How To Declutter Your Plot

Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 13: How To Declutter Your Plot


Writers Write is a comprehensive writing resource. In this post, we talk about how to declutter your plot when you’re writing a novel.

Welcome to week 13 of Anthony Ehlers’s series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week’s post here.

Goal setting

  1. Complete the planning of your scenes and chapters.
  2. Finding your antagonist’s motivation.
  3. Creating a workspace to write in.

Breaking it down

It’s complicated … or is it?

Writing is never easy. But sometimes we make it harder than it has to be. We forget that wonderful acronym: KISS. Keep it simple, stupid.

As I started to create the summaries of the scenes in my book, I found myself reading psychology books to understand the make-up of my characters, writing dense back-stories and just tying up my own feet.

Feeling frustrated, not to mention exhausted, I took a break and watched a movie.  Romeo and Juliet, the recent retelling of Shakespeare’s classic by Carlo Carlei, was great escapism — just the thing I needed to take my mind of my novel.

What struck me was just how simple, yet powerful, the plot is in this movie. Two lovers, from rival families, must find a way to be together even when it seems impossible.  It made me realise that if you give your characters strong motivations, backed up by even stronger emotions, your plot will be clear, unassailable, and believable.

I’m not saying you should write something simplistic or that will insult your reader’s intelligence. I’m just saying keep the characters and plot as ‘uncluttered’ as possible. In Romeo and Juliet, we have one central emotion (love) being tested by one central conflict (hate).

In my novel, I realised that the central emotion is jealousy. Jealousy is primal and powerful — as a writer, I can work with that. This realisation has come fairly late in the process, so I’m not sure how it will play out but I’m hoping it will keep me on track. 

Childhood disruption

In Writers Write, we often ask delegates to write about the one event that changed an antagonist’s life forever. This single incident, from their past, has irrevocably shaped their psychology.

This is a great exercise and one that’s worked for me. First, let me give you an example from real-life crime. The notorious serial killer, Dennis Nielsen, would kill his male lovers and keep their corpses in his apartment, often dressing them up and talking to them as if they were alive.

When we look at this charming fellow’s childhood, we find a clue to his behaviour. As a child, he loved his grandfather and saw him as a hero figure. When his grandfather died, he saw the corpse laid out on the kitchen table. In that single moment, love and death fused in his impressionable mind. He couldn’t separate them.

In my novel, where the story pivots on a stalker obsessed with a couple, I had a challenge. Stalkers typically have just one person they focus their (unwelcome) attentions on. So I had to find a childhood disruption that would make it believable that my stalker would become irrationally fixated on a couple.

I also had to do it in a way that would allow the reader to have some empathy with the antagonist. 

Escape rooms

Once, many years ago when I was a journalist, I was taken on a tour of an underground copper mine. I was shown an ‘escape room’ — a survival shelter which miners could use if there was ever an emergency or disaster underground. I sometimes think of a writer’s study or workplace as just such an escape room. Normally, I can write anywhere — at a coffee shop, in front of the TV, but when you need to write with focus, and without distraction, you do need a place where you can you escape to.

My study is crammed with books and cabinets filled with files, but I try to keep my desk clear of just my laptop and my novel notes. That allows me to be alone with just my story and my characters and settle into the process of writing.

I once read an article on Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections. He writes in a bare room with just his laptop. He wears earplugs, earmuffs, and a blindfold, so that the experience is completely immersive. For most of us, that may seem extreme, but the truth is you need an environment where you can be alone with your book. 

Timelock — 2.5 to 4 hours

2-3 hours for writing your scene or chapter outlines.
30 minutes – 1 hour for developing your antagonist’s motivation.

5 Quick Hacks

  1. ‘My only love, sprung from my only hate,’ laments Shakespeare’s Juliet. If you could sum up your story’s conflict in one line, what would it be?
  2. If a scene isn’t working, look at it from a different angle. Try introducing a new or different character to the scene — shake it up.
  3. Write down five reasons why you like or empathise with your main character. Would the reader feel the same way? Now do the same for the antagonist.
  4. Try Franzen’s method and wear ear buds and a blindfold. Is it easier to write in a soundless darkness? Or do you prefer some background noise?
  5. Don’t be afraid to throw away scenes that aren’t working — holding on to something that isn’t working will just cost you time and cause frustration.

Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination meets memory in the dark.’ — Annie Dillard

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

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Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

If you enjoyed this post, read:

  1. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 12: Time And Place
  2. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 11: State Of Mind
  3. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 10: Your Next Move