Have you ever felt like there’s a mismatch in a story’s plot? Like something was paid off at the end that wasn’t set up at the beginning? Or like something was set up at the beginning and then you were disappointed it didn’t pay off?
There are a few reasons why that can happen. (The simplest reason is when you set things up in the beginning and then you just forget about them at the end, and you end up with these dangling plot threads hanging out midway through your book!)
But that’s not really my point today. There’s one reason in particular that I want to talk about here.
This one’s not just that you forgot something in the middle of your story—it’s a bigger issue than that, and it’s one where you have to know what you’re looking for in order to spot it in your book.
In this article, I’m going to show you what to look for—and how to fix it.
Story Structure in 6 Parts
Before I get into the problem I often see, let me give you a quick overview of how story works.
In the inciting incident, you introduce a problem.
In the progressive complications, you make that problem more complex. Things happen that make it better, things happen that make it worse—but overall, it escalates.
In the turning point, your protagonist is finally FORCED to deal with the problem. They can’t just let it slide anymore—something has happened that forces them to take action.
In the crisis, your protagonist debates what to do about the problem: this thing or that thing? Stay or go? Ask the girl out, or don’t ask her out? Kill or be killed?
In the climax, your protagonist makes their choice and takes action to solve the problem.
And in the resolution, we see what the world looks like now that they’ve solved the problem (or at least tried to—there’s no guarantee that they’ll succeed).
If all those words—inciting incident through resolution—were new to you, I highly recommend that you check out What Is a Scene? The Ultimate Guide to Write and Edit Amazing Scenes, where I break down these six elements of story structure in more detail.
The Path to a Disappointing Ending
Notice that in this whole arc, we are dealing with the same problem. The problem that’s introduced in the inciting incident is the same problem that we have to reckon with in the turning point and crisis and that we try to solve in the climax.
Here’s where this falls apart: a common mistake I see in drafts that writers send me is they solve a problem that’s different from the one we have.
What that means is, the problem in the progressive complications doesn’t match the problem in the turning point, crisis, and climax.
And that makes the end of the story really disappointing.
Here’s an extreme, sort of outlandish example to illustrate what I mean.
Example: Christina’s Big Break
Imagine we have a novel about a group of theater students putting on a school musical. At the beginning of the story, our protagonist gets cast in the lead role. Let’s call her Christina. Christina is finally getting her big break in the high school theater world.
Then, throughout the bulk of the story, we see all the ins and outs of preparing to put on this musical. We get a drama club full of drama. All kinds of issues crop up to complicate this musical—their rehearsals, the set, dynamics among the cast, whether Christina’s parents even want her to be in the musical.
The middle of this book is full of escalating challenges.
And we’re continually building on that question of: can Christina make it? Is she going to rock that performance? Is she going to put on an amazing musical?
And then we get to opening night. Curtain’s about to go up. Christina’s about to go onstage.
And then there’s a problem—turns out that the principal of the school is running an illegal underground drug ring, and Christina and a couple of her theater buddies have to go sneak into his office while he’s distracted by opening night in order to steal secret documents from a hidden drawer in his desk and pass them off to the FBI so they can shut him down.
And they do it! We get this exciting climactic heist scene, very fun and scary and cool and thrilling.
And then we come back to the school play, and we get a page or two to sum up the fact that Christina did in fact manage to jump back onstage just in time to perform her big solo number, so congratulations, Christina.
The Mismatch in Christina’s Story
Do you see the problem there?
When we opened the book, we introduced one problem: Christina wants to play the lead in the school musical, and there’s no guarantee that she can do it. All the way through the middle of the book, we built on this problem.
And then at the end of the book, we did solve a problem—we had an amazing climactic heist scene to take down the crooked principal. That’s a very real problem, and we solved it in a really fun way!
But the problem we solved is different from the problem that we had.
In this example, Christina’s performance, which is the focus of most of the book, becomes an afterthought at the end. She does go onstage and perform, and we get a couple pages to let us know it goes fine.
If I wanted to emphasize this issue even more, though, I could leave that out entirely—maybe the heist takes the duration of the whole entire musical, and she comes back to the auditorium at the very end to see everyone applauding her understudy.
2 Potential Mismatches Between the Problem You Have and the Problem You Solve
Now, like I said, this example is pretty outlandish. I’ve never received a manuscript that spent eighty-five percent of the story rehearsing a musical and the last fifteen percent executing a heist to take down a drug ring.
But I do see this problem crop up a lot in much more subtle ways.
1. The Book-Long Mismatch
This can happen at the level of your entire book. You might spend most of the book focusing on one problem, then switch to a different problem in the climax.
Sometimes this happens when there was a subplot in the background of the story, and the subplot has big, dramatic, life-or-death stakes, and so it feels like centering the life-or-death stakes in the climax of the story is going to be more interesting than the quieter stakes of the main plot.
So in order to keep your reader engaged and feel like you’re paying off something really exciting, you make the main climax of the whole book actually be about the subplot.
Paradoxically, that actually works against you, even if the subplot’s stakes are life-or-death. If we spent eighty-five percent of the book focusing on a problem with quieter stakes, we are really darn invested in those quiet stakes.
We don’t need guns blazing in order to be engaged in that climax. We want to find out whether Christina is going to pull off that big solo.
That is dramatic enough all on its own when you’ve done the work of building up to it throughout the whole book.
2. The Scene-Long Mismatch
This can also happen within a scene. You can have an exciting and interesting climax of a scene, but the build of the scene isn’t exactly relevant to that climax.
Unlike with the book as a whole, this issue usually isn’t caused by a subplot taking center stage.
Often when this happens, the writer just isn’t sure what should happen in the progressive complications.
They know they need to have some stuff happen to build up to the climax, but they’re not sure what it should be. So they throw some events in there, and those events are hurdles the protagonist faces.
But they’re not really relevant to the climax.
They don’t build tension around the climax problem; they’re unrelated problems that build a different tension just for the sake of filling space on the page before we get to the climax.
What to Do When Your Story Solves a Problem That’s Different From the One You Have
So what do you do if your story has this issue? What do you do if your story solves a problem that’s different from the one you have?
Step 1: Recognize there’s a problem.
Well, the first thing to do is to recognize that this issue is happening in your book. This can be a little tricky to see sometimes, so I’ll give you a few different questions you can use to spot it.
Version 1: Does the climax match the progressive complications? Do you establish a problem in the inciting incident and progressive complications, and then address that same problem in the turning point, crisis, and climax?
Version 2: Is the kind of tension that you’re building in the beginning and the middle the same as the kind of tension that you’re resolving in the climax?
Version 3: Are you setting up the thing that you’re paying off? Are you paying off the thing that you’re setting up?
Version 4: Are you opening a dramatic question at the beginning of the story, pursuing that dramatic question in the middle of the story, and answering that same question at the end of the story?
The first step is simply noticing that there’s a mismatch in your story. You can’t fix anything if you aren’t aware there’s a problem!
Step 2: Identify your two plots.
Suppose you do discover this problem in your story. What then?
The next step is to recognize that you essentially have two plots going on. This is especially true when this happens at the level of the whole novel.
You have the plot that you introduced at the beginning and built up through the first eighty-five percent of the book—that is, you have Christina’s performance story, her effort to make it in her high school musical.
And you have the plot that happens in the turning point, crisis, and climax—that is, you have Christina’s drug-busting heist.
Both of these could be great plots! Christina performing in a musical could be a great book. And Christina taking down a drug ring could be a great book.
But you can’t have this mismatch—spending most of the book building up one of those plots, then paying off the other plot at the end.
Which brings me to your third step to solve this problem.
Step 3: Choose what the book is really about.
You have to choose.
You have to choose one of those plots and determine that that is what your book is really about.
Pick the most important one. The one you really want to tell. That’s your main plot. That’s what the book is really about.
And once you’ve done that, you’re ready for step four.
Step 4: Edit your book to focus on that plot from start to finish.
Make both the progressive complications and the climax focus on that plot.
Here’s what that would look like in Christina’s story:
Version 1: Christina the Musical Theater Geek
If I decide that the story I want to write is Christina performing in a musical, then I’ll keep all those progressive complications where the drama club rehearses dramatically.
And I’ll rewrite the climax so that the whole climax is about that opening night performance and all the tension and stakes of Christina going on stage to sing that solo. Is she going to bomb it, or is this her big break?
Version 2: Christina the Secret Agent
If I decide that the story I want to write is Christina taking down a drug ring, I’ll keep that climactic heist scene.
And I’ll rewrite the inciting incident and the middle of the book to be about her getting wind of a possible drug ring operating out of the school, and then sniffing around looking for clues, until boom, in the turning point of the book, we learn that it was the principal who was behind it all along and Christina will have to find her way into his office to steal those documents at some point when he’s distracted for at least a couple of hours.
Your Secret Weapon: Subplots
I want to note here that when you’re choosing between your two plots, selecting the one your story is really about, and then restructuring your book to focus on that plot, you don’t have to let go of the second plot entirely. You don’t have to cut the second plot from your book.
That second plot can absolutely be a subplot. In fact, it’s possible that keeping it—while ensuring it stays a subplot—will enrich the story you’re telling.
Here’s what that would look like for Christina.
Version 1: Christina the Secret Agent (Who’s Also in a Musical)
If I decide that the main plot is a thriller where Christina is taking down a drug ring, and the subplot is Christina getting cast as the lead in the school play, then the bulk of the book will be about Christina searching for clues.
But at the same time, the context in which she’s searching for clues is going to be those school play rehearsals.
On opening night, maybe she has to convince an understudy to go on for her so she can sneak away without anyone noticing to break into the principal’s office.
And then in the last scene of the book, the resolution, we see her on closing night, singing her heart out onstage. She did it; she performed in the play, just like she wanted.
Even the crooked principal couldn’t keep her from her dreams.
Version 2: Christina the Musical Theater Geek (With an Amateur Sleuth Best Friend)
If I decide that the main plot is a performance story where Christina is cast as the lead in the school musical and the subplot is a takedown of a drug ring, then the bulk of the book will be about the challenges Christina faces as she rehearses for the musical.
But at the same time, in the background, we’ll get hints that something shady is going on.
Maybe her best friend is investigating some shady things happening around the school, and Christina keeps telling her she doesn’t want to be involved, but it’s so close to her she can’t not see some of it.
And then on opening night, her best friend tells her she’s going to sneak into the principal’s office during the musical, and Christina has to both nail her performance and make sure that the musical is entertaining enough that the principal never gets distracted and walks out.
So the story is really about Christina’s musical aspirations, but in the background, there’s this thriller plot that’s happening alongside her big break.
Some Subplots Are More Common Than Others
Side note, I don’t think it’s super common to have thriller subplots. I really just gave you that illustration to show you how I could choose whatever I want to be the main plot of Christina’s story.
But creating this example did remind me of the YA novel The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, which is about a world with all your supernatural creatures and magical battles to save the world, but the protagonist and his friends are the normal kids who aren’t involved in any of that.
It’s like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but told from the perspective of one of the regular kids who’s just trying to pass physics.
So if you’re wondering whether there’s a real-life comp novel for Christina’s performance story with a thriller subplot, that might be an interesting book to check out.
Know Which Plot Is the Main Plot
Anyway, my point with all this is, it is absolutely fine to have subplots. It’s great to have subplots! They can enhance your story in really fun ways.
But the key is to remember which plot is the main plot and which plot is the subplot. And make absolutely sure that the problem you pay off in the climax is the same as the problem that you set up in the inciting incident and progressive complications.
Make sure that the problem you solve is the same as the problem you have.
Your Turn: Does Your Story Solve the Same Problem It Introduces?
So now it’s your turn. I invite you to pull out a scene of your story, or think through the plot of your story as a whole.
Start with the inciting incident at the beginning. What problem are you introducing right at the start?
Then, look at the progressive complications. What problem are you escalating all through the middle?
Next, look at the turning point, crisis, and climax. What problem are you solving towards the end?
Is that problem that you’re solving the same as the problem you introduced at the beginning and set up in the middle?
And if it’s not, ask yourself: what is this scene, or what is this book, really about?
Which story do you really want to tell?
And once you know that, edit it to match.
It’s that simple, and that challenging.
I’ll be back next week with another tip to help you edit your novel. Until then, happy editing!