Cause: The All-Important WHY

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while know I’m a plotter. I had to “pants” for a while on the first draft of this WIP, and it was not a happy place for me. Effective, yes, but not happy. So, of course, I’m in love with being back to plotting as I work on the second draft.

When I got started, I basically threw a bunch of scenes into Scrivener–things I knew needed to happen. And then I started filling in cards for them–my MC’s scene goal, the obstacles she’d face, and a few details that I wanted to weave in. I took a break from this story to get that picture-book revision done, but now I’m back and I’m trying to tie these scenes together with a bit more connectivity. In other words, I’m figuring out why one scene follows another. Why my character does things. What causes her actions.

I’m big on this when I critique–I tend to push people to really look at the character actions and connect them to the story, ground them in something specific that has actually happened. And I love the magic of staring at a scene in my own work, knowing I’m not there yet, and then…Flash! The lightbulb goes on, and I’ve got it.

It’s easy, when we write, to know the big stuff–the major plot points that will lead to the ending, that will build to the crisis and the character change. In between those plot points, though, is a lot of space. Yes, it can be maddeningly vast and intimidating, but it’s actually there for a reason. It’s where you build to each of those big events, where you layer in the smaller things that show us who your character is, that push her in new directions, and that–yes–cause the big things to happen.

Let’s take an example. Say you’re writing about a teenage boy–Clive–who is about to get his driver’s license. You know that, oddly enough, Clive doesn’t want to drive. So, he’s going to miss his driving test. Fine. Good. Plot point. If you’re one of those amazing people who can write scenes out of order, you write that scene. (If not, you put notes about it into a Scrivener note card!) Just as his dad is coming upstairs to get him for the appointment, Clive climbs out his bedroom window and down the rose trellis. Except the trellis breaks, and so does Clive’s arm. Dad’s truck is a stick-shift. Clive has successfully delayed the inevitable.


You can start with the general. Let’s say, really early in the book, Clive sees someone die in a horrible accident. Okay–there’s your big why–that’s the reason Clive doesn’t want to drive. But you can’t just let us know this and then, ten scenes later, pop Clive out his window. You have to do some set up. You need to show Clive trying to talk to his parents about not driving and getting no support. You need to show him in driver’s training failing dismally at parallel parking. You could, of course, throw in the ghost of the dead drive who makes Clive relive the crash over and over. You should probably let us know about that rose trellis before the big day, maybe show Clive using it safely when he sneaks out to ask his girlfriend to run away with him.

These are all good. You need to take it one step further, though. You need to determine the single, very specific story moment that sends Clive out that window. You can’t just have his worry build and build over scenes and then–on that day–out he goes. Something concrete has to propel him into action. Like…his dad coming upstairs and “jokingly” waving around the belt he hit Clive with when Clive was a little boy. Or his mom showing him the new wallet she bought him, with the space for his driver’s license, then telling him it’s time to go. Or his irritating sister singing “Little Deuce Coupe” over and over, as she dances back and forth outside his bedroom door and blocks his escape route.

Notice that the action-causing events aren’t always that big a deal, although–yeah–that belt could be pretty intense. These things act as a catalyst for the big action; they’re the match you drop onto the pile of gunpowder. Small, inexpensive, available…but absolutely necessary set things off.

They’re the whys.


  1. in other words, I just added the link to my class wiki!


  2. Becky,

    I might sort of know all this and eventually pull it off. But I could never spell it out like this.

    I love your mind. YOur great analytical ability.

    Which is why you are such a great critiquer and why you wrote THE book on critiquing and self-editing.

    Off to facebook this.


  3. I wish I was more of a plotter, because as a fly-by girl, I’m often hit hard by these smaller “why’s.”

    Great examples, and thoughtful post. Thanks, Becky!


  4. Kelly Fineman says:

    Boy, am I a convert to Scrivener. I sincerely believe it’s allowing me to write a complete novel for the first time ever – it’s so darn USEFUL! No wonder so many of my friends are hardcore MAC enthusiasts – most of them were using Scrivener for MAC, which is why they were so devoted. I’m glad it’s finally available (in Beta still) for PC!


    • beckylevine says:

      I’m still plotting (and still loving it), but I’m getting close to actually writing the second draft. I think it’s going to work well for that. I’ll be happy when the final release is out–I do hope they get formatting stuff cleaned up, but that’s really minor!


      • I’m still not convinced about Scrivener – maybe because I don’t typically feel the need to have my story in separate small sections. I CAN see the advantage to being able to move the story around via the notecards. And the whole compiling thing later seems like an advantage.
        But I feel that the paper is alive – as if I am working on a webpage. It doesn’t feel stable like Word.
        So I keep going back to One Note which offers many of the same features. I know it’s not designed for writers but I am still trying to understand how Scrivener is so much better for writers. Am I missing something really obvious or have I simply not explored enough


        • beckylevine says:

          For me, Scrivener works like my brain–I do want my scenes in separate files. I’ve always written that way, so it is pretty seamless. And I really like sticking to my computer, so having the scene cards there & not in my actual hands is nice, too. But I do think everybody is different–I tried writing programs for years that everyone else liked & I just couldn’t see the point of .:)


  5. Meg says:

    Awesome post. I’m going to bookmark it to go back to when I edit my first draft. I’m “pantsing” it right now and as I’m figuring out who my characters are I keep writing myself notes to go back and show/explore their characteristics earlier.


    • beckylevine says:

      I do a lot of that writing notes to myself, too, even with all the plotting! Thanks for stopping by, Meg. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: