A Plotting Technique: Cause and Effect in 5 Steps

Today’s been a long day and I refuse to look at anything having to do with work right now. I’ve also been meaning to post this technique I came up with for a while now — ergo, productivity without the brain damage. 🙂

I’ve mentioned a few times here that for Smoldering, I forced myself to complete an entire outline before writing any further than the second chapter. And oh, it has made writing so, so much easier. There were still some points, however, that until recently had been giving me trouble, and one in particular that had gotten too convoluted even in the outline. For more than a week, this one scene had me at a standstill every time I tried to write. And when you have as little writing time as I do, that can get very frustrating, very fast.

Eventually I realized that the problem was cause and effect — character motivation and subsequent actions.

But there were a few more components to it than that.

After playing around a little (while waiting during my lunch break for a student who never showed up), I finally settled on five key subjects that can be addressed, with quite beneficial results. They are:

Task
Motivation
Method
Obstacles
Outcome

Task is what the character is supposed to do, whether by their own volition or because of external forces. This can be a decision they have to make or an assignment they must complete; something trivial or something important; something that’s over in a second, or something that takes the whole book to accomplish. Let’s say, for instance, that my character Cipher’s task is to observe candidates for his organization’s new linguist position. It may be more intricate in reality, but this phrasing captures the heart of the task.

Next comes Motivation. Why does he want to do it? Even if he’s not thrilled about babysitting random people, if he at least attempts to complete the task then there is some reason for it. Maybe your character has no other choice: they’re being threatened, or controlled some other way. In this context, that still counts as Motivation. In Cipher’s case, going out into the world for any purpose gives him greater freedom than he normally has — and if there’s one main thing Cipher wants throughout the novel, it’s freedom.

Once we know the why, we can look at the how. Method is, along with Outcome, the most elastic variable in the set. It can refer to a physical method (“with a gun and a good poker face”), an attitude (“nonchalant on the surface, stomach in knots”), specific actions the character does (“charging in blindly, almost getting killed, and finally bluffing his way out”), or any combination there-of. Depending on what you already know of your plot, Method might take up a line or a page. I prefer to keep it simple, myself, but it’s really a matter of preference. Since I already know that Cipher is just reluctantly tagging along with his partner, for the write-up I just added that his  attitude is “serious yet sardonic,” as revealed by their interactions.

I haven’t come up with a Task yet that doesn’t have at least one Obstacle staring the character down. (I see this as a good thing, indicative of strong writing, but that’s another blog post altogether.) Again, Obstacle can be as little as a single, insignificant vexation or doubt, or as complex as a dozen potentially fatal trials, just as long as it fits the Task. Poor Cipher’s Obstacle is that he’s got a pair of crazy, murderous twin stalkers after him, and they find him.

Last, we consider the Outcome. If we take everything that’s come before, and everything we know about the character, what must inevitably happen? So Cipher craves freedom and is even willing to play babysitter for a taste of it, he’s humorless and a little mean and is terrified because he already knows who is trying to find him. On top of that, his stalkers pop up just when Cipher and his partner are about to make contact with a particular candidate.

So what does he do?

This is where you need to be particularly careful that you’re not just writing for the sake of plot. If the Outcome doesn’t naturally follow the other four variables AND your character’s personality, then scrap it and think of one that does. Once I had all of these things organized for myself it was really easy to see that this very thing was the reason my inner writer’s voice had shut down: the Outcome I was working toward just didn’t make sense when considering the Motivation, in particular.

Even if it needs to be fixed, Outcome is very flexible in terms of how you can write it. Because it’s so open-ended, I’ve used anything from the binary “pass/fail” to very specific conclusions. Also, the Outcome of one set, unless it is the final event in your book, should naturally feed into the Task of the next. In other words, “Cipher is forced to escape, dragging Bridget back to headquarters with him” as an Outcome will have its own consequences and thus will set in motion the next set with something like “Task: pass the linguist exam and get officially hired” for Bridget.

While any more on that would be a spoiler, here’s the main example in its entirety, as well as a not-as-spoilery one for Bridget.

Cipher
Task: observe and report on linguist candidates
Motivation: gets him out of the Hub (freedom)
Method: serious yet sardonic
Obstacles: the twins find him
Outcome: has to take Bridget back to the Hub

Bridget
Task: get an internship with an applied linguist
Motivation: proving herself (to herself)
Method: paper application, all-nighters
Obstacles: the deadline
Outcome: failure

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