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Friday, October 25

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

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A good story is more than a series of things that happen. It's all about the cause and effect.

Way back in 2012, I read a few pieces of plotting advice that are just as good today as they were then. 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.

The advice refers to full scenes, but I quickly realized it was just as effective on diagnosing the action in an individual scene as well as the big picture of the novel's plot. It's an incredibly useful tool for pinpointing problems in a scene you know has issues, but can't figure out what they are.


Don't Make Your Novel a Series of "And Then..."


This first tip came from an article editor Cheryl Kline wrote, who linked a video from a NY writing class where South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were discussing plot. The gist of the video is this:
Every scene in your story is connected, and how you connect them will determine whether or not they're advancing the plot or just showing "stuff happening." If you can say "and then" between the scenes, they're not advancing the plot. If you can say "but" or "therefore" then something happens that forces a conflict or a decision and the plot advances.
Scenes create situations that force characters to make choices concerning the conflict in their path. Action leads to reaction leads to next action. That's plot.

While the advice refers to full scenes, it's also useful on an action-by-action basis. It allows you to see exactly how every action your character takes affects the narrative drive.

Let's look at how "but, therefore" works in practice:

The first scene of The Shifter has my protagonist, Nya, stealing eggs for breakfast. Using this model, the opening action is:
Nya is stealing eggs for breakfast.
What happens next 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 taking action against her. She wants eggs for breakfast, someone wants to keep her from stealing those eggs. If she wins, she gets to eat. If they win, she goes hungry, or worse.

If this conflict hadn't occurred, the summary of the action 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 (Nya wants to steal eggs, Nya wants to eat stolen eggs), but there's no conflict. That but is what signals and pinpoints the conflict of this scene. Without it, the lack of conflict is clear and we see how the plot doesn't advance 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. 

Something creates or triggers a problem, therefore, something else has to happen to continue forward. X happens, but Y happens and now she chooses to do Z.

(Here's more on Getting the Best Response From Your Characters)

Let's see this scene 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? The action stops?

Yes it does, because instead of a but, we have an and then. This is a moment where the plot could start to unravel if I'm not careful, so I want to get a but and therefore into the scene again fast. Luckily, I do.
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? Those choices and problems create a series of plot events that advance the story and pull readers through the tale.

(Here's more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

This Isn't as Easy as it Looks


This seems like a terribly easy thing to do, and that every scene will unfold with the proper but, therefore sequence, but it really won't. You do have to think about the goals and conflicts to make this work and test your scenes correctly.

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.

Don't assume that just because two things happen right after each other that there's conflict or anything driving the plot forward. Writers struggle with plot, because they string scenes together that aren't building off each other in this way. There is no cause and effect.

Some Key Things to Remember With the But, Therefore 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 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 of getting away and ultimately gets her in more trouble. His action causes an effect on her and she acts because of it.

(Here's more on Taking the Scenic Route: Scenes and Sequels)

What These Tips Can Do For You 


Your individual plot events typically dictate how good your plot is, but even if you follow all the "rules" perfectly, that plot 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? 

Originally published May 2012. Last updated October 2019.


For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love 
  • Choose the right point of view for your story 
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!) 
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style 
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch 
  • Create your summary hook blurb 
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

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. 
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

73 comments:

  1. I'd heard of this before but forgot about it. Thanks for reminding me.

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  2. this is awesome! the But and Therefore make so much sense. Thank you!

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  3. I also heard of the "but/therefore" trick before too, but I hadn't really applied it. Perhaps I should try using it one day, if I get a little more motivated with revising.

    By the way, is the "Popular Posts" widget to the side new, or I just hadn't noticed it before?

    I find it amusing that the 3rd most popular post is on sex. :p

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  4. I heard this from YOU at last weekend's SCBWI libarary event BUT I needed to hear it again THEREFORE I am so happy I read you blog. :-)

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  5. This is such brilliant advice!

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  6. I hadn't thought of it like this before! I'll have to apply it to my plotting. Thanks for the tips!

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  7. Great post! And I love the guys from South Park, so I have a perfect excuse to go listen to their chat :). Thanks!

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  8. Brilliant. I love how this great tidbit came from Southpark creators. (It's totally tasteless and politically incorrect, but I like watching, lol)

    Angela

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  9. AWESOME! I'm printing this out...
    :) e

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  10. Great advice! I've never heard it put quite like this.

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  11. Brilliant advice! Trust Stone and Parker to make the world make sense lol.

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  12. Huh. This ought to be really helpful in identifying problem spots in my manuscript. Thanks for posting this. :-D

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  13. Oh, this is useful. I've never heard it before. :) (Apply, apply, apply...)

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  14. Thanks for the link, Janice!

    And thank YOU for putting these two pieces of advice together for us. I love the "but" and "therefore" idea. :)

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  15. Natalie, most welcome. I was happy to get the link shared to me as well.

    Cristina, I just loved how simple this makes it.

    C0, yep, the Popular Posts is new. I haven't been as good about updating the boxes at the top so I did this until I get my act together :) Romance is the best-selling genre out there I think, so sex being popular makes sense, lol

    Tanya, you guys got a preview :) I had just written this post that morning, so it was fresh in my head.

    Carissa, isn't it awesome? I love when I discover easy ways to apply solid writing principles. Wish I'd written it!

    Laura, most welcome. I think this will make plotting easier.

    JEM, the video is fun. I love the looks on the students faces when they walk in.

    Angela, those guys are really talented. It's crass, but it's some of the best satire out there. The crassness is what let's them be so poignant. The episode with Cartman trying to get Family Guy cancelled for showing Muhammad was just genius.

    Elizabeth, it's post-it note worthy for sure!

    Sharon, me either, and it's so easy.

    Scattered Laura, I know! But they have a great way of looking at things.

    Sibb, most welcome. I think these are amazing tips.

    Chicory, that's how I felt!

    Jami, most welcome, I loved that post. I read them both the same day I think and it all just clicked in new and exciting ways :)

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  16. I'm not sure their ultimatum against "and then" really works for me, because it doesn't allow for outside forces to affect the narrative or the inclusion of long-delay reactions. Because long form stories are not linear.

    In your example the guard tripping is not a direct consequence of anything currently in the story, but it has it's own set of complications that follow it. But it doesn't fit in the same chain of cause and effect.

    Or Consider a situation where a character witnesses a robbery. The character calls the police, BUT the culprit is running away THEREFORE he chases her. Now, when the police arrive is it a therefore? Sort of, they arrive because they were called earlier, but trying to phrase that the way they do falls short. Because there's a small parallel plot line.

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  17. Kathie, I don't see it as an ultimatum. Like all things writing, I think trying to adhere to this as a hard and fast rule won't work. As you said, some things will happen and then they trigger other things to happen. In your example, I'd treat the police arriving as a "but" because they'll most likely do something that changes what happens next. "But when the police arrive they...." They also arrive in response to being called, so it fits the cause and effect structure.

    There's going to be some play in this, but the important thing to take away from it, is that if you're looking at your scenes, and they're all "AND THEN" this happens, it's a red flag there's very likely a goal issue and the story isn't advancing. If none of the scenes do anything to change or affect the following scenes, that's a problem.

    Likewise is all scenes have an affect, but it's not seen until quite a ways later. Sometimes this is fine, we need to foreshadow, but if it's happening a lot, that could indicated a lot of setup and backstory and no actual plot.

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  18. Janice, I just found your website from a tweet @Porter_Anderson and am happy I took a look. What you've shared on this post is very helpful to me. Thank you. I also like when you say, " plot is what the character does, not how they feel." I remember an early teacher saying,

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  19. My apologies I found your website from @Writeitsideways

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  20. Thanks for simplifying scene and sequel. But and therefore are easy questions to ask and answer.

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  21. Anon, welcome to the blog and I'm glad you found me :) And glad the post helped!

    Sharon, most welcome. I'm always looking for ways to make writing easier. Especially plotting.

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  22. This was amazingly helpful to me. I had a plot that had hit a brick wall and was able to figure out exactly what should happen. Great advice!

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  23. Excellent post ~ such useful advice. Thanks :-)

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  24. Excellent tips. I have heard this before, but I did not actually try to outline a scene with it. This time I will work with it to benefit my writing because it really is good advice.

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  25. Excellent advice! I've heard the advice before but this post really helped me understand it in a new way. THANK YOU!Now I'm ready for revising!

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  26. Suzanne, glad it helped you! Good luck with your plot.

    Kathleen, most welcome :)

    Melissa, it's been very helpful for me. Try playing with different levels, too. Looking at it from a macro vs micro level. (more on that Friday, actually)

    Taffy, oh good! Best of luck with those revisions.

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  27. I knew all this, but the BUT and THEREFORE, plus your examples, brought it front and center and made it easy to remember. I think I do okay with it in my middle-grade time travel, but I have one more pass to make on it, and this will be part of it. Thanks!

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  28. I missed this when you posted it, but it is very helpful to me right now in the middle of my revision. I think it might also be helpful in shaping your synopsis. Great post,
    thank you!

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  29. Jennifer, I've learned understanding writing advice is more about finding the thing that makes it click for you than anything else. Even when you get it on one level, the right words hit you and you can totally use it better. That happened to me yet again at RWA (and I'll be blogging about that soon)

    Todd, glad it found you then! Oh yeah, this would really help with a synopsis.

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  30. Great post and website. Found you through the blog hop on Katherine's site, looking forward to reading all these posts!

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  31. Super Spud, welcome! Good to have you here :)

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  32. SUCH a great post! I came over from the follow-swap bloghop at Broken Hourglass. SO glad I did!

    I will be bookmarking for future use! New follower!

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  33. Oh wow, I want that but/therefore rule tattoed on me somewhere it's so good! Thanks for joining my blog hop too - if you're tweeting your involvement, @ me (@katherineamabel) and I'll RT you. :)

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  34. thats the simplest most understandable advice Ive heard on scenes, genius

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  35. Daisy, welcome to the blog! Nice to meet you :)

    Katherine, I have it as a post-it on my monitor. Tweeted the bog hop yesterday :)

    SJP, isn't it awesome? I love advice that just clicks because it's so clear. And from the South Park guys, too!

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  36. Truly awesome and instantly useful. I used it to change the order of a couple of scenes, and I can see that the impact was immediate. Before it was 'and then'. Big thanks!

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  37. Michael, that's fantastic! It's such a great tip. No matter what your process, it works.

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  38. What a great diagnostic tool! I just applied it to my first chapter, and found that after a fast-paced seven pages, the next three had no "buts" or "therefores" at all! Guess where my critique partners said it felt kind of slow?

    The thing is, those pages introduce an important secondary character and set up a twist for the ending of the chapter, so I didn't know how to fix it.

    This post really helped. It reminds me of Donald Maass' thoughts on "micro tension," but provides an actionable framework for achieving it. Thanks!

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  39. Meredith, glad it helped! And that's such a perfect example of why this tip works. Thanks for sharing it :)

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  40. Great post! Another way to look at it how story is structured:

    1. Once upon a time, XXX.
    2. Until one day, XXX.
    3. Because of that, XXX.
    4. Because of THAT, XXX.
    5. Until finally, XXX.

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  41. Annk, every writer should have that on a post-it note stuck to their monitor :)

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  42. I know I'm a little late to the game on this one...

    Your whole blog has helped me with my writing in so many ways I don't know where to start thanking you. But this particular post is a gem, and it even helped me at work a few weeks ago by bailing me out of a failing lesson with my students. :)

    I posted about it on my blog, if you're curious: http://goo.gl/pwNmjm

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    1. Aw, thanks so much! Late to the game is fine (she says as she's late to responding to comments this week). I'm so glad the blog is helping you. This advice was so simple, yet so spot on. Just changes how someone might look at storytelling and plotting.

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  43. wow, its simple tips but so powerful. thanks for great post.

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    1. The simple tips are almost always the best :)

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  44. Interesting tip - thanks for writing about this, Janice. I would love to see a longer example of this, beyond the first action sequence or inciting incident. I can think of several bestsellers that only seem to fit this structure during the inciting incident and high tension scenes, not for most scenes. For instance, Hunger Games, which certainly fits the bill for a page-turner with lots of conflict, seems to have long gaps with very few "buts" or "therefores". Katniss is worried about being chosen for the reaping, BUT Prim is chosen instead, THEREFORE Katniss volunteers... and then she spends a bunch of chapters riding on trains, eating yummy food, riding in chariots, giving interviews, and training. See what I mean? I can think of a few more but/therefore combos within those chapters, but surely not driving every scene (though if you disagree, I'd love to see it mapped out). I can't figure out how to sustain that level of constant conflict and cause-and-effect in my book, either. Is that something you believe we really should strive for, driving every scene of our stories?

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  45. Excellent article. Thank you Janice. A good resource for your readers that clicked in my head as was reading, and a a good resource for your audience to learn more about this is Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure.

    That book, and this article cut to the meat of why people both read and write fiction, because it is engaging.

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    1. Bickham's S&S is a must read for every writer. My copy is old and faded with notes and highlights all through it :) First time I read it, it went over my head (I was a newbie who knew nothing then and not ready for it), then later it all clicked and this whole "structure" thing made sense.

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  46. Great tip. I love simplicity when it works. Like any tool, use or don't use at your discretion.

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  47. I think "Fabulous Maximus" is better than "Trans Fabulae' on your 'Shield.' I mean what does Trans Fabulae mean? Kaitlyn Jenner?? .

    Whatever happens 'Next' need to hold the reader. Make it interesting or nothing. It's the Emotional Sequence that counts. "Then' is just a generic word to separate the Beats. I don't understand why anyone would think that 'Then' means to continue with something 'Boring.'

    Even a "Pause" scene has its place.

    List your 'Beats.' Do your Beats follow the "Right Rhythm and Melody' to light up the Reader's Emotions?

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    1. Trans Fabulae means roughly "other side of the story" in Latin, which was the original name for the site.

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    2. Thanks for the Trans Fabulae Translation. :)

      Here's something I ran across today from MIT regarding conflict on Twitter expressed in a Visual Format. Methinks you could take this post to a higher level by creating an infographic describing Emotional Conflict Categories. Hopefully this will post.I didn't bitly it.

      http://www.technologyreview.com/view/539856/this-is-what-controversies-look-like-in-the-twittersphere/?utm_campaign=socialsync&utm_medium=social-post&ut



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  48. It was so simple that I didn't even notice! (God, i even want to know what happened to Nya and she was just the example!) Thanks!

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    1. Most welcome :) Sometimes the simplest techniques work the best.

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  50. The examples and descriptions are clear and motivating; thanks for posting this :) I'll echo other writers in saying this is a hugely helpful post...
    *but* I also found several typos, which was distracting from all the good points.
    *Therefore* if it's at all possible to fix them that would be great!

    I also realize that computers and phones can be so unhelpful when posting -mine try to autocorrect words all the time, especially when switching between languages....

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    1. Thanks! As much as I try to proof, I do slip up and those typos get in there. I'll fix them now :) Appreciate the heads up.

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  51. These tips are so well presented, I've just understood why a publisher rejected a short story of mine because it was 'a list of events'. She was right, BUT didn't explain why well SO I was disappointed. I'll try & put in a couple of 'but's' & 'so's' & see if it's better - hopefully she'll like the story better - cross fingers!
    Thank you.
    Fay

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    1. Oh good! Hope it helps you fix that story and make a sale :)

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  52. I just came across this and it is being filed away in my 'Perfect Advice' file. Excellent examples. I wish I saw more of this on other blogs.

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  55. one of the best advice indeed. im using a similar pattern.

    1.Stake/Promise of dreadful (will happen) 2.goal 3.Conflict (makes the protag fail to get the goal. 4.Consequence/Delivery of promise (Happened) 5. A bigger threat cause by what happened. 6. repeat no.1 to 6

    I opened the door and cant believe the assassin is there, pointing a shotgun at me. I jump for cover but the shotgun burst and i was hit. Oh god only few minutes now remaining in my life.

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  56. Hi Janice, reviving an oldy. What happens to this "flow" when you change to another point of view character? is it a direct part of this action-reaction chain?

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    1. It depends if how much the other POV character affects the current one. If two POV characters don't interact, then they can't affect each other in a direct way. But if one causes something to happen that triggers a reaction in the other then it still holds true.

      So a second POV character might do something that causes an effect elsewhere, and that effect is what POV character 1 reacts to.

      This all basically says have the things the characters do actually create changes in the plot and story to ensure you have a forward-moving plot. If nothing changes or causes a change in the scene, that's a red flag the scene has no forward drive.

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  57. Would you consider this similar to the 'Fortunately/unfortunately' manner of looking at scene structure?

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    1. Probably similar, though it focuses more on the goals and the stimulus and response of the action. 'Fortunately/unfortunately' sounds more luck-based that plot-driven if that makes sense.

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