Monday, March 22, 2021

Two Words That Lead to a Stronger Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There’s a fine line between a series of things that happen and a plot.

Seeing exactly how a novel unfolds in your head is both a blessing and a curse. It’s helpful to know how the story plays out, but it’s also easy to get scope-locked on what you know happens that you forget to include the why or how of it. The protagonist’s actions might make sense on a first glance, but when you ask questions or poke at the plot even a little, it falls apart.

Things happen because they need to happen for the plot to work, not because the characters made them happen. There’s no cause and effect. There’s just effect.

Basically, characters are following instructions, they’re not living their lives and dealing with issues.

A good scene causes an effect that changes the story and plot in some way.

A common weak area I see in a lot of first drafts (mine included), are characters acting and reacting because they’re supposed to, not because someone or something caused them to act that way. Their supposed to “get angry” in that scene, so they do—even if what they’re angry about makes no sense. Or they decide to confront another character, even though that character didn’t really do much to be confronted about. Or they realize something without having enough clues or triggers to cause such a revelation.

Once you know what’s moving your scenes forward from a plot perspective, consider how that scene affects your entire novel.

Take a look at one of your scenes—either a finished scene or a rough outline if you’re still in the planning stage. What’s the point of that scene? Why is it in the story? You’ll probably have two answers to this:
  • The goal of the protagonist
  • The goal of the author

The protagonist will be driving the scene, either trying to achieve something or trying to avoid something—sometimes both.

The author will have a reason for writing this scene that relates to the overall story or plot. They chose this scene to dramatize at this point in the story for this reason.

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

Next, ask: what effect does this scene cause? How does it change something in the story?

Whatever happens in this scene, no matter how big or how small, should affect what comes next. It might be a direct result, such as breaking into a house (cause) and getting caught by the antagonist (effect), or it could be indirect, such as breaking into a house (cause) and leaving behind a clue that will alert the antagonist the protagonist was there and make him retaliate at the worst possible moment (effect).

In essence, it’s “When protagonist does X, which causes Y.” If you describe your scene and all you have is, “Protagonist does X,” that’s a red flag that your scene isn’t moving the story forward. Try looking for the Y (the effect) to get that scene back on track.

If that effect eludes you, pull back and consider why you put that scene in the book. What’s your reason for it being there?

Be wary if that reason is of the “to show X” variety, such as “to show that the protagonist is afraid of commitment.” Showing an aspect of a character is great, but on its own it doesn’t cause an effect. It’s the result of the character being afraid of commitment and how they act due to that that triggers the effect.

Look for ways to make that character aspect cause something to happen, or be the result of something happening. For example, “To show the protagonist’s fear of commitment by having her start a fight with her new boyfriend so she doesn’t have to go meet his parents later at breakfast, which causes things to be strained between them at breakfast and this makes his parents decide they don’t like her.”

A little convoluted, sure (sometimes that’s just how scene summaries are), but basically, this boils down to, “When the protagonist has a fight with her boyfriend, it causes tension between them that makes his parents not like her.” That cause leads easily into the next effect, “When the boyfriend’s parents decide they don’t like her, they start trying to convince the boyfriend to dump her, putting a strain on their relationship.”

Actions cause reactions, which cause more actions, which cause more reactions, and so on and so on.

(Here’s more on If Nothing Changes in Your Novel, You Have No Story)

An easy trick to test the effect of a scene

Look at the story without it. What changes? What can’t happen without this scene to trigger it? If nothing does, odds are there’s a problem and it’s not serving the story.

Let’s look back at our couple:

Say the reason for the fight scene really is just “to show that the protagonist is afraid of commitment.” The protagonist has a goal of not going to breakfast because meeting the parents is a big step she’s not sure she’s ready for. You write a fun scene with them arguing over something inconsequential, exchanging witty banter, poignant observations, showing great characterization. By the end of the scene, boyfriend calms her down and they go to breakfast (because you need that to happen for the plot). The scene works as a scene.

Next scene, the couple has breakfast with the parents. The protagonist tries to win them over and fails. They don’t like her (which was always the plan for that scene).

What does the fight scene have to do with that breakfast scene? If you cut it, would it have changed the breakfast scene at all? Probably not, because the protagonist isn’t reacting to anything that happened in the fight to cause the parents not to like her. They just don’t, because that’s what plot says they have to do.

Will it kill your novel to leave that fight scene in? Honestly? Probably not if it has other benefits to the story (such as character development). But it’s a missed opportunity to strengthen the overall novel, and that opportunity could make the difference between a happy reader gushing about your book to all their friends, and one who forgets about it a week later. If there are a lot of scenes like this, then the odds of the novel feeling pointless increase, and that can kill your novel.

It would take very little effort to make the fight scene affect the breakfast scene and cause the parents to not like the protagonist. That way, it becomes a result of something the protagonist does, not random chance that has little to do with her and is only happening because plot says so.

It also forces her to work harder to win them over when she realizes she does want to commit to this particular guy, and now she’s screwed it all up. She has to fix her own mistakes–commit to making things right–which can work as a great thematic mirror to committing on a larger scale. Suddenly, this little nothing scene has deep roots and will resonate on a much bigger level with readers.

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

No matter how well written a scene might be, if it isn’t doing anything to make another scene happen, it probably doesn’t belong in the novel.

Cause and effect is a simple tool that can help you craft stronger scenes and tighter plots, whether it’s planning a first draft or polishing an almost-finished draft. No matter what stage you’re on, think about what you want your scenes to accomplish on both a character level and an author level. What do your scenes cause to happen in your story? How are they interconnected? A story that holds together well on multiple levels is a story readers remember.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and look at the cause and effect of your scenes. Are they building on each other, or do they “just happen?”

Do you ever think about how your scenes affect the whole novel?

*Originally published at PubCrawl, July 2014. Last updated March 2021.

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

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. For the record, the two words in the title are perhaps "I want".

    1. I think that's what readers say after the stronger novel is written :)