Diagnose Story Problems by X-raying Your Plot

When authors I work with struggle with certain foundational elements of their stories—like keeping characters moving along clearly defined arcs, maintaining momentum and stakes, story structure, or just getting lost in the forest when they’re so deep into it—there’s one tool I’ve been recommending for years: the plot X-ray.

These take only about an hour or so to create, and yet almost every author I’ve ever suggested the device to initially rejects the idea: “I already have an outline”; “This seems simplistic”; “I already know the story so well.”

And without fail, as soon as they try it every single one has said some version of, “Holy cow, that was useful.”

An x-ray is simple, but not simplistic. It’s a way to reduce the often overwhelming mass of 70K words or more into a tight, clear two- or three-page snapshot of the bones of the story—which is why I call it an x-ray.

Here’s how to make one:

Skimming through your full manuscript, note down every single plot event that moves the story forward. The trick is to keep it brief—one line or so per story development, no more than three pages total. I like to use bullet points, and you may have one bullet-point event per chapter, or ten—it depends on your story.

Even if you are a meticulous plotter and have an outline already, I recommend doing this from your actual manuscript; things can get lost in translation and it’s essential to assess what is actually on the page.

Because most of us have seen The Princess Bride, let’s use the first few scenes of the movie by way of example (you can see a book version example using The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown in my book Intuitive Editing):

X-ray example: The Princess Bride

  • A grandfather begins to read a story to his sick grandson
  • Westley and Buttercup fall in love
  • Westley leaves to seek his fortune so they may marry
  • Buttercup learns Westley is killed by Dread Pirate Roberts; she will never love again
  • Prince Humperdinck chooses Buttercup as his bride; she does not love him
  • Buttercup is accosted by three men and kidnapped
  • They are pursued by a mysterious ship. Buttercup jumps overboard to escape—the kidnappers retrieve her just before the shrieking eels attack
  • The little boy is hooked; his grandfather reassures him, he feigns unconcern but exhorts him to read on
  • The kidnappers and Buttercup reach Cliffs of Insanity ahead of the ship behind them; Fezzik climbs them all up while the Man in Black pursues
  • Vezzini takes Buttercup and the Giant and leaves swordsman Inigo to kill the man
  • Inigo waits for the man to recover and tells him of his vengeance mission. They fight a close duel; the man wins but leaves Inigo alive
  • The man faces the giant in a hard-fought battle of strength and wins. He leaves Fezzik alive and continues his pursuit of the princess
  • He faces off with Vezzini in a battle of wits and wins; he procures the princess

You can see how brief each bullet point is, and how quick the x-ray is to make—this tool is only for you, and you know your story well enough to shorthand the scenes. The key is to make sure you are noting every plot event that moves the story forward—meaning it furthers the plot, moves the character further along her arc, and/or raises or complicates the stakes. In the strongest stories, each scene accomplishes a combination or two or all of these. Scenes should never just “establish” something—they must always move the story forward.

Now you can use this x-ray as a tool to diagnose what may be hampering your story. Start by assessing it as a whole: Based only on this bullet-point outline, does the story hold together overall? Is the whole an answer to the overarching story question—the main reason readers are reading (i.e., Will Katniss survive the Hunger Games and keep her family intact?). Are there plot holes? Does every event inexorably lead to the next? Is every plot event a direct result of or an obstacle to the event that preceded it?

One way to check these foundational areas is what I call the South Park “but/therefore” test, based on how Matt Stone and Trey Parker approach writing their TV show: Does every scene connect to the next with either the word “but” or “therefore”? Meaning is each scene connected as a result of or an obstacle to the scene preceding it? If your scenes are connected with the words “and then,” it’s usually a sign of an episodic story, one that may not have strong structure, momentum, or conflict.

Example: The Princess Bride

  • Westley and Buttercup fall in love—BUT he is killed when he leaves to seek his fortune to support her
  • THEREFORE Buttercup must accept the Prince’s suit—BUT she is kidnapped
  • A ship is in pursuit and THEREFORE she tries to escape to it, BUT the eels and kidnappers prevent her
  • THEREFORE the little boy is alarmed and pulls us out of the story, BUT his grandfather encourages him to read on to find out what happens
  • THEREFORE we see Buttercup is okay, BUT the mysterious ship still pursues the kidnappers
  • THEREFORE they climb the Cliffs of Insanity, BUT the Man in Black is right behind them
  • THEREFORE Vezzini tasks Inigo with killing him; THEREFORE they duel

…and so on.

Looking at the x-ray and considering the above foundational story questions, if the answer to any of them is no, assess each bullet-pointed plot event:

  • Which scenes are treading water, and why?
  • What needs to be done to address the issue?
  • Or is the scene actually essential for the story (meaning does it further the plot, advance the character(s) along her arc, or raise stakes)?

You can use the x-ray to diagnose any number of other potential problems in your manuscript—here are just a handful of the many questions you can ask yourself:

  • Does the story start in the right place? Do the first scenes clearly illustrate the protag’s point A, the beginning of her arc? Can you identify the story’s inciting event, and does it occur within the first 10 percent or so of the manuscript?
  • Does each scene in the story move your character closer to her goal or threaten to derail its attainment? Do we see clearly identifiable high and low points throughout the protag’s journey to that goal? Is the character’s arc always on either an upward or downward trajectory? (Flat lines are narrative dead space.) Do we clearly see the story’s and character’s major turning points, from upward trajectory to downward?
  • Is every single story event necessary to move your protag along the path of her journey? Is each one related to her ultimate goal?
  • Do we see something standing in the way of her goals—ultimate and/or immediate—at each stage of her journey? Is there any easier or better way past the challenge or out of each mess? (The answer must be no, or your protag would take the easier path.)
  • Are there loose ends? Unanswered questions? Anything unresolved?
  • Any unmotivated actions we don’t see why your protag takes? Is each plot development realistic? Believable? Any unsupported deus ex machina—plot devices that aren’t paved in and seem to come out of nowhere?
  • What is the story’s climax, and does it occur within 10-15 percent or so of the end of the story? Does it show the character’s greatest challenge so far—the highest high point? Is it preceded by the lowest low point in her arc?
  • Does the story end in the right place? What is the story’s resolution, and does it clearly show the protag’s point B, the culmination of her arc?
  • And remember the holy-grail uber-question: Does every single plot event move the story forward?

In Intuitive Editing I offer many more ways to use the x-ray, and you’ll find many of your own as well—another lovely thing about this tool is how well it adapts to the needs of each author and each story.

For instance, with multiple-POV stories, you can use a different-color font for the each POV character in the bullet-point list (as with the framing story in Princess Bride of the little boy), allowing you to separately evaluate each characters’ arc and storyline, as we’ve begun to do above, as well as to visually see at a glance whether you have big chunks of the story where a main character’s point of view is absent, or where you pile up too many of their POV sections together—have you balanced the protags’ storylines? Is each storyline complete, but do we see how each character’s journey intrinsically impacts the other(s)’?

You can also use it in navigating your story’s time line—it’s a great way to break down the story events to make sure your chronology works.

And you can use it as a reference and framework for making sure your protagonist(s)’ arc is crystal-clear, for example by noting for each plot point how it moves her further along her path.

I created the x-ray as a tool to use in editing and revising your story, but you can also follow the format before you start writing to create a strong scaffolding for your story, if it’s helpful. In either case, the x-ray is one of the most useful tools I know for being able to easily see the underlying structure of your plot and make sure it’s strong enough to support your story.

(You can dive deeper into diagnosing and editing your WIPs in my online Working Writer courses, especially “How to Train Your Editor Brain” and “Five Steps to Creating an Airtight Plot.”)

18 Comments. Leave new

  • Thank you for printing this. I’ve written my story, but think I have too many “bunny trails.” This sounds like great advice. I’ll try it!

    Reply
    • Oh, the bunny trails…! 😀 The x-ray can usually help track those down. Thanks, Karen; I’d love to hear how it works for you!

      Reply
  • Aubrie Entwood
    January 21, 2021 8:51 pm

    I gave this a try on the Act 1 scenes of my romantic suspense/thriller. I was happy to see that I had a lot of valid But/Therefore’s between the scenes. Most of my ‘and then’ connections are scenes that add tension and suspense, showing what the stalker-turned-murderer is doing OR they are scenes that build the romantic tension between the MCs. I am wondering if the But/Therefore part works best for scenes that further the plot and where I have ‘and then…’ might still be okay and fall under moving the character through their arc or raising/complicating stakes?

    Can you clarify if all scenes should still be able to have But/Therefore applied?

    Reply
    • Good question–as with everything in writing, there are no ironclad “rules.” (I always put that word in quotes in the context of craft.)

      With multiple-POV stories, it can be helpful to separate out each storyline into its own x-ray (you can just cut and paste the bullet points from the overall x-ray), then apply the but/therefore test to just that character’s story through line. But I’m thinking of stories like Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, for instance, or Ann Napolitano’s Dear Edward, and you’d be hard-pressed to “but/therefore” those stories.

      As with most writing guidelines, not every tool is necessary for every job. It might be helpful in those cases to make sure every single scene has an essential purpose, as you say: When you say a scene is showing what the stalker-turned-murderer is doing, for instance, that sounds to me like it might further that character along his arc, raise stakes, and advance the plot–all the functions that make a scene essential. The building-romantic-tension scenes might be raising stakes and furthering character, perhaps? When in doubt, those are my favorite criteria to apply in assessing whether scenes are best serving the story.

      Great question–hope that helps!

      Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 12, 2021 8:18 pm

      Just saw this, Aubrie–sorry I missed it. For the scenes with your stalker-turned-murderer, you might separate out the x-ray to his storyline (or hers, I want to be equal-opportunity about stalking 🙂 ) and the main characters’ and see whether the but/therefore holds up independently in the progression of each POV. In that case, yes, the but/therefore of the combined storylines as they appear in the story may not be as readily apparent. (For an example of this see GONE GIRL.)

      If the other scenes you describe are moving the characters along their arcs or raising stakes, to me that sounds like it might be a but/therefore? Like within a scene: “she realizes she has to stand on her own two feet; THEREFORE she leaves to find the stalker” or “she confronts her stalker BUT he ties her up”?

      But like all guidelines for any creative effort, there are no absolutes–this isn’t an infallible test; just one of many tools you can use to make sure your scenes move the story forward and aren’t treading water. Another good one is whether each scene is essential–meaning does it raise stakes, further the plot, or move the character along her arc (two of which you already pointed out)–or better yet, some combination of all those things. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  • Very helpful. Will do. Anxious to see how my plot hangs together (or doesnt).

    Reply
    • Hi, David! I’d love to know what you think. I’m as anti-outline as they come for my own writing, but this always helps me diagnose issues and see my path through the forest.

      Reply
  • Tiffany, Thank you for this. My book arrived in the mail yesterday so I’m excited to read it. I have one question though: I’m writing a three-book non-stand-alone series. The characters arc all the way through the entire series. Any tips about writing something like that? In my books, the black moment takes place in book two and the resolution in book three. The first book is just getting to know the characters and their goals. Any thoughts?

    Reply
    • This is such a great question, Tricia! Such a common issue with series. What helps each book stand on its own (even though it’s not a standalone) is making sure each one has a complete story arc and character arc–but with series each of those individual arcs will be steps on the path of the series arc as well. For example, Katniss’s uber-goal in the Hunger Games series is to keep her family safe and together. In book one that entails keeping Prim out of the games and surviving them herself. But as the series goes it leads her to increasingly higher-stakes challenges, yet at the base of her motivations and goals is always protecting Prim and her family.

      Each book in your series should theoretically be able to stand alone as a complete story–with its own arc, its own character arcs for your protags, its own black moment, climaxes, etc. When you say your first book is “just getting to know the characters and their goals,” that suggests to me the equivalent of the “establishing scenes” I mention in the post that can stall story momentum. Try keeping in mind the three traits that make a scene essential–furthering plot, advancing characters along their arcs, raising stakes–and see if you can make each title in your series accomplish all three in service to the overarching story arc of the series.

      Such a pertinent question, though–I’ll dedicate a future post to exploring it in more depth. Thanks!

      Reply
  • Claire A Murray
    January 22, 2021 2:33 pm

    This sounds exactly what I need to examine my novella in progress. The idea of going back to note each plot point seems daunting, as I’m only 2/3 complete, yet I think it’ll help greatly in where I take the rest of it. And I can use it with the new material. I’m not a plotter, but even an organic writer needs to step back and review the landscape, move some plants around to create more beauty, and prune overgrowth. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Honestly, it goes so much quicker than you expect it to–you’re just skimming through the story to pick out the plot events and shorthanding the bullet points, so it sounds a lot more onerous than I think you may find it is. I hope it helps! I’d love to hear–I agree with you: It’s helpful to have the drone view of the story you’re so thick into it’s hard to get perspective, and this is my favorite tool for getting that.

      Reply
  • I love this. I used Intuitive Editing as my main tool for revising my last MS, but I’m going to try this X-ray for my WIP. I outline, and I like to make sure my story has the first half on solid ground before writing the second half. Such an informative and helpful post!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Cate! I love that the book was helpful–that’s it’s raison d’etre. 🙂 I actually hate to outline, but making one after the fact always helps me get my mind around the whole more easily. I’d love to hear how it works for you.

      Reply
  • A question: if you note only the plot events that move the story forward, then would you not miss passages that are not moving story forward, which is part of what you would be looking for?

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 12, 2021 7:15 pm

      Great question, Joel–and I’m glad for the chance to clarify. The x-ray was born as a tool to analyze the plot itself, so by “every event that moves the story forward,” I mean not including things like description, scene setting, dialogue that isn’t directly pertinent to the thrust of a scene, a character driving to another location, etc. We just want to see what actually happens on the page that’s directly relevant to the storyline. But you’re right–one thing the x-ray can help with is seeing where the narrative deadweight may be, and it might be helpful to rephrase the instruction. Maybe that’s a better way to say it–every event directly relevant to the storyline.

      Reply
  • Tiffany, good points, I appreciate the comments.

    Reply

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