String of Pearls Plot: What is it?
While you may have never heard the term ‘string if pearls’, you’ve probably noticed the problem in books, movies, and television shows.
It goes a little like this:
Protagonist sets out from point A to get to point B… except then he’s met with problem 1, which he must overcome, then problem 2, then problems, 3,4…. You get the idea.
A string of pearls is a story where the characters move from problem to problem, none of which escalate the stakes of the story, offer character development that can’t be put in elsewhere, move the plot along in any way, or relate to the theme. These scenes can be removed with little to no effect on the overall plot. I originally heard the term ‘string of pearls’ in this episode of the Storywonk podcast about Pixar’s Finding Nemo, so that will be the story that I draw my examples from, but other stories in the string of pearls category include The Odyssey and the Ramayana – yeah, it’s an old trope.
In Finding Nemo, Dory and Marlin just keep swimming (ya see what I did there?) from plot point to plot point – first the shark’s anonymous meeting, then the jellyfish, then the sea turtles and beyond. The order of these scenes could be easily rearranged with almost no editing. Would the ending of the story change at all if Marlin and Dory had run into the sea turtles before they crashed the sharks anonymous meeting? No. In fact, any one of these scenes could be completely omitted. That’s because none of these events:
- Cause any of the subsequent events to happen
- Have consequences that carry over into the following scenes (i.e., ‘escalate the story’)
- Are required for the protagonist (Marlin) to achieve his goal
The reason to avoid strings of pearls
Every scene – heck, every sentence – of your story should be somehow related to your characters’ flaws, goals, and arcs, which in turn are related to the story’s theme – they should also work to move the plot along. If even one of your scenes, let alone a whole string of them, can be omitted or switched out for another scene, then by default, they’re (most likely) not moving your character along their arc of development towards their goal.
Is it really so bad if some of your scenes don’t fulfill these criteria? Especially if they’re interesting? Well, kinda. You might be able to get away with doing it once or twice, but your story as a whole will not be as strong as it could have been.
Also, your reader will be thinking, “Yeah, but what does that have to do with xyz..?” Readers are smart like that.
Is my story a string of pearls?
To determine if you have a string of pearls story, ask yourself the following question:
Can my scenes be rearranged with minimal changes to the overall plot?
If the answer is yes, then your story is a string of pearls.
How to fix a string of pearls plot
Let’s return to the three things the scenes of Finding Nemo were lacking, and discuss the changes Pixar could have made to make the story stronger.
- Events cause subsequent events to happen
Think of each scene of your story as a part in a car’s engine – you want every part of that car to contribute to the car’s purpose, moving forward. Any part that doesn’t contribute to that purpose is just extra weight that slows the car down in the long run, no matter how cool whatever the thing does is. Likewise, you want your story to be as aerodynamic as possible.
I suggest simply removing any scenes that aren’t contributing to the plot as a whole, otherwise you’re just distracting the reader away from the story. Even if your reader isn’t consciously aware of it, they’ll lose the thread of the story through all the extra razzle dazzle, and become frustrated. In extreme cases, they will even stop reading altogether.
- have consequences that carry over into the following scenes (i.e., ‘escalate the story’)
Now, you may be thinking that if you cut out all those scenes from Finding Nemo, like I suggested, then almost nothing would have happened between Marlin meeting up with Dory and his reunion with Nemo. Well, that’s not any better than a string of pearls. So what’s a writer to do?
Raise the stakes, that’s what!
There was a great opportunity for this during the jellyfish scene. In that scene – spoilers – Dory gets stung and nearly eaten. At the end of the scene, right before Marlin blacks out, she looks pretty close to death as she is nearly sucked up into the mouth of a jellyfish.
But then in the next scene, she’s totally fine.
Imagine if Dory hadn’t undergone some miraculous recovery, how her injury would have escalated the stakes of the plot. Maybe Marlin would need to get her to some fish doctor who jus happens to also be in Sydney. It gives Marlin even more of a reason to get there.
- Help the protagonist achieve his goal
Remember the scuba-mask in Finding Nemo? How could we forget? (“P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way Sydney” will be engrained in my brain forever, thankyouverymuch)
The scuba mask is instrumental in Marlin finding his son. Without it, he would have nowhere to look (Not to mention how it helps develop Dory’s character.) So this part of the movie is necessary to the plot. You can’t remove it without making large-scale changes.
Note: I’m not saying that if you have this plot style that you can’t have an interesting, worthwhile, successful story. Look at the example of Finding Nemo – very popular, and still a great movie. There are no hard and fast rules in the writing world – your story and what you choose to do with it are up to you. However, it’s important to be aware of these kinds of fallbacks so that if you do use them, you do so deliberately, and not by accident.
Want more plotting advice? Check out Plot Bones: Make a plot skeleton to write your story on and Ask Your Characters: How to develop character-driven plot points.