Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Fixing leaky or clogged plots

My toilet got clogged up the other day. The water would rise and rise until just at the moment when it looked as if the whole thing would overflow, the water would change direction and slowly, slowly recede. There’s heart stopping suspense for you!

Despite my vigorous work with the plunger, the clog stubbornly refused to shift. So I searched the Internet and found a suggested solution that involved liquid dish detergent and boiling water. And it worked! Not only did the toilet now work like a charm, but it was sparkling clean!

My kitchen sink had the opposite problem. It’s supposed to hold water until I pull the plug. But the plug would let the water out and slowly, slowly the sink would empty, leaving unwashed dishes high and almost dry. Sometimes I would have to fill the sink two or three times to wash the dishes.

Flushed with success (bet you didn’t see that coming) from the toilet experience and definitely in a plumbing appreciation frame of mind, and since I happened to be going to the post office anyway which is right next door to the hardware store, I brought home a shiny new sink stopper. I filled the sink and it stayed full, just as it was meant to. I’d put up with that leaky sink for far too long when a quick fix was cheap and easy.

Plots can be a lot like plumbing.

Some plot problems, like the clogged toilet, are urgent and demand your immediate attention. You have to sort them out before you can continue writing the story. If you don’t, the rest of it just won’t hang together in any way that makes sense and you’ll be wasting a lot of time and words on material that isn’t going anywhere. For example, you probably can’t make a note in the margin that you’ll figure out later how or where your victim died because too much of the rest of story rests on that detail.

Some plot holes are more like the leaky sink. You can make do, still get the job done and go back later and plug them properly. If you find out later that you need a character to be in certain place at a certain time, for example, you can come up with an easy way to get him there. (Jack had heard it was best bakery in town and since he would be passing, anyway, on his way to meet Mindy off the train, he pulled over.)

Some writers find it difficult to set aside small problems and deal with them later, but if pausing to fix minor plot problems is slowing down your writing, that might be the better way to do it.

May your writing have perfect flow and all your plots hold water.

Elizabeth Duncan is the award-winning author of The Cold Light of Mourning and A Brush with Death, published by St. Martin’s Press. Her third novel, A Killer’s Christmas in Wales, A Killer’s Christmas in Wales, released on Oct. 25.


  1. Good post, Elizabeth. I love the plumbing analogy. And good advice too. I'm one who allows the leaky sink to keep me from moving on with the story. I'll try this.

  2. Loved the plumbing-plot metaphor, ELizabeth. Wish I had thought of it!!

    Some great advice as my writing moves in fits and starts. Perhaps I need to consult a mechanic on how to release the choke and get my writing into gear?