There is a reassuring piece of advice that I find myself giving writers over and over these days, in the hope of sparing them not only a ton of rewriting, but saving them from that nagging voice that keeps suggesting they take up needlepoint and have done with this crazy writing thing once and for all.
It’s this: When you’re stumped about what might happen next, or where the “drama” will come from, or what your protagonist will do, you don’t have to look further than your story’s own backyard. But unlike Dorothy (why does everything always seem to come back to The Wizard of Oz?) just looking won’t do the trick. For writers, you have to dig in it. The good news is this: there is always buried treasure there beneath the surface. Always.
This advice seems relatively straightforward and easy, but it turns out to be hard to implement because there’s a big fat writing myth that gets in the way.
The myth is this: when stumped, the answer to “what should happen next?” is found by turning to the outside world, as if there’s a generic grab bag of Dramatic Possibilities that you can reach into and, voila! problem solved! And so suddenly, out of the blue, it turns out that your protagonist may have murdered her ex-husband (geez, I didn’t even know he was dead); or is now battling a supernatural force that is out to either a) kidnap her child or b) sap her life force for unspecified nefarious purposes; or suddenly she has a lifelong debilitating disease.
The trouble was – in each of those four real cases — that the Dramatic Possibility had absolutely nothing to do with the story the writer was telling. This was a glitch that, once pointed out, the writers in question instantly recognized for what it was: a darling quickly in need of dispatch, rather than what they’d thought it was: a way to amp things up, to make things happen, to be dramatic and so – they hoped – hook the reader.
The irony was that instead of pulling the reader in, they had locked the reader out, because suddenly nothing made sense. This is a common problem, and a deadly one. By chasing that kind of surface external “drama,” writers inadvertently derail their novel in two fundamental ways:
- There is no real story logic behind what happens (or, as is often the case with supernatural drama that hasn’t been thought out, no logic at all), so it leaves readers scratching their heads trying to figure out what’s possible, what isn’t, and why any of it matters. Worse, it leaves writers unsure of those things themselves, which makes writing forward way harder than it was before they pulled that “dramatic” thingee out of the grab bag.
- Writers then have to focus so hard on making the external drama work, plot-wise, that the characters themselves become slaves to it. They don’t do what they’d actually do, because the writer often doesn’t know what they’d actually do — not because the writer is dumb, but simply because she or he hasn’t focused on it and so doesn’t know the answer. As a result the characters become generic, more like game pieces in a gigantic plot-puzzle than people who have agency and can think for themselves.
The good news is that it always turns out that the seeds of the ongoing drama the writer’s looking for are right there, in the pages he or she has already written, just waiting to be cultivated. To see how this works in action, one of those brave and brilliant writers has agreed to become a case study so we can explore what this looks like up close and personal.
The novel in question is literary fiction, a historical novel that takes place in 17th century China, and tracks the rise of an ambitious young Mongol girl – who I’ll call Jane — from capture by a warring prince to Dowager Empress. It’s a novel driven by palace intrigue, politics, secret alliances, shifting allegiances, conflicted loyalty, and the determination of one woman to make a difference.
Needless to say it’s an intricate dance, and the writer had thus far spun the web so expertly that all these layers had merged into a single, seemingly seamless narrative that she was writing forward.
And then she realized that, in order to fully carry out the palace intrigue she’d planned, Jane would need an ongoing ally, so she decided to introduce a new character – a young woman (let’s call her Anne) whose fate was bound up in palace politics. She knew that for them to bond, Anne would need to be determined to push the boundaries of what society deemed “appropriate” for her gender, which would mirror what Jane was experiencing. So the writer decided that Anne would be interested in medicine, and soon have more knowledge than her male counterparts.
Now the question was: how to introduce Anne into the novel? What would bring Jane and Anne together?
“I know!” the writer said, “I’ll give Jane a disease. Like epilepsy.”
“Um, what?” I said.
“Yeah,” she said, “That way Anne will have a compelling reason to help Jane, especially since both of them are trying to change the status quo. Problem solved! Right?”
On the surface, that does sound great, doesn’t it? Or at least, plausible. There’s no denying that it’s a definite reason for these two characters to come together.
But . . . the writer had spent countless hours creating her protagonist, honing Jane’s past, her agenda, her worldview, and charting her path forward. She’d already written a third of the novel.
And now, all of a sudden, Jane has epilepsy? Something that she would have stepped onto page one with? That would have colored everything she did and decided and thought and dreamed? That would have been part of her internal narrative, and not just an external thing that happens?
Plus, the writer would then need a story-reason to give Jane epilepsy. Why that particular health problem? What does that tell us about Jane? How does she come to grips with it? Not to mention that the fear of seizures would now be a layer that would affect her every minute of every day. What’s more, it would affect how everyone else saw Jane, treated her . . . the list goes on and on.
Point being: giving Jane epilepsy would have changed the entire story – every piece of it. The writer, however, simply didn’t see this – and she’s not stupid. In fact, she’s not only a brilliant writer, but she’s uber smart, accomplished and aware. And yet she was willing to pivot, slap this disease on her protagonist, and carry on as if it was no biggie.
Why was she so willing? And what could she do, instead?
Why Would Such a Savvy Writer Almost Make This Mistake?
It turned out that this writer had considered saddling her protagonist with a random lifelong medical condition because her focus was solely on a problem she was having with one particular moment in the plot. She wasn’t thinking about what had happened before, nor where the story was going; instead she’d laser beamed into one single surface question, as if it were a stand-alone problem. And so once she solved that very specific surface problem, the fact that her protagonist now had epilepsy faded into the background. It had served its purpose, and the writer now had more pressing things to figure out: like what happens next.
Trouble was, not only hadn’t the whole epilepsy thing moved the story forward, it had stopped it in its tracks.
Because while sure, in the real world anything can happen (especially these days), in a story, that is decidedly not true. A story revolves around one single external problem that grows, escalates and complicates, so throwing in random “dramatic” events cripples it, breaking the cause-and-effect momentum, and making the reader wonder, Huh, what the heck does that mean?
Happily, the writer in question managed to deftly avert all that!
What Did The Writer Do Instead?
First, she chuckled at herself for the whole give-Jane-a-disease scenario. I did not have to tell her it wouldn’t work. Simply asking her questions about how it would affect Jane going forward did the trick. Because, like so many writers, she hadn’t really thought about the consequences of this plot change beyond the moment that it took effect. Not because she was remiss, but because it had never occurred to her that she needed to consider it.
She considered it. And boy did that help, because it also allowed her to see that all the other external “dramatic” solutions she had waiting in the wings wouldn’t work either.
So instead, she began digging into her story’s backyard. She asked herself: What had already happened that would be relevant to bringing Anne into the story? What intrigue was already afoot? What active role in said intrigue might Anne be primed to play? What role might she already be playing? And, most important of all, how would this affect Jane’s quest – both in the moment and in the future?
What the writer came up with was perfect – it’s too layered to describe it here in detail without taking a page or two, but suffice to say that it gave Jane’s arch rival at the palace reason to falsely accuse both Jane and Anne of treachery, uniting them, creating an ongoing alliance between them that will help further Jane’s goals in the palace, continue to give her enemies grist for the mill, and put them both in escalating danger.
But wait, there’s more – because the writer asked more questions about Anne’s introduction into the story, hoping to unearth even more conflict. To wit: Where might these two characters be at odds? At cross-purposes? In answer, she came up with the juicy notion that, even before Anne walks onto the page in the novel, she will already have been blackmailed into spying on Jane, lest she be exposed as practicing medicine behind the back of the official palace doctors. Talk about the plot thickening to a delicious boil! What made this solution so potent is that everything the writer unearthed for the plot is story related – meaning it grew organically from the internal story she was telling.
In other words: the answer to every single question she asked was already there, buried in her story’s backyard.
How Can You Make This Work For You?
When it comes to creating a story that has the power to rivet readers, it’s what’s inside that counts. That is, what’s inside the characters you’re creating. The story doesn’t come from the external events, it comes from what those things mean to your protagonist.
And guess what, this isn’t just for “big” things and external “dramatic” events, it also applies to how your characters act – and react – to every single thing that happens. Put yourself in the character’s shoes, see the world through her eyes, and ask yourself: Given her ongoing agenda, given what she’s most worried about, how would she interpret what’s happening in the moment? What motive would she read into the actions of those around her? And given all that: What would she do? Those are the questions that you always want to ask, in every single scene.
And then chase each answer with a shot of: Why?
This is precisely what will give you genuine drama because what happens in the plot will get its meaning, urgency and emotional weight from what really matters: the intense internal effect it’s having on your protagonist. And that internal effect will drive what she does as a result, giving the plot unrelenting momentum. After all, stories are about what happens when life forces us to make super hard choices that we’d really rather avoid, thank you very much. That’s why the more you know about why those choices are so hard for your characters, and what they might do in desperation (hello conflict!) to sidestep them, the more dramatic – and tense – things get.
So when you’re stuck, stop. Take a deep cleansing breath and rejoice! You don’t have to reach into that infinite grab bag of random Dramatic Possibilities and start rooting around, hoping for the best. The very thing you’re looking for is right there in your story’s backyard, all you have to do is roll up your sleeves and dig for it.
What about you? Although you can laugh about it now, what’s the most ridiculous thing you ever considered tossing into your story? How did you realize it wasn’t going to work? And on the flip side, what’s the most useful thing you ever discovered growing right there in your story’s backyard? Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!