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Similar to this question, I am slowly coming to realize that my writing is getting choppy. Unlike that question however, my problem does not lie within sentences, or even paragraphs. It lies within whole scenes.

Recently, I've found that my stories are starting to sound more like a narration of events than anything else. This happens. Then something else happens. Then the hero goes here and learns this. Then he does this. The scenes seem to fall one after the other like soldiers in a line.

The worst part is that I'm not entirely sure where the problem is. Part of me feels it lies in jumping from one plot point to the next with nothing bridging between the two (for example, once I'm done with a plot point I'll end the scene, say with a cliff-hanger, and open the next chapter with "the next morning..."). Part of me feels like it's something completely different.

At the same time, I can't help but notice that the openings of my novels seem fine. This may be because they are generally only one scene long. But it may also be because I develop them differently than the rest of the plot.

To generate plot, I use a version of the method described by Lauren Ipsum in the answer to this question. I will start with a general feel for how the plot progresses, and work backwards from the climax. Useful as this method is, it could be the reason my writing seems to be devolving into a line of scenes, as all I'm doing is coming up for reasons for each scene.

Does anyone know what my problem is, and better yet, how to fix it?

  • @LaurenIpsum Thanks. How do you link to the answer like that? – Thomas Myron Jun 30 '15 at 4:49
  • I went into my own user panel. I found the link to my answer, clicked on it, and copied it. I was able to do the same for a random answer of yours, so you can do the same for anyone else. – Lauren Ipsum Jun 30 '15 at 9:38
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    You can generate a short link to any question or answer by clicking on "share" under a post and copying the URL it gives you. – Monica Cellio Jul 1 '15 at 1:28
  • @MonicaCellio oooooh! thank you for that. You learn something new every day. :) – Lauren Ipsum Jul 1 '15 at 9:45
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It sounds as if your story progresses in a series of "this happens and then that happens" scenes.

I think the key is to focus on cause and effect. This happens, and therefore that happens.

Take a closer look at Lauren's awesome "plotting backwards" answer that you cite. Every single one of her prompt questions is about cause and effect.

Edited to add:

I sometimes find it useful to think in terms of what Dwight Swain called scene and sequel. His definitions are somewhat common in writing circles, but may differ from how you normally use the words:

A scene is a unit of conflict, of struggle, lived through by character and reader.

A sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes.

--Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer.

The structure of a scene:

  1. Goal. What the character wants to accomplish in this scene.
  2. Conflict. Something keeps the character from achieving the goal.
  3. Disaster. A logical yet unanticipated development that throws your focal character for a loss.

The character wants something, tries to get it, runs into obstacles, and ends up worse than at the start of the scene.

The structure of a sequel:

  1. Reaction. The character's immediate reaction to the disaster.
  2. Dilemma. The character must choose between equally unsatisfactory alternatives.
  3. Decision. The character decides what to do, which becomes the goal for the character's next scene.

The character reacts to the disaster, sorts through alternatives for what to do next (usually all bad), and chooses one of the alternatives, which becomes the next goal.

Often sequels are very short, especially in fast-paced stories.

I find this all quite formulaic, but when I'm stuck, the formula very handily helps me get unstuck. Some people claim to plot their novels using nothing more than this scene and sequel formula.

You can learn more about Scene and Sequel from Swain's book (mentioned above) or Jack M. Bickham's book Scene and Structure. Or by searching the internet for scene and sequel.

  • As far as I can tell, I'm doing that. All the questions I ask myself are more or less adverb-based (how, when, where, who, why...). I eventually run out of questions though, leaving me with several answers and a scene. These collective blocks are what I make my story out of, and what I feel might be making it choppy. For example, my fiction feels like: This happens, and therefore that happens, and therefore that happens, and so on. It's cause and effect for the most part... just without flow from one to the other. – Thomas Myron Jun 30 '15 at 0:35
  • Thanks Dale, this is a great help. I'm currently seeing if it will resolve my current problem. I do have one question though. Does the 'disaster' stage have to be negative? As long as it is unexpected, could it work for the hero, as long as it still provides a dilemma later on? – Thomas Myron Jul 1 '15 at 0:46
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    A useful rule of thumb for commercial fiction: The character must fail, and the failure must get worse. And if the character happens to succeed, or appears to succeed, we soon learn that "succeeding" actually made things worse. But it's just a rule of thumb, not a law. I hadn't thought about the possibility that a success might lead to a dilemma. Seems like a fruitful approach. – Dale Hartley Emery Jul 1 '15 at 0:54
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    So after a few rounds of this, I'm starting to see a pattern: the goal of the scene is never accomplished. Most goals don't need to be accomplished. But a lot of the minor ones do, or there won't be any progress. In my current problem, the hero has to get out of the death-trapped hallway sometime. How can I accomplish this with the above method? Or does the problem lie in my definition of the goal? Does it need to be broader/ less broad than immediate? – Thomas Myron Jul 1 '15 at 1:01
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    It's just a rule of thumb ;-) If the character satisfies the scene goal, see if you can make things worse with respect to some larger goal. Maybe: Out of the frying pan into the fire. As when Indiana Jones's bag of sand trick "works," but triggers the boulder trap. Or: The way out requires sacrificing something crucial to the larger goal. Or: Getting out ticks away precious time. Or: Escaping makes the bad guy redouble his efforts. – Dale Hartley Emery Jul 1 '15 at 1:11
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Sequence is all and well, but don't forget your character development. And while we are at it remember that in the real world, everyone in the star of their own story. So you have the order of events, but if the story is that simple, it is just a tale. Remember Eddie will put rabbit ears on anybody whenever there is a camera pointed at them, and Bob used to do it but he grew up, and Ralf wants no part of your plan, so if he knows what you have planned he won't cooperate. Give your characters some room to be themselves. This will loosen up your writing some.

Next you want to put a tablecloth on your sequence. When you see a cloth laying on a table you, you don't need to see the table to know it is there. Likewise with sequence, the events show the shape of the sequence without exposing it to view. Also as many a tablecloth has a wrinkle in it, events that fight the sequence also belong.

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You can use Lauren's method to develop your plot, but I wouldn't advise you to write backwards. In my opinion you should always write every text in the order that it will be read. As you progress from one part to the next you will automatically create transitions from one part to the next, because that is how the mind works. If you work backwards, you'll create transitions from the following part to the preceding, but not the other way around.

You need to separate plotting from writing. Read my other answer here, which addresses this problem more extensively: How to improve logic/reduce plot holes?

  • Yes, I could never write backwards. It was difficult for me to just plot backwards at first. – Thomas Myron Jun 30 '15 at 18:01
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"The openings of my novels seem fine. This may be because they are generally only one scene long. But it may also be because I develop them differently than the rest of the plot."

In that case, treat each scene as the "opening" of the rest of the novel. Develop it as you would develop the real opening, rather than the "rest of the plot." That way, your development of each scene is fresh. Then "wash, rinse, and repeat."

In computer science, this process is known as "recursion."

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You have all your parts; you've sort of discovered your story backwards. Now you need to reverse–reverse-engineer an outline.

A very rough skeleton for an outline is:

Intro: set up the story world

Act I: Plot is set in motion. Ends with a disaster or reversal

Act II: Reversal is overcome. Plot moves forward. Ends with another disaster or reversal.

Act III can be the same structure as Act II if you want to use it.

Act IV: Plot is resolved.

Conclusion or Epilogue: wrap up loose ends or leave them untied for the sequel.

Take my examples from the other answer and put them in chronological order:

  • Why is the macguffin important?
  • How did the macguffin get lost?
  • Who told the heroine about the macguffin?
  • How does she know it's in a building? (As opposed to a ship, at emple, a bank, a house, on the road, etc.)
  • How does she find which building it's in?
  • How does she reach the building?
  • How does she get into the building with the macguffin?

Now take those questions and put them into the outline:

Intro: Why is the macguffin important?

Act I: The macguffin gets lost/stolen. Someone tells the heroine about the macguffin and why it has to be retrieved.

Here you can see you need some bridging material to get to the next question. This is the part you're lacking right now.

(Act I cont'd) The heroine sets out to get the macguffin. Obstacles thwart her. The "obstacles" are more bridging material.

Act II: She overcomes obstacles. She finds out the macguffin is in a building. How? She finds the building. How? She tries to reach the building. This is a good spot for another reversal.

Act III/IV: She gets into the building with the macguffin. More obstacles and bridging material.

She gets the macguffin and returns it to wherever it needs to be.

Epilogue.

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