It's a triple shot of me today. I'm talking about developing shiny new ideas over at PubCrawl, and sharing tips on where to find ideas for Rebecca Belliston's March Book Madness series. Both articles are based on exercises in my new book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure (shameless plug) so if you want a little peek, head on over.
This Friday I'm spending a fun (and full) day in a workshop taught by editor Cheryl Klein. I love writing workshops, and I'm always eager to see how other people approach writing--from their process to how they talk about that process. In preparation for the workshop I was sent homework to work up a book map for my current novel (agent Kristin Nelson talks about edit maps here for those curious).
One element on the instructions caught my eye: what changes in every scene?
My reaction: That's awesome (and this is why I love workshops).
I don't know Klein's take on this (I'll find out Friday), but I love this simple phrase because it captures something that's often hard to get across.
Scenes need to advance the story.
But "advance" suggests forward momentum, and that's not always the case. Failure is a big part of moving the plot, because it's through failing that the characters learn the skills needed to eventually win.
Like many tidbits of common writing advice "advance the story" can leave a writer scratching their heads.
What changes? is much easier to grasp. It's so basic it's also easy to apply to each scene and pinpoint that change. If there is no change, that's a red flag the scene is missing something, or it could be made better. It's similar to the wonderful plotting questions of "but, so, therefore, and then" to see if your scenes are actually doing anything.
A quick note here...change is something fundamental to the story itself, not a detail in that story. For example, if in one scene the protagonist is trying to break into a bank and fails, and the next scene she's trying to break into a donut shop and fails, that's still two failed break in scenes. Changing a detail that doesn't affect any other changes isn't the type of change I'm talking about here. This is about changes that affect the story.
Here are some areas where change might occur in your scenes:
What changes with the goal?
If it's a scene, then a character is trying to achieve a goal. How that goal is resolved or not should change what the protagonist is trying to do in some way, even if it's small. The protagonist should be closer to or farther from that goal for having gone through this scene. If she's not, then what was the point of the scene? Or she might abandon the goal altogether and move on to a new one.
(Here's more on character goals)
What changes in the stakes?
Escalating stakes is a great way to keep readers hooked, so how might the stakes be raised? What about the situation can get worse? Maybe the change comes from uncovering new information that sheds light on an existing problem, or an action that didn't go as planned. Maybe things that were impersonal are now personal.
(Here's more on when to escalate the stakes in your novel)
What changes in the conflict?
Resolving one conflict might open the door to several more, or just a more difficult one. The conflict could be made harder or more personal, or it could shift to something that will destroy your protagonist if left unresolved. As tension comes from conflict, this is an area where changes could have a major impact on the story.
(Here's more on creating conflict in your novel)
What changes in the character?
Blake Snyder refers to this as the emotional change, but it's the same principle. Often the protagonist starts the scene feeling one way and ends feeling another based on what happens in that scene. She starts out happy, then problems occur or she learns information that changes her emotional state, and she ends the scene angry or afraid or even in love. However it happens, how she feels changes by this experience.
(Here's more on creating character arcs)
What changes in the motivations?
Characters might start out with good intentions and sink into more selfish wants as the story unfolds. The good guy might get sick of always playing by the rules and decides to cut loose, or the character with ambiguous allegiances might decide to pick a side. People change their minds all the time, and events might push your characters to re-evaluate why they're doing something.
(Here's more on character motivations)
What changes in the plot?
The scene should move the plot needle in some way. It might be one of the above reasons, or it might be a major step in the plot, but things have to change for the plot to be resolved. If the character is doing the literary equivalent of slamming against a brick wall, readers will get very bored very quickly. Three in a row of the same type of scene with the same resolution every time will feel repetitious and make the story feel stagnant. Make something change each time, and it'll feel like it's going somewhere.
(Here's more on plotting)
What changes in the setting?
It's a small change in most situations, but sometimes changing locations is a very big deal. Maybe it's the protagonist summoning the courage to head into the villain's lair, or return home to their estranged family, or facing a past trauma. When the setting changes, it often heralds a change in another area.
(Here's more on how setting can affect the story)
Not every scene will need every one of these changes, but it's worth looking at each one to see if a change would strengthen the scene. It can also be helpful to consider the point of the scene, both from the author's standpoint (what you want to show by having this scene there) and the character's standpoint (how she sees the scene and what she wants from it). If the point is to explain something else, odds are there's not enough change going on.
Your thoughts? Would considering "what changes" help you plot or revise your scenes?
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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