Monday, June 09, 2014

A Trick for Keeping Your Plot (and Story) on Target

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Whether you're an outliner, a pantser, or somewhere in between, you want your story to pull readers in and keep them hooked from scene to scene, all the way to the end of the novel. The more eager they are to find out what happens next, the faster they'll turn the pages and the more likely they are to think, "wow, what a great book. I'm telling all my friends."

Unfortunately, novels don't always cooperate, and a first draft (or first outline) can become a tangled nest of scenes with no coherent narrative drive. This situation happens, then this happens, then this happens...oh, and then this happens...but it never feels as if it's going anywhere. It's not so much a story but a string of moments where "the protagonist does X" or worse, "then this happens to the protagonist."

(Here's more on the "and then" plot test)

Here's a little trick that can help keep your story on target. Better still, it works with the outlining, drafting, and revising stage, so you can use it as much or as little as needed. I like to write these down in my scene-by-scene outline file, but you could also do them as a book map or editorial map, highlight them in the text, or just mentally check them off if you prefer.

Step One: Identify the goal of every scene

What is the protagonist (or POV character in that scene) trying to accomplish? This pinpoints what's driving the scene and reminds you where the scene needs to go to advance the plot. You might have both external and internal goals here as well, so also check to see if those goals support each other or if they conflict (both can work depending on the scene). If the goal spans multiple scenes or chapters, look for the specific step in that longer-term goal to make sure it leads somewhere. Things to look for:
  • Is the protagonist actively trying to do something (or avoid something) or are they just going with the flow and having things happen to them?
  • Is the goal clear or would it be hard for a someone besides the author to figure it out?
  • Does the goal lead the protagonist somewhere or do they hit a dead end?
The goal of the goal is to move the plot forward, so if there's nothing "going on" in the scene, there's a good chance it's lacking a goal or you have a reactionary protagonist.

(Here's more on plotting with goals)

Step Two: Identify the obstacle of every scene

What is preventing the protagonist (or POV character) from accomplishing that goal? Something or someone should be keeping the protagonist from the goal, and must be circumvented, overcome, or even endured. This will help pinpoint the conflict of the scene. Things to look for:
  • Is there a reason why the protagonist can't easily accomplish the goal?
  • Are there things or people making the pursuit of the goal more difficult?
  • Are there moral beliefs or personal issues the protagonist has to overcome to succeed?
If the protagonist has nothing to struggle against or overcome, there's a good chance there's no conflict in the scene.

(Here's more on adding conflict to your scenes)

Step Three: Identify the reveal in every scene

What new information is revealed? This doesn't have to be a major plot secret--it can be new information about the world, a discovery about a character, and clue that hasn't been solved yet, etc. While not every scene has to have a gasp-worthy, plot-centric reveal, "discovery" is a good way to keep readers hooked and maintain plot momentum. Things to look for:
  • Does the protagonist learn anything they didn't know before this scene occurred?
  • Is there any new information the reader learns?
  • Does this scene answer any previous story questions?
  • Does the reveal create new story questions to hook the reader?
If a story goes too long without new information being revealed, the reader can get bored and feel that nothing is happening.

(Here's more on reveals)

Step Four: Identify the hand off in every scene

What moves the scene to the next scene? This helps pinpoint the results of the protagonist's (or POV character's) actions in that scene. This is also the reason readers will want to read the next scene, and likely sets up the goal for the next scene. Things to look for:
  • Does the resolution of the goal lead to another goal?
  • Does a conflict create another problem that must be solved?
  • Does a reveal make the protagonist re-evaluate their actions or beliefs?
If the attempt to accomplish a goal doesn't have a consequence or trigger a reaction, that's a red flag that the scenes are just a series of things happening with no actual narrative drive.

A test-within-a-test: If you took this scene out, what wouldn't happen? If nothing changes, the scene probably isn't doing anything to affect the story.

(Here's more on transitions)

It's not uncommon to have everything you need in a scene, but the pieces just aren't aligning as tightly as they could. The goal is vague, the conflict is weak, and no new information is revealed--just hinted at. Taking a minute to identify the pieces can help you tweak them so they all work together to advance the story. A ho-hum scene becomes tight and focused, and pulls readers effortlessly (or so it appears after all that work) through the story.

Do you think mapping your narrative drive would help you? If so, at what stage of your drafting process? 

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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  1. I'm in my `throw it at the wall and see what sticks' stage. Some of these are things that will be helpful when I have more of my story in front of me -some I'll be able to use right off. I was especially looking at the hand off, since transitions is my greatest weakness. My first thought was `the scene isn't finished yet. How will I know how it bleeds into the next?' But then I thought as a check-point to make sure I'm moving forward, it can still be an important thing to anticipate, even if I'm still just splashing color around. Who knows, maybe I'll even get better at transitions. :)

    1. All it takes is practice :) But you might be the type of writer who gets it all down first and then looks for the best way to move from scene to scene. No rules say you need to know all this before you start writing. It can be just as useful during revisions.

  2. This is a great post! It's especially good during drafting, and then afterward as your revisions. I also think it would help determine the purpose of the scene to your story, so if you're trying to figure out if a scene or subplot needs to be there, you can quickly figure that out using this checklist. Brilliant!

    1. Thanks! I like using it at the various stages myself. Helpful in the outline stage, then the first draft checklist, then a more refined list during revisions.

  3. Janice - your posts have helped me no end. This one is especially useful as I go through my rewriting (from Draft 0 to a more official Draft 1) and helps to keep me on the right path. Not only that, but I read this and get reinvigorated about the writing and editing process!

    Thanks for keeping me focused on improving my writing. :)
    Take Care, Cat

  4. This is such a great post. It has everything we need to think of in crafting our scenes. And to help fix those weak ones.

    1. Thanks so much! Checklists might not work for everyone, but I do love the simplicity of them. I can immediately scene the core points of a scene.

  5. Great post Janice. Will be referring to this often.

  6. I like this! I have a completed book and am going through revisions right now. One of the things I'm doing is determining if each scene is necessary and / or what it's accomplishing. I've made cuts and identified areas where I need to add.
    I'll be using this post to refine that even further.
    Thank you! :)

    1. Excellent! This should help a lot there. Feel free to add your own questions or details to look for as well. For example, you might decide to add stakes in there, or parts of a character arc.

  7. This could be a useful tool in revision as well.

    1. Absolutely. I'm using it for that now. It's what actually inspired this article :)