Conflict chain
Writing Craft

Plot: the unbreakable chain

Breaking your plot chain will turn your novel into a series of random events

There are plenty of great articles about how to construct a good plot. Rising/falling action. Three act structure, etc. With the amount of information available, novice writers can easily get overwhelmed. So take a moment and put your spreadsheets, charts, and bubble diagrams aside. The most common problem I see in plotting is breaking the plot chain.

What is a plot chain?

Harvey Chapman in his article How to Plot a Novel described plot as. “… a series of linked events. When Event A doesn’t cause Event B, you’re not creating a plot but a series of unrelated events.”

For a plot to work, it has to be a sequence of related events set up like dominos.

The first event must cause then next one, and if any of the events are removed, the story stops.

Let’s take the movie Inside Out. (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Not only because it’s a great movie, but it’s a textbook example of a perfectly constructed plot.) In this movie, the conflict between Joy and Sadness begins right away and is the catalyst for the first plot point. Their fight over the console is the cause for the loss of the core memories, which is the cause for them leaving headquarters, which is the cause their journey back. Every event in this chain is necessary for them to finally return to headquarters.

But what about subplots?

A subplot must relate to the main plot, i.e. it must either spin out from the main plot or (better) begin as a parallel and then tie in. For example, in Inside Out, the character Bing Bong begins as a subplot. His interaction with Sadness isn’t part of the main action. It exists to teach Joy an important lesson, becoming a part of her character arc. If that had been the end of Bing Bong’s story, it would have been ok, but Bing Bong’s subplot eventually ties into the main action at the movie’s climax, making the subplot critical to the main structure and enriching the story.

If a subplot does not relate to the main plot, it doesn’t belong in the story.

It’s fine to have twin plotlines, but they must interplay with each other. A strong character arc (like Joy’s) can also work like a separate plot. Her transformation in the story also follows a chain of causation. What makes it so effective is how her transformation alters the action plot, and how the action affects her character arc. These work as twin plots, but the interplay between them is what makes them effective. If Joy’s transformation didn’t affect her ability to solve her external problem, the story wouldn’t work.

How do I know if I have broken my chain?

The easiest way is to make a list

Plotters/architects should already have one as an outline, but pansters/discovery writers will need to do this step as part of their editing process. Once you have an outline/list, look for cause and effect. In order for the chain to continue the effect must be the cause for the next event.

Joy and Sadness disagree about what’s best for Riley

Effect/new cause
They fight over the console

Effect/new cause
They create a sad core memory

Effect/new cause
Joy tries to stop the new core memory from taking effect

Effect/new cause
Sadness tries to stop her.

Effect/new cause
The fight accidently sends Joy, Sadness, and all the core memories to long-term storage

Notice how the effect of the previous event is the cause for the next one. There is a clear chain of causation that leads us from the beginning of the movie to the inciting incident. The other parts of the story: the missing moving van, broccoli pizza, etc. all support the main action by giving context and explaining the reason for the climax of the first act: the formation of a sad core memory. Without the supporting action, we wouldn’t know why Reily is having a hard time in her new environment. These small subplots tie into the main plot. The first act works so well because the main plot chain is never broken.

Once you have your plot chain mapped out, you will easily see common plot problems:

  1. Plot holes
  2. Places where the action slows
  3. Subplots that don’t go anywhere
  4. Starting in the wrong place.

Once you have streamlined your plot, then you can go back and make sure the action continually rises, has strong pacing, and the plot points fall in the correct positions. (Now you can get your spreadsheets, charts, and markers back out.)

Don’t let a break in the action be the reason a reader puts your book down. Making sure you keep your plot chain intact will keep your reader engaged through your entire story. A good strong plot chain will keep a reader turning the pages. It will keep your characters focused on their goals and make them more compelling to your reader.

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M.L. Keller is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog "The Manuscript Shredder" is focused on helping emerging writers hone their craft.


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