questions you most naturally ask and which ones you need to learn to ask in order to shape effective stories. …


I should mention that, in regard to the first of the three key questions listed above, some writing instructors teach that we should ask ourselves “If I were this character in this situation, what would I do?” rather than “What would this character naturally do in this situation?”

There’s a subtle but significant difference. One of these questions puts you in the scene, and the other emphasizes the character’s response.

Rewriting the 7 Rules of Dialogue

It’s important that you move yourself out of the story and let the characters you’ve created take over. I don’t want to imagine myself as the character. I want to observe the character responding as she would, not as I would if I were her. Step further away from yourself, and remove your own views as much as possible from the situation.

Incidentally, the first two questions also help authors who strive to write books that are either character-centered or plot-centered (remember, however, that no story is character-driven or plot-driven because all stories are tension-driven).

The first question helps plot-centered authors develop deeper characterizations. The second question helps character-centered authors develop plots that are more gripping.

The central struggles of the main character (internal, external, and interpersonal) will only be ultimately satisfied at the story’s climax. As we write the scene-by-scene lead-up, we are constantly deepening and tightening the tension in those three areas.

Some climaxes implode because they lack believability, others because they don’t make sense or they’re too predictable, others because they don’t contain escalation of everything else in the story and end up being disappointing.

Let me reiterate: The solution to most of these problems is keeping the promises you’ve made to your readers by maintaining believability, creating endings that are inevitable and yet unexpected, tightening the tension, ratcheting up the action, relentlessly building up the suspense, heightening the stakes, and escalating to a finish that reaches its pinnacle at just the right moment for the protagonist and for your readers.

Let those three questions filter through every scene you write.

  1. “What would this character naturally do in this situation?”
  2. “How can I make things worse?”
  3. “How can I end this in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable?”

If you’re attentive to them, they’ll crack open the nut of the tale for you.

Learn more in a special in-person workshop with Steven James:

This exclusive pre-conference event kicks off the 2018 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference weekend, when more than 1,000 writers will gather in New York City—August 10 –12—to learn, network, and move closer to their publication day.

If you’re serious about your writing career, Story Trumps Structure will cover the things working writers need to know to tighten their manuscript and keep those readers turning pages: the essence of the story, writing yourself out of corners, the secrets to organic writing, and the plot twists your readers won’t see coming.

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The 3 Questions That Will Solve Every “Plot Problem” You’ll Ever Have


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