String of Pearls Plot

writing a string of pearls plot

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:

  1. Cause any of the subsequent events to happen
  2. Have consequences that carry over into the following scenes (i.e., ‘escalate the story’)
  3. 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.

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H. Duke

H. Duke writes contemporary fantasy, horror, and more. She currently lives in Tempe, Arizona with her husband, Giru, and a shiny black dog named Jupiter. Her weird west serial Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer is being released in eight episodes (sort of like a TV show, but for your e-reader!). you can get the first four episodes here.


9 comments for “String of Pearls Plot

  1. July 26, 2015 at 12:01 PM

    Great post! This makes a lot of sense. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Wysteff
    July 27, 2015 at 4:48 AM

    Interesting. I basically agree, but I have to disagree on on thing. Sometimes a string of pearls story works. I mean, take your Finding Nemo example. Who doesn’t love that movie? I have a strong dislike for any animated movies, but I love Finding Nemo. I think that string of pearls stories can work if the story is very character-driven, which Finding Nemo is.

  3. hdziuk
    July 28, 2015 at 11:05 PM

    Wysteff, I have to agree. You always have to pick and choose what aspects of craft you wish to focus on for your story – this, like most writing advice, is simply a way to make your plot stronger.

  4. August 1, 2015 at 2:49 PM

    Great post. Something worth checking on every scene.

    I do think of my stories as a string of pearls, but in a different way. Your analogy is more like a bowl of pearls. Each scene is just bouncing against the next one with nothing holding them together. However, if you add the string and thread each scene on, from smallest to big and back to small, you get a story. You need the common thread to link one pearl to the next.

    Thinking of each scene as one more pearl helps me keep going, when I’m feeling overwhelmed too.

  5. hdziuk
    August 1, 2015 at 7:35 PM

    Great point and great analogy, Chella!

  6. darkocean
    September 29, 2015 at 9:37 PM

    Strengthening our stories is always a good idea, what ever it takes to avoid staying in the slush pile!-shivers-

  7. Pilar
    November 21, 2017 at 5:05 PM

    Thanks. Stuck after Draft 3 that’s still episodic. Now I can just test each scene with these three questions:
    1.does it cause another event/ scene? (or is it caused by a previous scene?)
    2.does it create consequences in future scenes? (is it a consequence of previous scene?) Raise the stakes? More to lose?
    3. is it a necessary scene if the MC is to achieve her goal?

  8. December 3, 2017 at 7:50 PM

    That’s a great use of the test, Pilar! Thanks for your comment!

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