Monday, March 8, 2010

Scene Structure Part V – Plot Circles

Part of an ongoing series on Scene Structure.

Plot Circles

crop circle An interesting thing happened at my writer’s meeting the other day. One critiquer started asking me about various threads I left hanging, mentions of things not fully explained, strange words and other things. Since my story is a bit of a mystery, I’m sprinkling in clues for the reader to note. I did these things intentionally but subtly, trying not to call too much attention to them. But an astute reader will pick up on them and wonder, “what’s really going on?”

This is what I’m calling “Plot Circles.” Elements that appear earlier in the story must be addressed in later portions of the story. In fact, the more importance you give to them (judged by word count), the more they need to be addressed.

Here are some kinds on things that may need to be wrapped up later in a story.

  • Props – Unless it’s pure background, every prop should be used at some point. The more you describe something, the more likely it will be used. Characters don’t focus on background unless they see a tornado approaching. Describe only what’s important to the character, and important for the reader to remember.
  • Characters – Every character that acts, talks, or has a name is important. Don’t give “background” characters unneeded importance. If I’m in a coffee shop ordering a latte, I don’t provide the name of the barista or anyone in the shop unless it’s a recurring character.
  • Actions – Not everything your character does needs to make sense. In fact, usual-acting characters will draw the reader’s attention. But every time you call attention to strange activity, the more importance you give it. If there’s a crazy man disrupting things, he’d better have an important message. If a character keeps checking a watch, the reader will expect that something’s about to happen.
  • Communications – Notes, text messages, talking birds, calls from lost relatives, missives from Heaven, crop circles, these can all be great methods, but make sure they are followed up at some point. Sometimes the messenger can be as important as the message, but sometimes the messenger should be shot—ie, removed from the story.
  • Mentions – Things like “you know we can’t do that” without explanation. Sometimes it’s more important what you leave out of a scene than what you leave in. Vague references, thoughts, implications, tics, avoidance, obsessions, fears—these can all give the reader pause and wonder if something bigger is going on.
  • Misdirection/Lies – Some of these your reader can see clearly. Some are only revealed later. Characters lie to each other more often than not. They trust few people with the truth. However, without some dose of the truth, the reader will be lost. But more than that, lies are told for a reason, and that reason should be revealed at some point.

If you leave things hanging in early scenes, you need to complete the threads in later scenes. Here’s a list of some methods to wrap things up.

  • Reversals – I’ll have a whole post about this, but here’s an example. In scene 10, Joe loads a gun carefully. In scene 20, when he needs it, it’s empty. Why? You see how we complete the circle, but start a new one. BTW there better be a damn good explanation why it’s empty or your readers will revolt.
  • Revelations – Your character learns something new, a key piece of the puzzle. He puts 2 and 2 together. He connects characters. He sees things in a new light. He knows who the secret admirer is. He knows who emptied his gun. He now knows why he’s scared of dogs.
  • Conclusions – Using deductive reasoning, Col. Mustard could not have used the pipe wrench in the library. Tie things together. Eliminate the impossible. Point the finger.
  • Backstory – What haven’t we heard yet? What critical piece is missing? It might have been nice to know from the beginning that the main character has an older brother who is the true heir.
  • Confessions – Faced with harsh reality some characters finally admit the truth. Whether coerced or out of guilt, confessions reveal a lot. Perhaps a level of trust or mutual admiration has been earned.
  • Change – Lessons must be learned. What’s different now? Why did your character go through those hardships? Does he now know the proper salute?
  • Reality – What’s really going on? I believe that narrators should be honest. If you say that the sky is blue in scene 1, it shouldn’t be magenta in scene 52 unless something really strange is happening. The discovery of reality must be character-driven, otherwise you’re just playing tricks with your reader.

Here’s a technique to make sure you don’t leave incomplete circles. Run through each scene, and if there is anything mentioned that is not explained or used in that same scene, mark it. Then as you find the answers later in the book, cross them off. Once you’re done, you’ll find a bunch of things you may need to correct. Examples: What ever happened to that beautiful vase of wildflowers mentioned in scene 20? Did we ever find out if she found her birth parents? Why didn’t they just go downtown and spend the $40 for a marriage license? We go on and on about the Immortal Gods in chapter 7 but then never use a single one of them. We know that she lied on her job application, but nothing’s come of it. In chapter 12 she’s addicted to Ebay but in 27 it’s like it never happened. Didn’t he ask her out in the last chapter? How many colors can the sky be in one book? There was a great scene with her mom in chapter 4 but then we never see her again.

How do you find and complete your plot circles?


  1. I really love the points you mentioned here. I love especially how you say to mark unended plot lines.


  2. I love the tips and pointers you share. In my writing, I prefer the onion peel method where I might only reveal the back story towards the end of the book.

  3. I like the props thing. That's so important!

  4. This is great advice. I highlight things for myself so I can find them later. I don't think I go that detailed though.


  5. Oh, man. My eyes have been opened and I have some major work to do. You are the man!

  6. I guess I could have just called this "Plot Holes" but the point is to make sure each scene is consistent.
    Thanks for the comments!

  7. Just what I needed today. I am embarking on my NaNo09 edit which has many plot holes. Highlighting right up front will help me as I make my way through the manuscript. I'd rather do it on a first rewrite than after I've revised to the point where it's difficult to add or subtract.

    Timely and great advice--as always.

  8. Useful topic to cover, thanks! This is where outside readers are really helpful. Writing, and even editing, is such a slow process that it's hard to keep everything in your head. Someone who reads the whole novel in a few days can easily point out those dangling threads you didn't even realize you were dangling.


Constructive comments are welcome.
OpenID Required.