One of the biggest mistakes new authors and those in the writing community make, especially in regards to queries, is mistaking the subplot for the plot.
For the purposes of simplicity, I’m referring to narratives in which there are one or two main characters, rather than (mosaic) narratives with ensemble casts, which is a beast in and of itself.
The plot is the main sequence of events that create the core of the story. It overshadows all subplots, and can (but doesn’t always) tie the subplots together.
The subplot is the secondary sequence of events that adds dynamic to the main plot, but is not the main plot, itself. In action-driven novels, this can be a smaller sequence of actions that increase the stakes of the main plot (the illness of a family member which causes the villain to rob a bank), it can also be a love interest, the relationship between a villain and his mother, a bully and his own abuser, a cop and a criminal, so on and so forth. In a character-driven story, the subplot can be the physical movement of the story, other relationships, the introduction or abolition of a marginalizing law, so on and so forth.
Authors are conditioned to believe that the plot revolves around physical movement. This is true for action-driven stories, however, applying this train of thought as a blanket statement to all stories would be a disservice to the character-driven ones.
In being part of a writing community where aspiring authors offer their queries for critique, I have seen many a comment suggesting that various stories had a weak plot because the commentators mistook the chain reaction of physical events for the plot. I’ve also seen comments suggesting the plot had holes, or was superficial at best.
So what did the writers do? They rewrote their queries to showcase the physical movement of the story. Why is this a blunder? Because you’ll query your Romance as a thriller with a love interest. You’ll shop your narrative of grief as a crime novel. You’ll hook an agent with your coming-of-age by the promise of an epic fantasy it’ll never live up to, or repulse an agent who would have otherwise gobbled up your story of overcoming addiction because you presented it as a Whodunnit.
I have seen non-Romance writers critique a query and say there was too much emotion and not enough “plot.” It begs the question, what then, is the plot of a Romance? (I’ll give you a hint: it’s not to watch the two lovers fix up the inn that brought them together.)
It’s very tempting to create a query out of the action sequence of a story, but this is a no-no, especially when that sequence only serves as the subplot. Those who are unfamiliar with your genre will oftentimes revert to highlighting the action sequence of your story because this is what the forums (which are invaluable for authors) taught them to do.
The best thing any querying author can do is know what your story is about (theme). Once you narrow down your genre, find other authors/readers who know that genre inside and out and ask them to take a look at your query/synopsis/sample/novel first.
Your beta reader doesn’t always have to read or write in your genre, but the ideal critique partner should. If you’re new and get all your advice from someone unfamiliar with your genre who’s taught to draw out “the action,” their influence just may turn your narrative of dealing with depression into a true horror story.