Developing a Plot without Flatlining
Written by
November 2012
Written by
November 2012

Developing the plot for a novel should be like replicating a heart monitor. You want to see ups and downs on the screen, but you don’t want to see it flat lining. There’s nothing more likely to bore the pants off your readers than creating a story without any variation. Think of it in terms of real life’s ups and downs, except in fiction things need to be larger than life, however small they might be.


Your story doesn’t need to be an action packed thrill ride; even small events can be brought to life by great prose.

Young European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)....
Young European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus). Français : Jeune Hérisson européen (Erinaceus europaeus). (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Plots can avoid flatlining with even the simplest of creatures at their heart.

I came across this news item, that frankly made me laugh, but I could see its potential in relation to the ups and downs of a plot. (FYI for US readers, crisp packet  = potato chip bag. In England they ‘re usually in a single serving size, not a US jumbo pack.)

Hedgehog Trapped in Crisp Packet in Weston-Super-Mare’

A baby hedgehog which found itself stuck in a crisp packet has been released after a three-and-a-half hour rescue involving six people.

The animal became trapped after it crawled into the empty wrapper in a railed off area near steps in Weston-super-Mare.

A shopkeeper heard rustling and saw the hedgehog - now named Crispian - stick his nose out.

Workers had to cut through the railings and help rescuers reach the hedgehog.”

What struck me was that they cut through railings to rescue it, and six people had been involved! Clearly this tiny animal had created an event, which produced substantial effort on the rescuers part. It went from being a simple rustle in the wind to a conflict that needed resolution.

If you were writing this scene how might you develop it?

The conflict begins when the shopkeeper hears the rustling, which poses a question i.e. what to do? Imagine the thoughts of the shopkeeper (inner dialogue) or perhaps she discusses it with a passerby (spoken dialogue), and they both go and look at the hedgehog. (Action) As a reader, I’d want to have some description of the railings, the railed off area and the hedgehog poking his nose out. Where do the steps lead? Was this the scene of a kidnapping a couple of years earlier, or had there been a fire, and the house subsequently torn down?

The middle of the scene then develops after the authorities are contacted. (Action) No doubt there are now two or three people waiting and watching until help arrives. Don’t forget there are six people involved in this incident! What was their interchange? (Dialogue or reported speech) Were there concerns about their ability to get through the railings? (Tension) Did they encounter any snags, like the saw blade breaking? (Building suspense) Would the hedgehog survive, even if they managed to cut through the railing? (More tension)

The climax of the scene is the hedgehog being rescued. (More description, dialogue/ reported speech) Is the animal going to live or does it stop moving? Is this the complete end of the story, or do two of the people find a connection and become involved in each other’s lives? Perhaps this is where a murderer first meets his next victim?

On its own, this is obviously a very simple scene. It could be made engaging in a myriad of ways from comedy to fable, the beginnings of a thriller to rich descriptive prose. Regardless of stylistic approach, there’s dramatic action, however small, which sends a character in a new direction. In this prickly tale (!), the shopkeeper was going about her business until she was on a mission to save a helpless little creature. To be successful, it needs to have ups and downs. The pitfalls encountered are dependent on the writer’s interpretation.

Simple story does not mean boring plot. Complicated plot does not mean interesting story. Getting the right balance is something an author needs to look at for each scene. And not all scenes have the same cadence or intensity. Some might give you some respite after one with high tension. Or perhaps towards the end of the novel, you might ratchet things up by piling on one crisis after another.

Balancing the tempo of each scene is a good start. Putting them together is like cooking a favorite dish: you combine the ingredients to suit your particular taste. But one shake too many of the saltcellar and the whole dish is ruined.

How does the plot progress in the novel you are reading or writing? Is it a slow build, or does it pack a punch from the beginning. Which to you prefer?


English: Close-up photograph of a Western Euro...
English: Close-up photograph of a Western European wild hedgehog in a semi-urban environment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Run, Crispin, run!.......................

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