Three Major Plot Problems and Fixes:
(Spoiler alert for The Hunger Games, Savvy and Wringer.)
1.) A delayed call-to-action. Your protagonist’s call-to-action (otherwise known as their ‘first door’) is what is going to push them into their journey. For example, in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss’s call to action is the moment that Effie Trinket reads her sister’s name as that year’s tribute. Once Katniss hears the name, she knows that she will have to sacrifice herself to save her sister. This is what starts her journey, and it happens at the end of chapter one.
Fix: Find the point where your character is called to go on their journey. Is it more than one chapter into the novel? If so, move it up.
2.) A weak or non-existent internal and/or external problem. In Ingrid Law’s Savvy, Mibs is convinced that her savvy will save her father. Her internal problem is figuring out what her savvy is and how to use it, which might not be compelling enough on its own, except that we know that Mibs’s savvy is connected to her external problem — saving her father’s life. If she doesn’t reach her father in the hospital and learn how to use her savvy to help him, she believes that he will die.
Fix: Write out your character’s external and internal problems. Are they connected? Will solving one help them solve the other? Are they strong enough to carry the story?
Now look at your subplots — do these bring anything to your main internal/external problem? Are there unrelated subplots that are slowing down or distracting from the main action? Do you find that to up the tension you have thrown in extra unrelated subplots half-way to two-thirds of the way through? (If so, delete!)
3.) No point of no return. The point of no return, also known as the second door, is the point where the character realizes that no matter how difficult the journey is, they can not turn back. A piece of information or a new problem will become the second door, leading the character from the middle of your story to the end — the last battle, emotionally or physically. In Jerry Spinelli’s Wringer, Palmer could have skipped Pigeon Day altogether, avoiding becoming a wringer and eventually regaining his sense of normalcy — except that he learns that in an effort to save his pet pigeon, Nipper, he had actually released him where the pigeons are gathered to be shot on Pigeon Day. Now he has to face his fear head-on, because Nipper is about to be killed.
Fix: What would happen if half-way into the book, your character decided that they didn’t want what they were looking for after all? Are there any consequences if they decided to stop searching? Using your previous list of the character’s internal and external goals, write down the consequences if they are not attained. Are your consequences compelling enough to keep reading? If not, “up the ante” for your protagonist.
Now look for their point of no return/second door. What is it that pushes them towards their final battle? Would they have reached the conclusion without this event? If so, this event is not acting as the second door, and it’s possible that you’re losing tension. Revise so that your point of no return is raising your tension instead of deflating it.