two drops of ink noelle sterne contributing writer

Do You Want to Prevent Predictable Plots?

Editor’s Note: 

Dr. Sterne is a prolific writer and a teacher of writing. We’re excited to have her submit an essay to our site. This post is an opportunity for writers, authors, and academic writers to get some great advice from an expert in her field. It’s also an opportunity for graduate students who are writing dissertations to get her books and check out her links.

Scott Biddulph/Editor-in-Chief

By Noelle Sterne, Ph.D.

Okay, I admit it. I plan my day around favorite night-soap television shows. But the longer I’ve been writing, the more I find myself almost involuntarily critiquing everything I watch.

Even though I’m not consciously “working” (although I probably should be instead of staring at the screen), I can rarely turn off my EIE—Exacting Internal Editor. So, instead of trying to tame her or put her to bed early, I decided to yield and learn from her.

My EIE always catches one characteristic of so many shows—the predictability of the plot. I offer you her wisdom so we both can become more alert to the signals of those groaningly predictable plots and avoid them in our own stories and novels.

An Example: Love

Take love, a timeless, universal subject. In a recent movie, the young woman with great hair and tight jeans from the city goes West to sell the ranch her father left her. She encounters and battles instantly with the gruff foreman who’s loyal to the ranch, the land, and the legacy. He’s adamant about not selling and responds to the city intruder only in disdainful monosyllables. Of course, he’s handsome and tall in the saddle.

Count on it: the more it’s hate at first sight, the more you can bet they’ll end up in an open-mouthed clinch.

Settings may change:

  • In city department store at Christmas, lonely saleswoman (with great hair and conservative tight suit) and very un-Christmas spirited out-of-work-executive Santa. Of course, despite his fashionable scruff, he’s square-jawed.
  • In the newsroom, novice idealistic newspaper reporter (with great hair and tight slacks and sweater set) fresh out of women’s college and cynical veteran, chain-smoking Pulitzer winner. Of course, although unkempt, he’s irresistible with that bad boy look.
  • In the pits, impassioned first-time female race driver (with great hair and tight jumpsuit) and multi-Indie-winner misogynist team lead driver. Of course, although his face is a constant scowl, it can’t hide his darkly striking demeanor.
  • On Planet X9OR5-GF, novice female astronaut (with great hair peeking from her helmet and tight spacesuit) and shiny-green-skinned muscular alien leader. He nevertheless radiates irresistible charisma.

Can you already write the scenes between them? From big angry sparks to grudging acceptance to grudging amusement to succumbing to the attraction to the inevitable quarrel or misunderstanding and threat of breakup to—finally—bonfire of passion.

How Many Plots Can We Think Up?

Experts vary in recording from 1 to 3 to 7 to 20 to 36 basic plots in literature. I like nineteenth-century French writer and critic Georges Polti’s chronicle of 35, with multiple literary examples and sub-situations, relieved by his extensive, entertaining commentary. (My translated edition is 1945, Boston: The Writer Publications.)

This classic book, with many later imitations, is a gem for ideas, intertwining of subplots, and cliché-checking. My love examples above are variations of Polti’s Number 28, “Obstacles to Love,” and (E) “Incompatibility of Temper of the Lovers.”

So, how can you use them freshly?

Unpredictable Plotting

Love, in all its exasperating twists, is certainly worth writing about. But when you do, although you probably can’t escape one or more of Polti’s variations, the trick and challenge are to freshen it and make it relevant to your time and your experience.

How? Several ways:

  1. See Polti for different perspectives. Or other books: Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories; James Scott Bell with nine plot variations in his Plot and Structure; Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them.
  1. Look at Shakespeare, both comedies and tragedies. Study fine films. “The African Queen” (1952) portrays a masterful mismatching gone sweet. “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982) shows us clashing environments, social classes, and lifestyles. “When Harry Met Sally” (1989) illustrates the terror of letting love in. And “Gran Torino” (2008) shows us a broader kind of love, of humanity, beyond prejudices, and between generations.
  1. Explore ramifications and consider different approaches. For example: Is the choice college or marriage? Is the location the small town you grew up in near your grandparents’ homestead or an island in Melanesia, with unknown languages and no cable?
  1. Ask yourself provocative questions that can shape your theme: How to balance love and its responsibilities and follow one’s bliss? How to overcome lifelong discrimination and let love in? How to triumph over past poor relationships and take the heady leap? What hard choices have you or others made? How have they resolved them . . . or not?
  1. Talk to family members. You may get astonishing surprises. Often grandparents, great aunts, and other relatives have had remarkable experiences of love they never shared. These might have been in prison camps, wartime, poverty, or other dire circumstances. Even if their memories are bittersweet, your relatives would probably welcome an eager listener.

Yes, love is one of the most timeworn of plots but it deserves to be written about always. With your immersion in the story and deepest honesty, you will write a love story in which the ending can’t be predicted by any regular TV watcher.

Kiss and Make Art

Not fighting our Exacting Internal Editor, we can learn from television watching almost in spite of ourselves. When we study the story arcs of most popular shows and movies, we sharpen our sensitivity and editorial savvy. Our analyses show us what not to do and challenge our ingenuity to make our story or novel stand out above the pap.

When we allow our Exacting Internal Editor the room, we won’t feel so guilty about watching television. And when we do get back to our story or novel and finally send it out, an editor or agent won’t quickly predict our plot but will instead fall in love with our work and ask us to continue the relationship.

Author’s Bio:


Dr. Noelle Sterne

Author, editor, writing coach, workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and short stories. Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Academic editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees. Website:

Noelle’s books:


Author, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles. Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015.

Author, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your DreamsUnity Books, 2011.

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  1. Thank you so much, Dr. Sterne, for feeding my constant need for literary knowledge. I definitely learned something new. I can’t wait to read more from you. After reading your bio you seem to be a very interesting woman with loads of knowledge. Thanks again for writing this post.

  2. Dr. Stern, Thank you for your interesting and insightful post! Although I am not a fiction writer, I do read a lot of fiction, as well as being a Turner Classic Movie addict. Your post has given me “permission” to watch my favorites without a sense of guilt for wasting time, but with a sense of purpose: some much needed development of my EIE. 🙂
    But in all seriousness, I have taken away many helpful tools for writing.

    • Terry–

      Many thanks for your comments. Like you, I have found that advice about fiction/nonfiction helps all my writing. And glad to have played a part in your guiltlessness. Our EIEs only want the best for us. Let’s all treat our EIEs with affection and respect!

  3. Your EIE, Dr. Sterne, describes the reason for my limited TV viewing. The plot and character redundancy and predictability is distressing – I can’t tolerate it.

    I appreciate your illustrations of the similarities that pervade much of what is written today, and for providing avenues to avoid those pitfalls.

    Personally, as a struggling student fiction writer, you’ve pinpointed exactly why my early attempts were so unsatisfying…so blah!

    Thank you for sharing your insight, knowledge, and time.

    • Slug–

      Thank you. I too cannot tolerate much of TV–second-guessing comes early. I trust your fiction writing has progressed. Each of us must find our voice. And the imitations and cliches are almost inevitable. I still blush at my early (and middle) attempts. Keep at it!

  4. Dr. Sterne, your approach to structuring plots is insightful. It opened my eyes to the obvious in which I did not give attention too. My EIE is still developing. 🙂 Thank you, John.

  5. Dr. Sterne, I like your idea of asking older relatives about their own experiences. It brought back a delightful memory of when I asked my grandmother how she met my grandfather. I’m so glad I asked because I was able to write about it in a memoir manuscript. True stories are a great source of fresh ideas. Trust me—that wasn’t a pun because I’d hardly call placing a box of chocolates under a berry bush fresh. 🙂
    Blessings ~ Wendy

    • Wendy–

      Your grandparents’ story may not be fresh but it is still moving. So glad to corroborate your intuitive asking your grandmother about meeting your grandfather. The lives of our relatives (and our own) are each unique, precious, and to be cherished. And great material. Great Blessings to you.

  6. Good morning, Dr. Sterne. Thank you for this guest submission.

    With this post, you’ve given us a how-to on not writing the predictable. Why must ‘She’ always have descriptors for her hair? And the ‘square-jawed’ man? I suppose, in the beginning, it’s necessary to give physical descriptions so that readers have an image in their minds. Granted, there are only so many features in a face to choose from, but why must it be the predictable hair and jaw?

    I appreciate that you gave us ways in which to immerse the reader beyond the obvious. Thank you for also including other points of view, and books to study, to help us accomplish that.

    As an aside: My EIE takes exception to people writing and saying, “I feel” and then following it with a thought, opinion, or assumption. If it’s a feeling, label it; if it’s an attitude or mental position, then state, “I think”. This, too, makes watching TV and reading an opportunity for my EIE to alert me to this pet peeve. Guess we all have that EIE.

    • Marilyn–

      Many thanks for your appreciative comments. I agree with you about saying “I feel” and related unnecessary words. Most of the time, no such explanation is necessary but only the dialogue. In a related technique, many writing craft authors advocate (and plead) for the simple “He said,” “She said.” No extraneous adverbs either: “said angrily, peevishly, softly, gently, sarcastically, brusquly,” etc. etc. Glad to know your EIE is alert.

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