Swallowing A Fly — #2 How to plot

Yeah, I know, I changed the title.  You’ll have to deal.  Also, unlike my friends I’m not blogging about Nano because I’m a rebel that way.

So I said you have to start the novel with a character who has a problem, and preferably that problem has to be one that has a concrete solution.  I.e., don’t have your character wish for world peace, unless she’s a beauty pageant contestant.  There is nothing your character can actually do on her own to bring about world peace.  (Unless she has some weird superpower…)

Her goal has to be something more concrete if still challenging, like say rescuing her little brother from fairyland, getting a date to the prom, or drinking all the coffee.  (NO, wait, that’s MY goal.)

Many novels start with a bang, and then sort of straggle into the weeds of “Why am I reading this, again?”  (This is when I skip to the end, read the last page and put it away before they infect me with meandering.)  The problem with most, if not all, beginner novels, is that sometime in the middle of the story, I find myself wondering why in heck I’m bothering.

That’s because the author has lost the plot.

To not lose the plot, I invite you to contemplate the little old lady who swallowed a fly.

She swallowed the spider to catch the fly, she swallowed a bird to catch the spider, she swallowed a cat to catch the bird etc.  Note that starting with the original problem (It might help to know that in regency slang at least to swallow a spider was to go deep into debt you can’t escape) she swallows each animal to catch the last — i.e. to try to solve her problem.  And each time her problem gets worse.

Your character, in the same way, starting with a problem on which they act in what has to be a somewhat rational manner (unless it’s one of my refinishing mysteries) and where the result backfires horribly, must engage in attempting ever bigger solutions (to bigger problems) and having them blow up even bigger.

Of course, unless you’re writing a nihilistic story, at some point the series of ever larger failed solutions must end, and there must be a beginning of actually improving things.

There are two ways to do this, one being gradual, by having some of the solutions that backfire give hope or point the way to the solution.  (Foreshadowing, m’dear, foreshadowing.  I always forget it when I’m tired/sick.)  The other is abrupt.  For the abrupt one you need a plausible way to turn your character around.  Something disastrous must happen that makes the woman stop swallowing ever larger animals and start thinking.  Say, the fly escapes.  Or perhaps one of the animals makes so much noise she can’t sleep at night.  Anyway, there must be some sort of crisis that makes her wonder why she’s chasing down and swallowing animals even though this hasn’t worked in the past.  This will lead to her giving up all hope of solving her problem — aka, the black moment — and then, in what I call the “mirror moment” if it’s a character based novel (one in which the character is at least partly responsible for the situation.  Situations of world destruction are a little different) the character takes a really long look at him/herself and realizes that because of some innate characteristic, he/she has been doing it all wrong.  And then he/she changes the approach and swallows a tether (metaphorically speaking) to pull all the animals out.

In such a situation, whatever they swallow next is the crisis and when the villain (of course there is a villain.  Are you writing litcherary tovarish?  Then you don’t need my advice) who first forced them to swallow the fly in order to try to solve the problem caused by the villain finds out they’re changing strategy, he’ll confront them.  And so, the main character will have to fight the villain, and this will be the climax.

However the climax should flow directly from your initial problem.  There is no “I am in the middle of the book, and I have half to go, I’ll have the character do random things.”  The old woman doesn’t swallow some flowers to beautify the place and a freight train just to make it easier for the animals to travel.  No.  She swallows a bird to catch the spider and a cat to catch the bird and a dog to catch the cat.

This means that though the premise is nonsensical, if you grant the original premise that a person can swallow a bunch of large animals and stay alive and that the animals too stay alive inside her, then you have a logical chain of events.

Now, go you and chain your plot likewise.

Next week A plot in search of a theme.


  1. Puppy kickers weren’t enough for you?
    Now PETA is gonna be all over your case.
    Well, as the Amerindians would say, we are best judged by the numbers of our enemies.

  2. Right. So now I’ve got this silly “There was an old woman who . . . ” thing in my head, and it’s going to show back up every time I try to analyze my writing.

    🙂 Will probably be very useful. I might even manage to internalize it enough to affect the original writing.

      1. You could let a destructive chain of events go to its logical conclusion. It’s not necessarily nihilistic: The Greeks called that kind of story a tragedy, but that art does not seem to be highly favored or well practiced among modern novelists.

        1. My wife once pointed out to me, “Sometimes you have to die to get the happy ending.” See movies like End of Days for instance. I prefer that to the Greek notion of tragedy, which is basically IMHO to serve as a bad example for others.

  3. One notes that if you are halfway through the novel and you are looking at random things to pad it — maybe it’s a novella.

  4. “… at some point the series of ever larger failed solutions must end, and there must be a beginning of actually improving things.”

    So, “She died, of course,” is not an acceptable ending. Someone ought to rewrite the song now…

    1. I think that it’s acceptable for the *song* and no doubt a person could write the same ending successfully in a novel… if you can bring yourself to commit literature.


    2. Please don’t give the Whiners That Be any ideas, please. Or a P3TA-approved version will appear, to be inflicted on innocent children.

      1. TXRed, I can’t seem to find your contact info to ping you. Are you able to ping me or find me on facebook?

  5. Ah, maybe it didn’t like me trying to change my name. I think I ended up with a comment in moderation.

    In any case, I really appreciate these posts. I know they don’t garner the same number of comments as other sorts but that doesn’t mean they aren’t appreciated. I’m supposed to be studying for a test (ha!) and I’m going to stick to that excuse for the moment because rather than making progress I’m still trying to figure the answer to the *last* post Sarah did on plot where I realized that my hero ought to be the cause of his own dilemma… For whatever reason he had to have felt that swallowing the fly was a good idea at the time, or that *something* was even if he got the fly instead. As it is now, he just randomly for no reason at all had a curse land on him… even a drunken “Hey, Bjorn! Watch this!” would be better than that. Figuring out how his initial attempts to solve it go wrong is the next step.

    And here I thought that I’d sort of figured it out… at least a general list of “this happens, then that happens, then this snag appears, then that, then they go there, then they kill the demon, then he gets the thing, then he breaks the curse…” And it wasn’t entirely him being taken for a ride as he was the actor in it all, but I can also tell that it will be *better* if he, rather than external forces, causes some of his problems.

    1. What Jule said. It’s very helpful to overlay this paradigm on the WIP. I’ve just finally internalized the difference between a scene and a sequel, and it rings true with what I understand as a reader. What you say here about things getting progressively worse, definitely meshes with my reader brain, and seeing it spelled out so clearly helps apply it to the writer brain.

      A few years ago I showed up here looking for rules, and now I know I should have said “craft.”

  6. Thanks for posting this, Sarah. I’m considering doing NaNoWriMo and your posts on plotting (even this is only the second) have been quite helpful. Between your posts and some recent ones by Brad and Dave I’ve gotten a better handle on what/how I plan to write.

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