Skip and Fall

Let’s consider this scenario:

You have an idea for a new story. You’re excited. You’re eager to start writing right away, and you have several scenes in mind. You even know how you want things to end. There are vague spots in your outline, but you don’t mind. You want to get going.

Boom! You write the first incident in the story that will introduce your protagonist and–you hope–set up the story situation.

But then, although you can clearly envision the next important event that will occur, you can’t figure out how to put your protagonist there.

Let’s say your protagonist is on a journey to a new life in a new town, about to start wizard school.

You want to introduce your young protagonist as a youth with natural magical powers, as yet untrained and poorly controlled. So you write an incident where Yen the Youngster is bored by travel and so conjures up a spirit companion to talk to. But the spirit turns out to be one best left unsummoned. It’s loud, unruly, causes all sorts of mayhem among the other passengers. Yen is nearly thrown off the transport, and only the intervention of an older, experienced wizard who happens to be traveling can banish the spirit back to where it belongs.

Okay, so what happens next?

Easy, you think. Wizard school!

Wait!

Hold on!

Not so fast.

It’s like standing on one side of a creek when you desperately want to get across. There’s no bridge in sight, not even a log spanning the two banks. The water’s too deep to wade, so what do you do?

Run along the bank until the creek narrows and then jump across?

Sure, that’s fine for crossing streams. But jumping across story, leaving gaps to be “filled in later,” isn’t such a great idea.

If you “jump” to Yen’s first day at school after the spirit misadventure, your reader will be wondering about what happened to Yen after the spirit left. Did Yen get into trouble? Did Yen have to pay the other passengers for the damages? Is the master of the wizard school aware that Yen is a wild card? Will Yen cross the threshold already in disgrace? Were any other students aboard? Are they talking about Yen, gossiping and spreading rumors to prejudice the student body against him?

But perhaps you don’t want to bother with such questions. Yen’s arrival isn’t important. You want to focus instead on his first day in the classroom.

After all, Yen is destined for Great Things. His first class will be in wand waving, and you’re eager to write about that. You’ll go back and fill in the “trivial” stuff later, when you have more time.

So you jump from the spirit’s banishment to Yen in the classroom. You want Yen to demonstrate his raw talent and impress his teacher, at least until he loses control and his new wand flies out of his hand and hits the ceiling. All the students laugh at him, and Yen will be sad and frustrated.

Except again there are questions left unanswered, questions that might need to be considered before Yen steps into the classroom: How is he learning his way around the school? Has anyone befriended him? Does he want to start with wand waving or does he wish he could take a different subject instead? And if he got into trouble because of the spirit he summoned, what happened with that? Is he already on probation?

When questions are raised due to your protagonist’s actions, you’re responsible for answering them and not just ignoring them or leaving readers to wonder, wonder, wonder.

Also, the answers to such questions should affect what’s going to happen next.

But maybe you’re too busy thinking ahead. You want Yen to stay in trouble. Character in trouble is an important writing principle, right?

Right.

So without considering what’s happened thus far, you’re blazing forward by thinking that maybe halfway through his first term he’ll blow up the potions class. No, wait … that’s too close to the Harry Potter plotline. You’ll rethink that part … but later. Because you can’t be bothered to work through the middle right now and you really, really, really want to write the battle scene when Orcs attack the town where the wizard school happens to be. Yen and all his classmates are going to be drafted into helping defend the place. You know this part is going to be nifty.

Stop the madness!

What was once a promising premise is turning into a very poorly plotted story.

Thus far, although there are incidents where Yen hits trouble, there’s no cohesion, no actual conflict, and no unfolding of plot. The whole thing is a cobbled-together mess that’s totally author contrived.

Although a writer wants his protagonist to hit opposition, obstacles, and trouble, such difficulties should connect plausibly with each other in cause-and-effect logic. A story is not a random scramble of action and dialogue.

If you skip ahead, and only write the parts that are vivid in your mind, you will never go back and fill in what’s missing.

Not because you don’t intend to, but because you probably can’t.

Skipping blitzes cause-and-effect. Trying to wedge consequences for character actions between otherwise disconnected events simply doesn’t work.

Let’s go back, back, back to the beginning when Yen uncorks that unruly spirit. What if the wizard that pulls matters back under control happens to be the school headmaster?

What if he’s so angry with Yen that he almost expels him?

And why is it so important for Yen to attend this school instead of one of the five alternative wizard schools in the realm? Why this one? Did Yen’s father and grandfather and six great-uncles attend this school? Is it a family tradition? Or is Yen the first in his family to manifest magical powers that need formal training? Is his mother so seriously proud of him that he’s desperate not to let her down?

Furthermore, if Yen has to plead and beg to be allowed to enroll at the school, what awful threat will the headmaster hold over him if he messes up again?

Now, with these answers in mind, reconsider what stakes are involved in Yen’s wand waving class. If he’s on probation, then he could be afraid stand out or try, afraid to make a mistake. The teacher, however, is insisting that he not be bashful. They have goals in opposition, which means the scene between them will contain solid conflict. Yen makes a mistake, and it’s a whopper. His wand careens all over the place. It nearly puts Maranda Mogwimple’s eye out, and poor Yen is in greater disgrace than before.

Also, if you work your way one step at a time with Yen and his struggles, by the time your story reaches the imminent Orc invasion, you will understand Yen as a character and readers will empathize with him and–most importantly–care when he faces his first battle. You will know his strengths and his weaknesses. You will know his motivation for trying his best even if his time at school has been difficult and unpleasant. As a writer, you will be prepared to push Yen into the biggest test/challenge of his life.

But if you skip, you won’t know him well or understand what combination of experiences and conflict has forced him to grow through the arc of your story.

Beware. The next time you’re tempted to skip over a vague portion, ask yourself why.

Why haven’t you bothered to think through the consequences of what your character has done to that point?

Why aren’t you willing to think through your character’s next options?

Take the time. Solve the plot problems as they arise. You’ll find that doing so makes quite a difference in the quality of your plotting.

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