As mentioned in my last newsletter, I'm traveling so much over the next few months, I thought I'd toss in a few #FlashbackFriday posts -- i.e. share some older, popular posts that NEW readers might not have seen before.
This week, I'm sharing a post that I
actually read recently for inspiration: "Simple Tricks to Unstick Your Plot: The Domino Effect
" (from November, 2013). It's Part 1 in a 2-part series about unsticking your plot (read part 2 here
: I have updated it slightly, so even if you've read it in the past, it might be worth checking it out again.
I tend to have a lot of false starts when I’m drafting. Or I write my characters into inescapable corners... Or I just don't know what happens next.
I mean, matter how meticulously I might screenplay
a scene or how freely I fly by the seat of my pants, I always get stuck at some point. Maybe what I’d thought should come next (and what I had written on my pretty Scrivener corkboard
) no longer feels right, or maybe I’ve just completely stalled out on new ideas.
No matter the reason for getting stuck, I do
always manage to get the story moving once again. Eventually. Sometimes it only takes a few hours, and other times it takes a few days…Or months (in the case of the Notorious Windwitch
). No matter what, it takes time for my subconscious to unknot the characters and the plot and the world.
Of course, oftentimes the subconscious needs a bit of nudging, and there are a few go-to methods that I rely on.
Today, I’m going to talk about the first trick I use:
Figuring out where the dominoes will fall.
You know how people line up dominoes in elaborate patterns
and then knock them over to watch them successively fall? I once heard someone compare scenes in a book to dominoes -- our inciting incident sets off the domino chain, and each scene is a direct result of the scene before.
But it’s not necessarily the plot
that follows a domino effect. Sometimes we don’t want our chain of events to be linked. Sometimes, we want things to occur that are out of our protagonist’s control.
For example, if the character has to take a chemistry test the night after she joined a witch coven…well, there’s no clear connection between those two story events.
But how our character does
on that chemistry test will be a direct result of the night before. If she’s on an emotional high from summoning magic powers she didn’t even know she had, she might traipse into that test and cavalierly fail
. Which in turn might lead her down a new path (toward studying with her cute lab partner, perhaps?).
So the dominoes don’t represent specific events so much as our protagonist’s emotional journey through the events,
and the dominoes also represent how events shape/affect the primary goal.
Each new scene will show our character reacting in some way to what happened before.
In Something Strange and Deadly
, the book opens with Eleanor going to meet her brother at the train station. But instead of Elijah showing up with a smile, a zombie with a hostage note arrives instead. When Eleanor gets that note, she’s FREAKED OUT (as she darn well should be), and so in the next few scenes, she is dealing with her FREAKOUT.
Perhaps most importantly, Eleanor's original goal of reuniting with her brother is no longer an option. She needs to adjust her goal accordingly. Yet event-wise
, she goes from hiding in the train station to chatting with her mother to suffering through a fancy dinner. None of those events are connected, but how Eleanor behaves through them is
Remember this: Every emotional beat in your story must be a direct result of what happened before, and it must lead to a shift in either what the character wants or how the character plans to get it.
To go back to Something Strange and Deadly
, Eleanor knows she needs to find her brother and she doesn’t think she can possibly do it by herself. So she plans to foist the job onto a ghost-fighting team that’s visiting town. But when her plan falls through (the Spirit-Hunters don’t want to help her), her emotions shift from “I’m scared out of my mind” to “I’ll just do it myself, then.”
But keep in mind that it takes many scenes for Eleanor’s emotional dominoes to fall and eventually lead her in a new direction.
So what does all this explanation of dominoes and goals have to do with unsticking your plot? It’s quite simple, really.
When you get stuck, look at your most recent emotional dominoes.
Do your last few scenes (or maybe even your last 20 scenes—sometimes I have to go pretty far back to see where things begin unraveling) logically connect? Do the emotional beats actually progress in a way that fits with the previous scenes? And does the character’s goal shift according to his/her emotional shift?
Check all of your dominoes. Make sure that when each one falls, it will actually hit the scene that’s after it. It’s very possible you missed something. (This is also an EXCELLENT thing to analyze when revising!)
Honestly, there are SO many times when I didn’t properly deal with a scene's emotional consequences (usually because it’s so hard
to write the intense emotiona stuff) and as such, my story will have derailed because no one is behaving as they really ought to. They’re all happy and bantering instead of fighting/sobbing//reacting like they should given the previous scene.
So if I go back to where the emotional beats went wonky and try again, I can usually smooth out the issues and get my story moving again.
An example: I wrote a Windwitch
scene with Iseult 2 days ago. But I was REALLY struggling to write the next one. Everything just felt wrong and every word was agony. So I paused....and thought for a while. Then it hit me: the emotions in the previous scene were WAY too light. Too easy. I had Iseult just casually going through a new location when instead she should be on her guard, borderline hostile
with the locals, and constantly thinking/planning ahead.
I made the needed changes to the previous scene, and ah
. Unclogged. The next scene came out much easier because I now had Iseult in the proper mindset.
Sometimes, though, the dominoes are
correctly lined up...but I'm still stuck. In this case, I simply need to think really hard
about what domino would logically come next. What emotions would evolve from the ones in my most recent scene? What new goals should my characters organically be making?
I'll make a list if I have to. Or talk it out with my dogs (they're excellent listeners). Either way, enough thinking usually offers a solution.
And there you have it: emotional dominoes and how I use them. I hope you find it as useful a trick as I do!