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.