What Happened?

It’s the question you should ask yourself about every scene in your novel, and as with so many things in writing (and life), it’s not quite as simple as it sounds.

Some writers sit down to their computers with a full-blown vision of their book’s plot. They may struggle to flesh out their characters or build a believable world (everybody’s got their weaknesses), but they’ve already pieced together the chain of events that lead from point A to point Z.

Others, not so much.

For some of us, a novel starts with a crystal clear character or two and a few salient scenes, but really building out that plot feels like pulling teeth, and you begin to feel like you’re writing in circles.

So How Can You Tell if You’re Moving Your Plot Forward?

After every scene, ask yourself what happened.

And I don’t mean, “this character did this thing, and this other character did some other thing.” I mean what happened as a result of the actions in this scene to change your characters’ world and move them closer to or further from their objectives.

If the actions they take are the causes, then what happened refers to the consequences.

Look at one silly little scene, two different ways:

Kelly’s sister, Anne, is planning to go to a party on Saturday night. Kelly wants to go with her, but Anne says no. They get into a rip-roaring fight about it, but before they can resolve anything, their mom comes home, tells them to stop fighting, and whisks Kelly off to help with dinner.

It may have been fun to read the sisters’ fight, but at the end of the scene, they’re still exactly where they started.

What if it went like this instead?

The girls are fighting about the party when their mom comes home. She tells them to stop and asks Kelly to come downstairs and help with dinner. Kelly tells their mother she’ll be right there, but as she leaves the room, she says to Anne in a low voice, “If you don’t take me with you, I’ll tell mom the real reason you missed curfew last weekend.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. When the scene started, Kelly’s sister had all the power, but as it ended, Kelly played a card that shifted the status, getting her one step closer to her goal and putting Anne on defense.

It’s All About Cause and Effect

When we ask what happened, the easy answer may be “Anne and Kelly got in a fight.” But what we really need to know is what happened as a result of that fight? “Kelly blackmailed Anne, and now Anne has to decide whether to take Kelly to the party or face consequences from her parents” is much more compelling.

So next time you feel like you’re writing yourself into a stupor but you’re plot isn’t going anywhere, take a scene-by-scene look at your draft, and ask yourself what happened? If nothing changed as a result of a particular scene, it’s time to rewrite.

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