by Annette Lyon
I've read countless manuscripts from beginning writers that go something like this:
Mary and Steve sit around talking and talking and talking. Maybe they're eating something and they talk about the food. (Great cookies, he says. Thanks, she replies. I tried a new recipe.)
They might be walking around the streets of some city (often New York, maybe San Francisco), and we get the surroundings described a lot. (Honking cars, smog, whatever.)
We have background information on the characters' lives dropped in from the sky (what I call info dump.)
BUT NOTHING SIGNIFICANT HAPPENS.
I yawn. At this point I keep reading only if I'm judging a contest where I'm forced to give specific feedback on a form.
Where is the plot, folks?!
Let's back up and define what we think we already know but sometimes forget:
Plot is a series of connected events that tell a story. More importantly, plot is a series of connected events driven by conflict.
Conflict is the essence of every story. It's why we keep reading.
Will Woody ever be the favorite toy again? We want to know. Otherwise, why bother watching? That one big question is broken up into smaller, bite-sized questions that are answered at the end of each scene, which propels us into the next one.
That scene-ending answer is always one of three things:
2) NO. And furthermore . . .
3) Yes, BUT
Using Disney's Toy Story, let's look at a few examples:
-Once at Pizza Planet, will Woody manage to get him and Buzz into the stroller? No. And furthermore, Buzz runs off into what he thinks is a spaceship, so Woody has to save him.
-Does Woody manage to pull Buzz out of said spaceship/game before the claw does? No. And furthermore, it's the evil kid Sid that gets them, shoves them into his backpack, and takes them home to do scary things to them.
-Does Woody manage to escape from Sid's mutant toys? Yes, BUT now his own friends at the house next door turn on him, thwarting their escape because they think he's betrayed Buzz.
See how this works? I've actually skipped over some of the smaller scene questions and could have broken it down even further. But the idea is that one scene's question leads directly into the next scene's.
No scene question will never be answered as a happy, "YES!" until the very end, where the question is essentially, "Will they be happy now?"
I first got this way of looking at scenes from a book by Jack M. Bickham,who has written a number of volumes about writing. This one is Scene and Structure. When I first read it, the thing had my brain swirling in about a hundred directions.
I won't try to encapsulate it here--go read it yourself. There's a lot more to it than I've explained, and while the entire method won't necessarily work for every book (maybe an action/suspense that's plot-driven, but not a historical romance that's more character-driven, for example), it's a great technique for seeing where you can ratchet up your conflict and tension.
At the very least, if you use more scene-ending questions, your characters won't be sitting around shooting the breeze and chewing on hot dogs for no reason anymore.