Janice shares the two tips on plotting that she wishes she had written, both to do with cause and effect. The first one particularly made an impact on me because it helped me identify what I know to be a weakness in my writing.
I don’t want to rewrite Janice’s whole article – she has written it far better than I ever could – but the essence is about how to know you are moving your story forward with every scene.
Summarising advice from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, she writes:
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 them, 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.
This really brought home to me why Baby Blues lacks punch, particularly when compared to Dragon Wraiths. Because Dragon Wraiths is written in the first person, and starts In Media Res (albeit it with back-story in the form of diary entries), the scenes are linked far more with But and Therefore, rather than And Then.
For example, in the diary segments (where most of the action sits at the beginning), it is Leah’s 12th birthday. She wants art supplies, therefore her family take the car rather than the train to town, therefore their enemies are able to attack them on the way home. Her mother tells her to run and keep running, therefore Leah leaves her behind and runs, but she collapses from exhaustion. Her goal is thwarted by her weakness. Therefore she ends up in hospital, but she doesn’t tell anyone who she is, therefore she ends up in care, but her mother told her to keep running. The story progresses because of Leah’s decisions, or the machinations of her unseen enemies.
In Baby Blues, on the other hand, the scenes are much more ‘and then’. Helen hosts a dinner party, and then sleeps with her boyfriend, and then realises she’s late for a photography shoot. Or maybe that’s a ‘therefore’? She stays up late because of her duty to Daniel, therefore she is nearly late for a photography shoot. However she isn’t late, so there is no cause and effect. No conflict. If she had missed her photography shoot and her career had been blighted by it, her resentment of Daniel might have been greater and the first third of the novel have more punch and pace.
As you can see, it can be tricky to identify the ‘but’ and ‘therefore’ points. Janice offers 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
It all comes down to conflict. I hate inflicting conflict and pain. I actually find it painful to watch a TV show where a bad decision leads to people dying. I don’t sit on the edge of my seat, I rue the What If and wonder how the character (albeit a fictional one) lives with the guilt.
As a result my writing is pretty and descriptive and explores the inner character of protagonists, but it doesn’t speed along. Janice Hardy even has a post about it: Do you Suffer from NWS? Living with Nice Writer Syndrome. Er, yes, that would be me!
I’ve accepted that it is too tricky to change the way I’m writing Two Hundred Steps Home, as building in cause and effect every single day would probably stretch my ability to keep up with the story (unless I have England attacked by blood-sucking aliens. Now there’s an idea!).
But as I tackle Class Act, I will have this advice in mind. Time to get tough.
Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:
“Claire? It’s Carl.”
Claire paused in her walk along the bay and perched on the stone wall, gazing out to sea. I knew I shouldn’t have answered the phone. After believing her boss was trying to force her out for months, it was hard not to be confused by his sudden terrier-like behaviour, now she had finally resigned.
“Have you had a chance to consider my offer?” Carl spoke into the silence.
“What offer?” Claire watched as a couple wandered along the sand, fingers entwined. Behind her the amusement arcades advertised their wares with raucous music and flashing lights. The air smelled of salt and candyfloss.
“I sent you an email.” Carl’s voice sliced through her reverie.
“I’ve been busy. Catching up on the blog and collating my notes together to pass to my replacement.”
Carl didn’t respond immediately, and the scream of hungry seagulls rent the still evening air. Claire envied them their freedom of expression.
When Carl spoke again, his tone was nonchalant. “I merely emailed you with a counter-offer, as is standard procedure when someone resigns in the middle of a critical project or contract negotiation.”
Claire wasn’t fooled by Carl’s insouciance. Sitting up straight, she narrowed her eyes and glared at the arm of fields stretching into the sea, as if embracing the bay.
“And are we? In the middle of contract negotiations? With whom? Happy Cola? The YHA? Both? That would have been rather pertinent to our conversation earlier this week, don’t you think?”
“So, you’ll reconsider?” Claire imagined his tail wagging furiously. “Both accounts are more than pleased with the early results of your social media activity. The YHA have seen a marked increase in bookings at the hostels you’ve written about and Happy Cola have cited a significant increase in the healthy associations of their brand in recent regional market research.”
He sounded like Sky explaining why she should be allowed ten minutes more on the iPad, or a second chocolate bar. Claire felt her cheeks twitching in a smile, while her head reeled with possibilities. Her fingers itched to load her email and discover exactly how big Carl’s counter-offer was. Not that it’s actually a counter-offer, unless I am offered the Purbeck role, but he doesn’t need to know that.
Claire was swept up in a tide of emotion. From being the outcast black sheep of the organisation, she belonged again. No more nasty challenges from Julia, or scrawled queries on her expenses forms. If she was the king pin securing two important deals, the world was her oyster.
Although a grin stretched her cheeks, Claire forced her voice low and doubtful. “I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it. The job here is a fantastic opportunity for me to make a difference.”
“Promise you’ll think it over? Look at the counter-offer. It’s not set in stone.”
Glee surged through Claire as she heard the panic in her boss’s voice. She could imagine the strain on his face as he rehearsed the conversation with the Board that centred on granting her a significant pay increase.
Blind to the beauty of the orange sun sliding across the sky, staining the sea blood-red, Claire said farewell to Carl and loaded up her emails.