Extreme Book Makeover: Widen your plot to keep your middle from sagging!

Rachel Hauck

***warning…long post!***

Do you feel like the tension in your story has started to sag?

That you are simply rehashing old plot problems?  It can be a challenge in Act 2 to keep the reader caring, the story filled with enough tension to keep the pages turning.

I watched Saving Mr. Banks this weekend.  Wanted to love it.  But it had a few problems.  The main character (Pamela) suffered from a fatal case of unlike ability, even with her backstory – and got redeemed too late.  But that’s another topic.  Bigger was the issue that, aside from Walt Disney wanting to keep a promise to his daughter (the stakes of the story),  we simply stopped caring about the character, mostly due to her obsessive need to get the story right.

Thankfully, the story tension is resuscitated by the backstory, and the fear of young Pamela losing her father.

In other words, Peripheral Plotting saved the day. 

If your story seems to be going in circles, or worse, dying…this trick just might give it the life it needs to hang on.

Peripheral Plotting is the technique of pulling in ancillary elements and using them to create more tension in your plot.  Ideally, it will push your character along their journey, creating more sympathy for your character – and even motivation for their next choices.

How does Peripheral Plotting work?

I’m going to veer away from Saving Mr. Banks for a moment and look at Live Free or Die Hard, a movie in the Bruce Willis saves the world franchise. Live Free or Die Hard is a perfect example of peripheral plotting.

The story is that basically, through the Internet, the bad guys are trying to take over all the transportation, finances and utilities in the United States, and if they succeed, the entire world as we know it will collapse. Fascinating, big stakes. The problem is, that after a while, we as the viewer become bored or hardened to these larger stakes. The story starts to sag.

Ultimately, we only care about stories that touch our hearts, and frankly, survival of the world, while important, just feels untouchable. Thankfully, the creator chooses to make it personal. He kidnaps John’s estranged daughter and threatens her life. Suddenly, there are new stakes to the story. By putting pressure on John to save his daughter and abandon the quest to save the world, we now have a twist that re-engages the reader into the storyline. He has to choose between survival of the world, or saving his daughter…and suddenly there is new life injected into the story.

The technique of reaching beyond the main storyline to find those fringe elements and using them to exert pressure into the story is called Peripheral Plotting. The creator could have used a stranger off the street and threatened their lives – but this wouldn’t have been personal to John, and therefore wouldn’t have touched our hearts. He could have decided to threaten the life of the president, but this is too far out of the periphery for John. Peripheral Plotting requires that the plot element be Personal and close in Proximity.

Another great example of Peripheral Plotting was the television show 24. Notice how, at any given point, Jack Bauer had two or three other issues to deal with, on a personal level, along with saving the world.

The gem of this plotting is that all of these things are happening at the same time, making it harder for Jack to complete the big picture task.  Most of all, all of these plotting elements conspire to raise the stakes and keep the adrenaline flowing in the story.

Peripheral Plotting works in the same way.

Flashbacks and Backstory

In Saving Mr. Banks, our unlikable heroine has an obsessive need to get every element of the story exactly as she sees it in head – the story she put on the pages.  Which, does not include dancing penguins and singing.  We begin to understand this as we travel through her backstory, delivered in flashes along the way.  As the backstory tension grows stronger, it gives greater motivation for our character’s decisions in the present.  Finally, at the climax, it helps us understand her decision for abandoning the project.

I’m not a huge fan of using flashbacks as a peripheral plotting device – but it does work.  (And I’ve done this myself).


This is one of my favorite methods of creating more tension.  Notice I didn’t include Subplot – while a subplot (a story in a story) is a great way to increase the enjoyment of the story – and, should in fact connect with the main plot in some way, it is not a peripheral plotting device – which, by nature, must put pressure on the main plot.  A Layer, however is a great peripheral plotting tool.  A Layer is the introduction of a character or story thread that enhances the theme of the main plot, and causes more conflict for the main POV character as he/she considers his/her choices. A Layer should cause a character to change and grow – which is exactly the point of peripheral plotting.

How do you find those Peripheral Plotting elements?

Look around you – each one of us has people and things we care about in a widening circle. This is our periphery.

Let’s say my goal is to get my character to the airport so she can get to Seattle to see her mother for Easter. In a linear plot, all that might stand between her and her goal might be transportation, or perhaps money. Maybe getting time off from her job.

But let’s do some peripheral plotting.

Here is where I create an Idea Web and use some Visual Plotting.  With my character at the center, I then draw a web of the things he or she cares about around that central hub. Then it’s easy to see the big picture and create scenarios or “what-ifs” for each of these things.

I then pick someone or something in my character’s periphery and create trouble. Something that could potentially divert my hero’s attention, or even damage her. As she races to solve this peripheral problem, of course, the larger stake is affected, and worsens.

This is the use of Peripheral Plotting to create Peripheral Stakes. (I often use Inspiration Software, a brainstorming program, to gather my thoughts.)

So, going back to my “what if” scenario…I’ll chose my character’s son and cause some trouble.

What if she gets a call from the principle of the school? Her son has had a fight on the playground and they can’t find his father (who is supposed to pick him up). She must get off work early and go to the school.

After meeting with the principle, she calls her husband and discovers that he never showed up at work today. Let’s add more stress to the plot and say that they are estranged. Now, my character’s husband has been pulled in from the periphery.

Now what does she do?  She has a sister – we can pull her into the story and consider that she could drop her son off at the sister’s house.  But when she arrives, her sister is in crisis because her daughter has a high fever – and she has to take her to the hospital. Which means her son has to stay with her.

And…just to add more tension, we’ll have that son come down with a fever, too.

She heads home to get her bags.  When she gets home, she discovers that her house has been broken into. Now she has the missing husband, the sick son and the ransacked house to deal with.  Oh, and let’s not forget her mother.  I might then also turn the focus back onto the main goal by having her mother call, and tell my character that she is on her way to the hospital with chest pains.

Now, you don’t have to follow every peripheral element – (you don’t want to make the situation unbelievable!) but now I’ve created enough tension threads to keep the story moving.

As you’re plotting, ask: What is the worst thing (within reason) that could happen, right now, to someone or something in your periphery that would derail your own quest in life?

Finding Peripheral Stakes opens up new scenes, new secondary characters, new plotlines and new opportunities for character growth and adds tension to a muddling plot.

If you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with me! Hopefully this was helpful. We’ll continue with our Extreme Book Makeover of ACT 2 next week with a chat about adding those surprising twists and turns!

Go! Write something Brilliant!

SMW signature


PS – this is the last day to enter the Frasier Contest.  Check it out here!

PPS – we still have a few spaces left for our Kiss and Tell Retreat – learn how to write a best-selling romance!


Cat Got Your Tongue?

I was recently sent a link to a blog post with a request to read through it. As I did, I felt eerily like I was reading someone else’s blog. It sounded suspiciously like the individual had taken on the persona of someone else in my community.

I don’t think this was a ploy to steal someone else’s work. Oh no. It was much more serious than that. This writer was actually being a literary impersonator. They were writing in another person’s voice, other than their own.

I pondered their reasoning for quite some time and the more I wondered about it, I couldn’t help but ask, “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” That’s the only viable explanation I could find for someone not using their own unique—and God given—literary voice.

I know there are many reasons why this happens. Most of those reasons are completely unfounded so I’d like to uproot them for you here, sort of my way of snatching your tongue back from Prissy the feline thief:

I’m not good enough. So many writers try to emulate their favorite authors because they don’t believe they are good enough to write on their own. Well, may I point out that how good you are is beside the point? No one starts out good enough. Writing is a craft that must be honed and developed. So, if you’re not good enough, accept it and work at it. It’s simple, really.

I have nothing to say. If that’s true, please place two fingers on the side of your neck because to not have anything to jaw on about means you are no longer living. Here’s the kicker. Others need to hear what you need to say. Yep. It’s true. That’s by God’s design as well. So don’t buy that sack of horse hocky telling you there’s nothing in your world worth telling others about.

People won’t like me. Umm… well, that’s true, at least for some. No one is liked by everybody. Not even Princess Diana or Mother Teresa. So you’re in good company. Some people won’t like you. They may even be critical of you and what you write. Know what Mother T would say? “Write anyway.”

I’ll make mistakes. Of course you will. Otherwise there would be absolutely nothing to fill up the blooper reels with. Hey, lighten up. It’s actually fun to be fodder for someone else’s roast. Look, there’s not a person alive who hasn’t done something that was worthy of a “World’s Dumbest…” episode. I bet that’s the way Peter felt when that rooster announced “It’s morning, you moron!!” It happens. Learn to live with it.

Here’s the thing: AUTHENTICITY RULES!

There are well known celebrities who have lifestyles I don’t subscribe to. That being said, I have absolute upmost respect for them because they live authentically as who they are. They don’t try to be someone else. They speak in their own voice and don’t try to impersonate anyone else.

Please be you! Don’t let the cat get your tongue. Be you and write in your voice. The world needs YOU, your story, and you message told just the way you would. Please don’t deprive the world of YOU. That would be tragic.

Give us you!

When The Backstory IS The Story

Rachel Hauck, Princess Ever After

Sometimes writing a story takes a left turn.

The normal structure just doesn’t seem to work.

You can’t seem to get any life when writing scenes in the present day.

But every time you reference the past or the backstory, wow, things happen. The story pops. You’re excited about writing.

Sometimes a story’s backstory is so large it really IS the story.

This is different than backstory drifts where the author wanders off the main stage and “reminisces” of some past event with prose.

I’m talking about when the set up of the story, the life of the characters before the story opens is so large and complicated the present day story, the on stage scenes, really exist to highlight the backstory.

At this point, your book is about fixing and healing the past and bring the characters to a new place in life.

Most of the time, backstory sprinkles a story with motivation, helps expose the wound and lie and fear.

But it’s minor.

The problem on the stage, the present day story, is what drives the scenes.

The author sprinkles in backstory to show and explain.

But when the present day scenes are more or less channels to expose the backstory, you have entered the What-Is-This? zone of novel writing!

I know, I went to the zone. Unknowingly.

See, my backstory was the story. But the novel was about how my hero and heroine discovered the past they thought was behind them was actually not.

So, when the hero comes to the heroine and says, “We’re in the same boat we were in 5 years ago,” all the pain, the questions, the love come rushing back to the surface.

Now every scene revolves around putting the H/H together in the present with some minor situation that forces them however to deal with their very major past.

How do you know you’re starting down this path?

I’m not entirely sure but one thing I can tell you, is if the backstory feels large to you, you’re entering the What-Is-This? zone.

If you spend more time telling your friends or writing partners the backstory as opposed to the present day story, you might be in the What-Is-This? zone.

Look, this isn’t official My Book Therapy “how to” or “try this” methodology.

This is one writer to the next telling you this can happen.

Is it a bad thing?

Not at all!

In fact, it can be a very powerful thing. Just be aware it can be difficult to write.

One, how do you fill the reader in on a rather emotional backstory without a lot of telling?

You can use flashbacks.

You can have diaries or other written correspondence.

You can have a lot of secrets and the hero and heroine have to finally confess the truth.

But in some way, the back story becomes the sub plot.

For me, I didn’t want a lot of flashbacks because it felt ordinary. And for some reason it didn’t feel like the rights way to tell the story.

So, I inserted memory moments.

As the hero or heroine remembered something about the other, in a present day scene, I’d add italic memories, including dialog.

No more than 5-7 lines but getting straight to the emotion and the reasons why the loved each other in the first place.

It’s a bit different but I felt it was a quick way to draw in the reader’s emotions.

Writing should be fun.

We should find ways to follow the “rules” while be creative with story telling and presenting the story.

So, if you find yourself in a difficult story situation, think outside the box. Who else, how else, can you tell the story?

If you’re struggling with your story, maybe the backstory is large. Think about it.

Then adjust your story telling to accommodate healing and fixing the past.

Hope this helps

Happy writing

Do That One Thing!

successI’ve been buried under an avalanche of frustration due to a software conversion. Have you ever been through one of those? During the first week of the conversion, the phone rang off the hook with questions and snags between the old software and the new. 

I know having a sprinkling of gray hair is considered elegant, but I think I grew a whole new patch of gray hair in the last three months. (Seriously, ask my friends).

When we started this conversion I knew it was going to be difficult and I thought I planned accordingly. But I didn’t. Before I knew it, all of my writing time was lost because of the unforeseen problems that developed.

One day in the midst of pulling out my hair – a wise friend asked me.

“What is the one thing you can do to reach towards your dream today? What’s the one thing you can do in order to have forward motion?”

I looked at her at like she was crazy. Certifiable.

“Um, write?”

“Good, then go do it.”

*Snort* “When? I’m working a 50-60 hour work-week on top of family and church obligations.”

“Do you really want to write?” Yes, she gave me the eye roll when she asked this question.

“Of course.” I rolled my eyes back.

“Then do it – even better leave your desk and go to lunch somewhere.”

I was trying to pull one foot out of the avalanche and she’s talking lunch? Lunch was a salad or a burger at my desk and I told her so.

Her response?

“Listen, when you are that frustrated you need to take a break. You can’t see the forest from the trees when you are so wound up. Why not do something you enjoy to get your mind off of it? You’ll go back refreshed.”

Now, you and I both know that’s not rocket science but I needed to be reminded.

I plan on embracing that one thing for myself today.

Here are some ideas that may help you:

  • Can you use your lunch break and
  • Write a scene
  • Edit a scene
  • Read a blog on writing
  • Research your next writing retreat
  • Skype / Facetime a craft partner to work on their scene?
  • Skype / Facetime a craft partner to work on your scene?

Combine Family and Writing Time

Sunday’s at my home, is a day designated for church and family. What do we do? My boys and husband love sports. I know this may be blasphemy to some, but I’m not an avid sports fan. While I find it sometimes entertaining, I’m not over-the-top enthralled and would rather write. My compromise? I casually watch, I cook the upcoming weeks meals and sometimes get to work on my laptop. I may not do actual writing, I may just prep my next scene or edit but it’s one thing I can do for forward motion.

As we approach the end of the first quarter, what’s the one thing you can do to achieve those goals you wrote down at the beginning of the year?