Keeping Your Story Focused

I thought this topic would be good to cover today as it was something I personally had to deal with this very weekend. Keeping a story focused means avoiding anything (majorly) extraneous to your plot. It’s that whole thing about not throwing everything and the kitchen sink into your project in the hope that something works. You may also refer to the analogy of throwing pancakes at the wall to see what sticks (although in that case it’s better if none of it sticks, surely?)

Let me start off with my own little dilemma as an example of this in practice.

In my story, I have two main factions who tolerate each other right now. Later in the story, they will be at each other’s throats. The trap I very nearly fell into was to add a third faction, an army of foreigners, to come in and provide my story’s big conflict. What I later realised was that I already had a great, meaningful conflict built up between my two original factions. To add a third would be to rob my story of its core conflict and simply muddy the waters with mindless ‘epicness’.

The great thing about this re-think was that I then had an idea for later books, if this ever became a trilogy. The third faction, albeit in a redefined form, can come into play further on down the line. Once my two main factions have played out their conflict and learned some hard lessons (yada yada), then these new guys can arrive and threaten the new relationship between the two original groups.

So, how did I come to realise I had too much going on in the plot? In truth, it was my wife who told me. Behind every great man, there is usually a woman telling him his ideas suck and pointing out the (obviously) better alternatives.

‘Why do you need those other enemies?’ she said. ‘You’ve already got a conflict.’ And so she went on to point out why the conflict I already had worked so well and then even suggested ways in which it could develop over the course of the story. Yeah. If I ever get published, I’ll have to credit my wife as ‘Editor of Plot Outline’.

As writers we can sometimes lack confidence in our own ideas. This is especially an issue for those writing epic fantasy. We look at guys like Brandon Sanderson, Steven Erikson and George R.R. Martin and we panic. We think we’re missing a whole bunch of stuff and so we proceed to throw things into the pot that have no business being there. In our struggle to find that sense of ‘epicness’ we can actually end up confusing the story and wrecking our carefully-crafted worlds.

A great way to get around this is to look at the mechanics of the plot. Identify what does what. What is creating conflict? Why does the conflict matter? How is the protagonist involved in that conflict? How does that develop the protagonist? Then you’ll start to see areas where things may be missing or where things are weighing down the plot.

Enjoyed this post? Why not join the discussion in the comments below? Go on, it’s sure to be epic!

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