Monday, December 05, 2022

Will They or Won’t They? Plotting With Yes or No Questions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A strong scene is really just a series of questions. 

Plotting is both easy and hard. It's easy because it's has a simple set of rules and a clear structure on how it works. It's hard because there's an infinite number of ways you can follow those rules and fill in that structure. 

But it all comes down to just answering yes or no.

Basic scene structure says a scene can end in one of four ways: 
  • A yes
  • A no
  • A yes but there's a catch
  • A no and it makes things worse
These questions are designed to move the story forward and advance the plot. Some work better than others, because they leave more room for solutions and options and give the plot a place to go.  

You can use this yes or no approach at the end of every scene, or you can layer it throughout the scene to keep the reader asking questions and being drawn more into what's happening. 

I'm going to use a movie as the example, but the same principles apply to novels. Movies are just easier to study since they're visual and more people have likely seen them.

A Trashy Question 

In the movie, Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and Chewbacca shoot their way through a wall and dive down into a garbage masher on the detention level. Luke’s droids, C3PO and R2D2 are left behind on another level. This is a classic scene problem that leaves viewers with the question:

Will our heroes make it out of the garbage masher? Yes or no. 

Everyone knows these are the heroes, so what are the odds that the answer is no? It would be a pretty short movie if that happened. So obviously the answer is yes, they will get out of garbage masher.

Kinda kills all the fun, right?

(Here's more with  The Best Advice on Plotting I've Ever Heard: Two Tips That Make Plotting Your Novel Way Easier) 

Even if we don't know how they'll get out, there's nothing here to make us worry about them escaping. No matter how exciting the scene might be, it lacks real tension. What’s needed here is a yes, but there's a catch. Something that resolves the yes or no question, but also adds another layer to keep things interesting an unpredictable.

Enter the trash monster.

We meet him early on in the scene. A groan, a tentacle, a brush of something against Luke's legs, an eyestalk popping up out of the trash. This poses a new question:

Will the monster get anyone? Yes or no.

This could go either way, as it could work as merely a scare tactic or it could turn into something real. In this case it does become a problem, and Luke is grabbed and dragged under. Then tension goes up again, because while we know Luke will survive, we’re not sure if he’ll be injured. He could easily be hurt and the plot can still continue. We worry what will happen to him because the stakes are something that can actually happen. Now we have the question:

Will Han and Leia save Luke from the trash monster? Yes or no.

Again, the answer appears an obvious yes, but in this scene it's really a no. Luke isn't saved by his friends, which is a surprise. They shoot at the monster, try to pry the tentacles off Luke, but they still fail. Then there's a loud bang and the monster lets go of him. This is what really saves him. So we're left with a few questions:

What was that noise? And why did the monster let go of Luke?

Neither are yes or no questions, and they add tension to the scene because expectations have now been challenged. We don't know what's going to happen, but it can't be good if it scared away something scary. Plus, our heroes still have the original problem of being stuck. We now wonder:

Can they get out before whatever scared the trash monster finds them? Yes or no.

The answer is no, because the garbage masher activates, and the walls slowly come toward our heroes. If the walls aren’t stopped, Luke and the others will be squashed like grapes. Getting out seems unlikely now, so the question is:

Will they stop the garbage masher before they get squished? Yes or no.

Again, an obvious yes, so something else has to happen to raise the tension again. Luke remembers the droids are still out there, so he calls them on the commlink. New question:

Will Luke reach the droids? Yes or no.

Another no, as the droids have hidden themselves away to avoid the stormtroopers, and C3PO left the commlink on the desk outside. This naturally leads to:

Will the stormtroopers find the droids or the commlink?

We have another unpredictable answer, though we're pretty sure the stormtroopers will find one of those two things. This works to raise the tension because the bad guys could conceivably find the commlink and "save" the heroes, then lock them up or send them to face the Big Bad Guy (Darth Vader). So yes, the stormtroopers find the droids, but no they don't find the commlink. But now the droids have to deal with stormtroopers, which makes us ask:

Will they get caught by the stormtroopers? Yes or no.

No, they don't. C3PO talks his way past them, grabs the commlink and goes to the rendezvous point. But the answer to the previous "will reach the droids on the commlink" is back, because C3PO has turned it off. So we have a yes but there's a catch answer. Yes, but only after he's able to escape the stormtroopers and remembers to turn it back on. But from a viewer's perspective, the question is:

Will C3PO remember to turn it on before the others are squished? Yes or no.

The answer could go either way because there could be something else that saves our heroes. There are enough layers of problems now that what we thought was obvious might not be so obvious anymore. The droids are still probably the best bet for escape, but they have their own troubles. Maybe they're a red herring and our heroes will find something new to save them. Things are no longer predictable.

The droids discover Luke and the others aren't at the rendezvous point and finally call in. They learn that the heroes are in serious trouble. Now the question is:

Will R2D2 be able to shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level? Yes or no. 

Luke even screams this repeatedly into his commlink so we know without a doubt this is The Thing to Worry About and it has all come down to this moment. 

What makes this interesting is, if this problem had happened at the start, it wouldn’t have carried any more weight than our heroes being stuck in the garbage masher. Of course they'll stop the walls or the story ends. 

But by adding the other layers, we know that the trash monster had a way out. He doesn’t get squished every time the trash does, so there’s a chance that our heroes might find his way in and out of there. They also have the walls to deal with, and they might find a way to stop them. And we have the possible capture of the on-their-own droids. 

A lot is going on, and the outcome is a bit more uncertain.

We do know the heroes won’t die. We do know they’ll get out of the garbage masher somehow. The question we want to know is how.  

And that's not clear, because everything to this point has created a variety of possible endings and solutions to this problem. 

Luke or someone else could still get hurt. The way out could lead to more danger. The droids could get captured (leading to more problems). Our heroes might even be captured. The questions now become, yes, they will get out and this will lead to more trouble, or no they won’t get out and something else will save them that might be worse than the trouble they’re in now. We're just not sure which so we keep watching.

When you’re plotting, think about the questions posed when your protagonist runs into trouble.

Is it just a simple yes or no question where the answer is clear, or are you adding layers to make the outcome uncertain? Are some of those questions answered with a no? Because you can defy expectations by having your protagonist fail. Failing can lead to more trouble and open up new avenues for the resolution of the scene. Problems early on can turn into possible solutions later.

Scene are more than just showing how one event unfolds. While you don't want to muck them up by adding too much for the sake of drama, adding multiple (and often connected) layers of problems and potential solutions can keep readers guessing about what will happen next--and give you more options for your story. Will the reader keep reading?

You bet.

Do you like plotting with yes or no questions? 

*Originally published April 2011. Last updated November 2022.

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. Thanks so much for this post, Janice! I know you've talked at length about raising the stakes but with all the examples you included here of how to raise the stakes without having someone constantly on the edge of death (ish), it seems a lot more applicable to stories without death hanging over the heads of the characters.
    - Sophia.

  2. Wow, I'd actually never considered the depth of challenges that exist in that one scene. That's awesome.

  3. Sophia: Most welcome. Stakes get a bad wrap because it's easy to feel they have to be life or death, when ironically, life and death is usually pretty boring. We all know the hero won't die.

    Paul: Me either, which is why I loved using it. When I sat down to write this post, this scene just kinda popped into my head. No clue why, but I'm glad it did.

  4. It's the "how" that something happens that makes it so exciting. You can pick up just about any Disney movie and go "Hmm. Initial problem. Happy ending." But the good ones make you want to know how they got to the happy ending.

  5. Wow. The question running through my mind now is... does all this come to you at once as you write? Like with trouble Nya gets herself into? Was that charted ahead of time? Or do you find yourself adding layers and possibilities as you revise?

    Feeling a little overwhelmed as I look at my MC. Poor Angel... looks like I need to mess with her life some more! Great post... thanks for the insight!

  6. Thank you. This was is really useful as I sit here attempting first draft revisions - and extra points for using the awesome Star Wars as an exmple :)

  7. Jaleh: Great example!

    Deborah: A mix really. The bigger connections I usually work out in the outline process, the more personal and immediate ones happen as I write, then the more subtle ones come out after I've seen how the scene and story develops. I do a lot of back and forth editing when something pops up that I can go back and add in earlier. And sometimes I'll have throwaway lines that are there for tone or just to create tension, and later I realize I can actually DO what my characters worried about. I'll weave those through in revisions.

    Sarah: Most welcome :) I'm actually curious if anyone knows the name of the trash monster. I almost called him by name, but thought it would be more fun to see if someone said it.

  8. Wonderfull post. This will help me look at things from a different angle. Thanks again

  9. This is a great layout of story lines.

    1. Thanks! Sometimes it's helpful to just list things out and really look at how it all fits together.

  10. I had to photograph a guy who did not make it out of the trash compactor. Not a great plot point.

    I find as a panster / plotter / outliner / panster that the fun of wondering how they do it often brings out reactions from the characters that can't be gotten any other way. This is a VERY good article for those who need to flesh out an outline and I will use it for my trilogy....

    1. Ew, that must have been messy. I like seeing how my characters solve a problem as well. I know where they're going, but I leave it open enough to let it unfold organically as I write. A nice combo!

  11. I'be been stuck on a plot, and this actually helped a lot! I haven't seen Star Wars for years, but the example made me remember it all as if it were yesterday. XD

    1. Oh good! I love when that happens, and doubly so when it's an older article I've dusted off. Glad it helped!

  12. One trick for suspense is to recognize that when it's the heroes in danger, they always "will" survive. That's the reader's expectation, so a scene that threatens a hero's life has a larger-than-life thrill and a kind of harmlessness to it. A scene that threatens a side character, or something the hero values other than life, has a different kind of deadly potential. (And that's assuming you aren't going for the Game Of Thrones feeling where all safety is an illusion.)

    1. Exactly! killing off a main character rarely happens, but when it does, it's usually a huge shock.

  13. That is amazing. Thanks for making it so clear. Back to reviewing my scenes in my WIP!

    1. Thanks! Good luck :) Hope they all flow smoothly