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Friday, May 18

The Best Advice on Plotting I've Ever Heard: Two Tips That Will Make Plotting Easier

But wait, there's more!
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I read a few pieces of plotting advice in the last few weeks I wish I'd written. They're nothing new, nothing ground-breaking, and things countless writers have said before (including me), but the way they're said is sheer genius. They're probably the most applicable and easiest plotting tips I've ever heard.

Of course, me being me instantly thought about ways to apply them to my work and how to break them down into neat little examples. I've found no matter how awesome this advice is, it's also kinda easy to be led astray by it if you don't quite get it (like show, don't tell).

The first is a link from editor Cheryl Kline, who linked a video from a NY writing class where South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were talking about stories. The advice basically came down to this:

Every scene in your story is connected, and how you connect them will determine whether or not they're moving the story or just showing stuff happening. If you can say "and then" between the scenes, they're not advancing the story. If you can say "but" or "therefore" then something happens that forces a conflict or a decision and the story advances.

While the advice refers to full scenes, I think this can also be used on an action-by-action basis. It certainly allows you to see exactly how every action your character takes affects the narrative drive. 

Let's look at that in practice, shall we?

The first scene of The Shifter has the protagonist, Nya, stealing eggs for breakfast. Using this model, I'd write it like:
Nya is stealing eggs for breakfast.
Now, the next thing that happens is she gets caught.
Nya is stealing eggs for breakfast, but she gets caught.
Notice the but there? She has a goal, but that goal is thwarted by someone else taking action against her. If this conflict hadn't occurred, it might look like this:
Nya is stealing eggs for breakfast. And then she leaves the chicken ranch and goes to eat her eggs.
Two scenes, both with goals (which we all know a scene needs), but there's no conflict. That but is what signals and pinpoints the conflict. Without that, the plot isn't moving in a way that will hold a reader's interest.

The therefore is the choice the character makes that sets up the next goal and scene. X happens, but Y happens and now they have to do Z.

Let's see this play out a little longer:
Nya is stealing eggs for breakfast, but she gets caught. Therefore, she..
Throws a chicken and runs, but the guard chases her. Therefore, she...
Tries to evade the guard, and then he trips and breaks his ankle.
Wait, what? See that and then in there. This is a moment where the plot can start to unravel, so we want to get a but and therefore in there fast.
Tries to evade the guard, and then he trips and breaks his ankle.
He tells her to run, but she stays behind to heal him. Therefore...
The rancher catches up to them and threatens them with a weapon, but...
Nya shifts pain into the rancher and escapes. But...
She's seen by two boys who will report her to the Healers' League and get her into trouble.
See how the events feed off each other and Nya has to make choices and deal with unexpected things happening?

One thing that struck me as I was playing around with this, is that you really have to think about the goals and conflicts to make this work. Look how easy it would have been to say:
Nya tries to evade the guard, but he trips and breaks his ankle.
Nya tries to act one way, but something else happens. On first glance it works because you have that but in there. Yet the guard tripping in no way impedes Nya's goal of evading him. It actually helps her, so it's not a conflict to her goal. It's not a but. It's her decision to stay and help him that keeps her from evading. It's the therefore that moves the story along after this occurs.

Some Key Things to Remember With This Technique:
  • When you're identifying your but, make sure what happens is in conflict with the character's goal or action.
  • When you're identifying your therefore, make sure it's a choice made in response to what has just happened.
  • If the therefore doesn't work for you, try so. I found this clicked better for me and made it easier to see the "he does this so she does that" connections.
He tells her to run, but she stays behind to heal him, so...
The rancher catches up to them and threatens them with a weapon
This slides nicely into the second post I read: Jami Gold's thoughts on if every scene needed a goal. It's a great breakdown of the scene and structure format, and she says something near the end that really clicked with me:
"When you’re writing, don’t worry about if a section is a scene or sequel. Think cause and effect, sentence-by-sentence, action to reaction, scene to scene, and you’ll never go wrong."
Cause and effect. This is but, therefore in another form. Every action has a cause and an effect, and as long as things are building off each other, you keep the story moving.

I think this is why that and then in the middle of my chicken scene works. The guard tripping doesn't impede Nya's goal, but it causes her to stop and his act of letting her goal affects her. She feels compassion for him, so she helps him, which causes conflict for her goal and ultimately gets her in more trouble. His action causes an effect on her and she acts because of it.

What These Tips Can Do For You 

Your plot events will dictate how good your plot is, and even if you follow all the "rules" perfectly, it can still stink. Someone else can break all the rules yet their plot is gripping. This is why giving plotting advice is hard because it's so subjective--and why these tips strip away so much of the guesswork.

Because it comes down to cause and effect, but and therefore.

Something happens and the character has to react to how that something affects them. If it doesn't affect them it's pointless to the plot. If it doesn't force a decision, it's probably not moving the story or making the reader care what happens next.

Look at your plot and outline a scene using these techniques. Focus on what your protagonist actually does, not how they feel. Those feelings might be the motivators for the therefore or so connections, but they won't do much for the plot, because plot is what the character does, not how they feel.

List what they do, what happens, and what they do in response to that. If you find yourself writing a lot of and then, you know you don't have enough conflict and your character's goals aren't being thwarted. You don't actually have a plot, just a series of scenes.

But if you find a lot of but, therefore or so, then you can rest easy that you have a plot and it's driving the story.

How do your scenes hold up against this? Is there cause and effect in your scenes or are you missing goals or conflicts? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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