How to solve plot problems with a simple self-questionnaire technique

Essays by Shalon Sims on education, creative writing and literacy

How to solve plot problems with a simple self-questionnaire technique

In this article, you’ll learn a simple (takes only 30 minutes), yet powerful self-questionnaire technique to solve all your plot problems, and you can download the Solving Plot Problems Template free, no sign-up required.

Especially in science fiction and fantasy, or in any longer story with a large number of elements or characters to keep track of, there are the inevitable plot problems that can halt your writing.

I’m sure you’ve experienced it…. “If Character X does this, then that will affect Character Y in this way, which doesn’t work because people in World Z don’t do that kind of thing. But if Character X doesn’t do that, then my whole story falls apart…”

In my experience, these plot problems can be so severe and frustrating that I have given up working on my novel for weeks and months at a time, waiting for the answers to “hit” me like a bolt of magical inspiration lightening. Sometimes they have hit me — sometimes in the strangest places, like in the shower, or driving my car, or just after waking up. But often they never hit me and I am left with plot problems I thought I’d never be able to solve. EVER.

This can lead to an incredibly defeating bout of the dreaded WRITERS BLOCK! 


Then I discovered this technique, which I’m about to show you. And now, whenever I run into a plot problem, I use it, and it ALWAYS works. I’m not lying. 100% of the time, it works.

This simple technique will take you less than 30 minutes to learn how to use for your own story.

Writing and magical thinking

At the 2018 Surrey International Writer’s Conference this last fall, I took a course called Story Engineering with Larry Brooks. He talked about how writers suffer from magical thinking; that the writing we do is often so difficult we believe it is imbued with magical qualities.

This is not a new concept to me. I wrote an essay about magical thinking and I did a writing workshop with Eric Maisel, who is a creative writing psychologist (yes, that actually exists). I’ve also written a blog post about the book he wrote on this topic, called Mastering Creative Anxiety.

Anyway, Larry Brooks added an entirely new dimension to how magical thinking destroys creativity, and it blew my mind. He stressed over and over that because we perceive the creative process as mystical and magical, we often feel that our ideas are mystical and magical. Delivered by the muses.

This is like thinking that the random idea you had for a story while taking a shower is a magical gift that you must explore. Okay, maybe you should explore it. Granted. But maybe exploring that story idea is actually a distraction from what’s really important: finishing the book you’ve been working on for years.

The example Larry was exploring in his workshop is that we often think the first idea or solution we come up with is the right one. The one that’s been delivered by the muses.

He argued, quite passionately, might I add, that this first idea is almost always NOT the best one. It might be okay. It might even ‘work,’ but it probably is not the BEST POSSIBLE SOLUTION. He encouraged writers to give up the magical thinking around our story ideas, and to push ourselves to go further than the first idea. Put that first idea aside and come up with a bunch of ideas, and then use logic, not superstition, to choose the best possible solution for your novel.

So how do you find that best possible solution? Read on!

How the self-questionnaire works

Basically, this system let’s you track your ideas, in a type of mathematical coding way. You open up each problem like a box, and pull out the boxes inside the box, and then you open up those boxes, and pull out any other boxes you find inside them. Each box is a plot problem, or a snag you have run into in your WIP.

Interested? Here’s how you do it. You might think you can just do this your own, way, but I highly recommend you just follow the instructions.


Open a fresh word document and at the top put the problem as a title. Save the file with the name of the problem. Use my template to make this easy.

Now, hit enter and on the next line start writing about the problem. Just as if you were telling a writer friend about it (someone who actually cared). Write as much as you want. I usually just write a few sentences, but sometimes I write an entire page worth of crap, depending on how big the problem is and how much it is affecting other characters or elements of the story.


Now, below your paragraph explaining the problem, create a bullet list. Write down all the possible solutions to your problem. One solution for each bullet. Open your mind and try to forget some of the more obvious stuff you might be attached to. Obviously something isn’t working with your current approach or you’d be writing right now instead of Googling “how to solve plot problems!” So just do what I tell you—think wide, open your mind and brainstorm. If you want, you can ask a friend to help. You should have at least 5 solutions.

For example, I actually did this just a while ago with the problem/question, “how does Character X get pregnant?” I came up with 5 possible solutions:

  • Falls in love, has sex, gets pregnant
  • Doesn’t fall in love, but has sex, and gets pregnant
  • Gets artificially inseminated, gets pregnant
  • Gets raped, gets pregnant
  • Wakes up one day and finds out she’s pregnant, doesn’t know how it happened.


So, once you have your list of potential solutions, hit enter after each solution and indent that bullet. For each solution, write a sentence or two with what’s good about that solution and what’s not good about it.

For example:

  • Falls in love, has sex, gets pregnant
    • I like this because it’s romantic and what I would wish for this character, but I don’t think it would work because she isn’t the type to fall in love, plus she is ostracized by this community and I can’t imagine anyone breaking the social code and falling in love with her.

Do this with all of your potential solutions. Try to be open-minded. Don’t just dismiss any potential solution. Remember, the solution IS there, you just need to find it, and for some reason you can’t see it because you’re blinded by your prejudice. It’s like looking for your car keys that you KNOW you haven’t lost, but you can’t find them anywhere. This technique is like suddenly looking down and seeing that your keys are on the coffee table and they’ve been there all along. You were looking in the wrong place.


Okay, so now you have your list of potential solutions, but you also have a bunch of reasons for why each solution might work and might not work. This is where it gets interesting.

Hit enter below each explanation of each solution (why it works and doesn’t work), and you will create another bullet. Indent this bullet in once. It’s important to use bullets because, as you can see, your page is getting full of writing, and the bullets are the only way to visually track your progress. This is like the mathematical coding “box.” Each bullet is a box inside the box. You’re identifying plot problems connected to other plot problems, so you can find the solution.

So indent the next bullet once, to show that you’re talking about the paragraph above (about why it works and does not work). For each reason that it doesn’t work, create ANOTHER bullet.

For example:

  • Falls in love, has sex, gets pregnant
    • I like this because it’s romantic and what I would wish for this character, but I don’t think it would work because she isn’t the type to fall in love, plus she is ostracized by this community and I can’t imagine anyone breaking the social code and falling in love with her.
      • She’s not the type to fall in love.
      • No one would break the social code.

Now, for each of your bullets that show why that solution wouldn’t work, begin to brainstorm all the possible ways to get around that potential problem.

For example:

  • Falls in love, has sex, gets pregnant
    • I like this because it’s romantic and it’s what I would wish for this character, but I don’t think it would work because she isn’t the type to fall in love, plus she is ostracized by this community and I can’t imagine anyone breaking the social code and falling in love with her.
      • She’s not the type to fall in love.
        • Maybe she changes. BUT HOW? I mean, what would cause her to change?
        • Maybe she meets someone who is an outsider like her.
        • Maybe someone hypnotizes her or gives her a love potion.
        • Maybe she hits her head, gets amnesia, and forgets that she’s a cold-hearted bitch.
      • No one would break the social code.
        • Okay, same like above, maybe it’s an outsider who comes in. HOW?
        • Maybe there is someone who is strong enough to risk it. BUT WHO? WHY?
        • Maybe the social code gets broken down or betrayed by someone? BUT HOW?


Go through all of your solutions like this. You’ve reached the third layer deep. By this time, you’re going to have lots and lots of ideas floating around. You probably have 2 or 3 pages of bulleted writing.

Some of the potential solutions will feel ‘right’ and you might have had your aha moment already. It just clicked. But sometimes the aha moment hasn’t come because the solution to the problem you really like is tied in with other plot elements, and giving you OTHER problems. So, now you need to work through those….

If that’s the case, see above how I wrote new questions/problems in ALL CAPS? That’s because I want to be able to see them easily. Being able to visualize the problems and solutions in this way really helps me keep track of what is clearly a rabbit hole of information. Besides using bullets and ALL CAPS, I will also often highlight with green the solutions that seem the most promising. And red for the the problems that I still have. I strike out any solutions that absolutely don’t work.

If you haven’t had your aha moment, don’t worry. Yes this is taking time, but believe me, if you persist you will find your solution. THE solution that works for YOUR story.

So, take the questions in ALL CAPS, and start an entirely new paragraph. If you want, you can create a new bullet and indent it to deal with the ALL CAP questions/problems, depending on how much writing you have. You can turn your page horizontal to get more bullets. Sometimes it’s better to start a new paragraph to have a fresh start. You can deal with one problem at a time, or you can copy all the the ALL CAP problems and create new paragraphs so you don’t forget to explore them. Then do the whole exercise over again. Come up with 3-5 possible solutions for HOW or WHY.


  • Maybe she changes. BUT HOW? I mean, what would cause her to change?
    • Solution 1
    • Solution 2
    • Solution 3

I won’t keep going with examples, because I hope you catch my drift. By this point you’ll be 4 layers deep into your novel and I can guarantee that you will be learning stuff through this that you never thought you would, related to completely different characters and completely different plot problems because… it’s all connected.

So, good luck, and hope this technique helps you as much as it has helped me! Please let me know how I can improve this document, or if my technique works for you, or if you don’t understand.

Feel free to download my 100% original and absolutely free Solving Plot Problems Template to use for your own plot problems today.


Ask the Next Question

Although I developed this technique entirely on my own, I’ve since listened to a podcast on Writing Excuses about Writers Block, starring Mercedes Lackey. In it she discussed a technique by Theodore Sturgeon, called “Ask The Next Question” that she used in her early days to help her solve plot problems. Sturgeon used his technique on a philosophical basis, as a way of helping him be a better person.


Further Reading

  • Larry Brooks’ website The Story Fix is rated by Readers Digest as one of the best resources for writers out there. If you look at his blog posts you’ll see that he often talks about and strongly advocates for writers to be more logical and less magical about their writing choices. 
  • Here is a basic but fairly thorough medical explanation of magical thinking and it’s connection to mental health disorders like OCD and schizophrenia. No, I’m not saying that magical thinking is wrong. I think life would be boring if we only used logic, and some of the best writing is ‘inspired.’ Magical thinking is a normal and healthy part of what makes us human, but it also has some really dark aspects. Magical thinking has had disastrous impacts on my life, and learning about it has helped me be a healthier person. 
  • Here is a list of my other blog posts about plotting: 


14 Responses

  1. mimsy says:

    That looks too complicated, I just go back a few chapters realy take my time reading them and let my brain mull over the the problem. Then go back to the chapter with the plot problem and fix it. If nothing logical for the story shows up I keep revising it until it becomes so. But then I’m a pantser so … I’m guessing this won’t work for those that are plotters.

    • Shalon says:

      Hi Mimsy,
      I am 100% pantser and that is exactly why I have so many frigging plot problems!!! hahahahah!!! :’)

      This technique LOOKS complicated, but believe me, before you are halfway through, you will find a solution that just screams–THIS IS IT! This is exactly what I am looking for. It works every time for me.

      Basically, I think you and I are doing the same thing: looking for various solutions until we find the right one. However, you actually write each of your solutions until you find the right one. I’m writing a novel with 5 POV characters, time travel and basically a big plot mess. I need to be able to fix my plot holes without actually writing the solutions out completely. This technique is the ticket!

  2. Eric Beaty says:

    I like this technique very much. I would have never thought to go back and list more problems/solutions. I would have been stuck trying to figure it all out before writing the next scenario down.

    Thanks for the template. I’ll be sure to refer to it by placing it into Scrivener while I’m working on my next story.

    • Shalon says:

      Hi Eric, I am very glad you found the technique insightful. I hope it works for you when you try it out!

  3. Charles Thomas says:

    Shalon, I’m excited after having read your plot solution. It might just be the breakthrough I’ve been struggling to find.

    Many, many thanks! I’m off to implement it, and feel REALLY excited. Thanks again!

    • Shalon says:

      Hi Charles, so happy to hear that you’re excited. I do hope you get notified of my response and let me know if it helped you in the end!

  4. This method is extremely helpful. Thanks Shalon. I am much more relaxed now. With a machine to generate ideas so quickly, it feels like I can get through anything. I wish I had seen this sooner!

  5. […] The Writers Journey story structure and The Hero’s Journey, I’ve developed my own tried and true method to overcome plot holes, and I’ve also studied and used Save the Cat […]

  6. TJ says:

    Nice. I use something very similar, but I now know how to improve it.

    Thank you.

    • Shalon says:

      Hi TJ,
      Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment.
      I still use this template regularly and it works every time!

  7. […] How to solve plot problems with a simple technique […]

  8. […] discovered Shalon Sim’s Solving Plot Problems questionnaire when I was facing some terrible plot holes in my last WIP and frantically Googling how to fix […]

  9. […] How to solve plot problems using a simple self-questionnaire technique is a method I developed to look at the plot holes in my stories and come up with the BEST POSSIBLE SOLUTION. Not a good fix, not a fix that works, but the best possible fix that causes the least ripple effect in my story structure. The post also contains a free template.  […]

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