Recapturing Your Main Story from an Overgrown Plot

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Hannah Earthman PicBy Hannah Earthman

So, the plot of what began as a simple-enough story has become less a sturdy structure and more a jungle, complete with crossed and tangled vines. If this has happened to you, you may have no idea how you got here. You only remember adding a reflective scene or two to lend your structure some satisfying symmetry; frosting your characters with a little more philosophy, a little more humor; taking mental notes as you listened to the news, watched political veterans snipe about the issues, read a great book, rewatched your favorite movie, observed a breathtaking sunset, etc., each time thinking I’ll use this in my writing, and my writing will be richer for it. And now here you are. A less-intrepid Mowgli in your own jungle story.

Fortunately, rescuing a comprehensible story that flows well and does justice to your original inspiration is possible. Here are some tips:

Pitch Your Story

Back-of-the-book paragraphs have probably intrigued you enough to plop down $30 for a hardcover before. You may have committed two-plus sitting-still hours of your life to a movie based on a summary two to three sentences long. Imagine for a moment you had to summarize your own work in such a brief space. (It may help to envision pitching to one of these brusque, British, book-genius types—short on patience, soft spot for greatness.)

Whatever you write down is the marketable heart of your story. The part that contains those few aspects out of the many that you see as most accurately descriptive of why someone should devote time and money to read your work.

This exercise naturally makes you think about what would make you want to pick up and read your own story, which in turn can help you refocus on the most compelling points of the unique beast you’ve written and rewritten and rewritten.

Write Your Synopsis

You may not end up needing to create a full proposal to sell your novel—but you may just need one to finish writing it. Various page counts are advocated as the ideal length when you’re talking about an official book proposal, but all that’s important here is that you focus on brevity and logical flow.

Trying to jump into a mangled outline and make repairs can give you such a case of the nerves that suddenly Windexing bathroom handles and faucets seems monumentally important; writing your synopsis, on the other hand, can better lend itself to a starting-fresh mindset. Fill somewhere in the neighborhood of two to twenty pages with the highlights of your story, focusing on the strongest, most story-connected aspects of characterization, major events, how those major events connect, first- and second-string problems and their precise resolutions, and so on.

If your story has holes that need to be filled, or vines that need to be hacked back, those issues will probably manifest clearly as you write your synopsis. In a synopsis, you don’t have to “murder your darlings” but you do, by and large, ignore them as you put together a barebones version of your story.

Go Green

Well, go organic anyway. And by that I mean: take a break from structure altogether. Are visions of a twenty-page multi-font-colored outline looming in your head? To the point it’s hard to pick out what your real story is even about anymore? Then maybe it’s time to take your eyes off that particular forest (or, again, jungle) and pick a single tree.

Think of one of your characters, one with a voice that’s fairly well defined. Listen to her. Think of something that feels natural for her to do, some niche mischief that is so her. Don’t start planning exactly how it tethers to the whole of your story. Just write it. Let your character take over, and indulge. Write not exactly for the somewhat broad joy of writing itself but for the joy of reconnecting with this character in this story.

Doing so can work in the same way as sitting down to have a relaxed dinner with someone you care about but haven’t spent enough time with lately—it can help you rather effortlessly clarify your priorities. Which in turn can help you weed out the irrelevant so that what does matter can really shine.

And Finally . . .

The outline itself. When you’ve pitched, proposed, and gone organic on your story, you will probably have a much clearer idea about keepers versus clutter. Before you start trying to upcycle that clutter into a new story, though, return to your outline—you’re ready to tackle it now.

Naturally, as in all areas of writing, different approaches complement different writers. You may want to scrap the old one wholesale and start anew, working primarily from your synopsis, or you may want to work from your original, snipping out the pieces that no longer fit and augmenting it with material from the synopsis.

An experienced literary editor can be of significant help if you’re having doubts about the structure of your novel. Turn to an editor when you need an objective opinion, a professional assist with developmental/structural aspects, or when you’ve made it through that foreboding stage and are ready for someone to polish your work and make it gleam.


Hannah Earthman is an experienced editor whose background in publishing also includes reviewing books, conducing author interviews, and serving as a literary agent. As a reviewer, she has worked for Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Indie. For Kirkus, she reviewed self-published novels, memoirs, historical accounts, and instructional manuals. For Publishers Weekly, she reviewed novels along with books related to sports, psychology, self-help, culture, and parenting, providing a succinct analysis of strengths and flaws. For this venue, she also conducted Q&As with authors including ESPN’s Matthew Berry and served as a judge for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. A member of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), she continues to work with the Publishers Weekly BookLife program as an editor and a judge for the BookLife Prize in Fiction.

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