Plotting Tip: One Simple Step to Ensure Our Story Works

by Jami Gold on December 9, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Ladder up to a question mark with text: One Step to Check Our Plot

In the comments of my posts, conversations often pop up that explore various ideas. Last week, Serena Yung and I were going off on tangents about creating emotions and tension in scenes.

Specifically, we were discussing the use of anticipation and dread to pull readers from one scene to another. But I pointed out that readers’ anticipation or dread doesn’t count if it’s relevant only for events that might come to pass beyond the scope of the story.

For example, if a character experiences a near-miss accident that doesn’t affect them or the story at all, we’re not going to be anticipating or dreading that they might experience post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of that event twenty years after the story ends. *grin*

Either the events affect the character and the story, or they don’t. One style is common in storytelling, and one might sink our writing.

If we understand the difference, we can fix any problems before we start drafting. (Or if you write by the seat of your pants the way I do, you’ll know how to analyze the story you’ve written during the editing process.)

Let’s dig deeper and explore the different ways our scenes can fit together and learn what to look out for.

Storytelling Styles

Have you ever heard the term “episodic” in terms of a story? Some agents give feedback along the lines of “the story felt too episodic.” (And this is generally considered A Bad Thing.)

Or maybe we’ve heard that “too episodic” complaint about a synopsis. (Which of course, can then lead agents, editors, or contest judges to think the same problem exists in the story itself.)

What the heck does “episodic” mean? Let’s compare styles.

Style #1: Cause-and-Effect Chain

The common approach to storytelling is a cause-and-effect chainA causes B, which causes C, etc.

Cause-and-effect storytelling is not episodic. Each event builds on the events that happened previously, and later events will be affected by what’s happening now. The past, present, and future of the story all matter.

Even if a story uses a non-chronological story form, it can still follow a cause-and-effect style. The point isn’t the passage of time but the fact that each event affects others.

Style #2: Episodic or Slice-of-Life

On the other hand, if an event happens in the plot (not just shared in summary) and doesn’t affect the character or story at all, we’ve veered into episodic storytelling. The term is most commonly used to describe certain TV shows.

Recent TV series have experimented more with a non-episodic format, but in the past, virtually all TV shows used a style where one episode didn’t affect later episodes. The main character might narrowly escape death in an episode, and the next episode wouldn’t mention the traumatic events at all.

In writing, this style is sometimes also called “slice of life” or “vignette.” While this style works for flash fiction and some short stories, it doesn’t work for most longer form writing.

Longer Stories Need Stakes

Why doesn’t episodic work for most longer form stories? Simply put, storytelling outside of some literary styles requires stakes.

As Serena and my conversation pointed out, anticipation and/or dread pulls readers from one scene to another. Those emotions require risk. There’s a risk this good thing might not come to pass. There’s a risk that bad thing will happen. That risk is what the reader anticipates or dreads and why they read on to see what happens.

But in episodic styles, events don’t have consequences. A plot event won’t have consequences, good or bad, for the rest of the story or the characters.

Some literary fiction styles can get away with a story where nothing changes and nothing matters, but for the rest of us, we need to build momentum and a sense of forward movement in our story. We need tension for that anticipation and dread that carry readers through our story. We need events that build up to a story.

No Consequences
equals
No Risk
equals
No Stakes
equals
No Tension
equals
No Pacing
equals
No Emotional Response
equals
No Journey
equals
No Story

All of these issues are related. Episodic styles sink the pace, tension, and emotion of most long-form writing. Period.

The human brain likes seeing meaning and relevance in things. How often do we see intentions behind actions that aren’t really there? Or how often do we see animals in the clouds or among the stars? *smile* We want meaning in our lives, not randomness.

How Can We Tell If We’ve Used an Episodic Style?

The easiest explanation I’ve heard came from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. (Note: Language at that link.) They call it the “But” and “Therefore” rule…

Bad: “And Then” Transitions

When we’re describing our story, we might use the phrase “And Then.” A happened and then B happened. However, “And Then” creates an episodic feel because it doesn’t tie A and B together.

It’s like a clunky transition:

  • She fell asleep, and then the blimp blew up.

Huh? What does A have to do with B?

Many, many synopses are written in this style, and it prevents them from feeling like a mini-story. As I’ve mentioned before, every action in a synopsis should have a motivation (cause) and a reaction (effect), so the episodic style doesn’t work well for synopses either.

Good: “Therefore” or “But” Transitions

A cause-and-effect style means that plot events (or story beats or scenes) should be connected. So we want to be able to mentally replace those “And Then”s with a “Therefore/So” or a “But”:

  • If one plot event causes another (or causes a decision or response in another scene), we could tie them together with a “Therefore” or a “So.”
  • If one plot event causes a setback from previous events, we could tie them together with a “But.”

For example, instead of our clunky transition sentence above, we could say:

  • She fell asleep, therefore she wasn’t manning the controls and the blimp blew up.
  • She fell asleep, but the blimp blew up over her house and woke her.

Either of those sentences show how one event is related to the other. We now know how A and B are connected. We see the cause-and-effect chain. There’s a setup and a payoff, even at this micro level.

That action-and-reaction chain should provide consequences, show growth, add challenges, force changes, raise the stakes, or escalate the emotions. If nothing new is happening and the emotion is the same as the previous event, the action won’t feel dramatic.

Exception #1: “Meanwhile” Transitions

In some stories, we might follow multiple plot lines. In that case, it’s okay to use “Meanwhile” transitions:

  • She fell asleep. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, he fought to get the last bull into the holding pen.

However, each of those plot lines would need to follow its own internal cause-and-effect, “But” or “Therefore/So,” chain:

  • But an explosion in the sky above startled him, so he lost his grip on the bull.

(Of course, “she fell asleep” isn’t an interesting place to end that first plot line, so we wouldn’t really do that. When switching between plot lines, we’d want to leave off at a hook so readers still want to continue. *smile*)

Exception #2: Occasional Unconnected Events Are Okay

None of this is meant to say that we can’t ever have a plot event that doesn’t immediately tie together. Sometimes the connections between events won’t be apparent until later, or sometimes we need a random event to trigger the next part of the cause-and-effect chain. The point here is that we wouldn’t want more than one of those coincidental “And Then”s or unrelated “Meanwhile”s in a row and that they should be rare.

We’ve probably all read a story that jumped to a scene that seemed unrelated to what was going on. Maybe that scene turned out to be a “Meanwhile” or maybe it was a rare “And Then.” The problem is that jump can break our readers’ immersion in our story, and that’s always a risky thing.

The One-Step Test for an Episodic Style

  • If we’re a plotter, we could take our outline, beat sheet, or synopsis and make sure events and scenes are connected by a “Therefore” or “But.”
  • If we’re a pantser, we can keep this rule in mind while drafting and make sure one event follows from the consequences of the previous events, but we can also analyze our story after the fact the same way plotters do.

From Janice Hardy’s post:

“Look at your plot and outline a scene using these techniques. Focus on what your protagonist actually does, not how they feel. Those feelings might be the motivators for the therefore or and so connections, but it won’t do much for the plot, because plot is what the character does, not how they feel.

List what they do, what happens, and what they do in response to that. If you find yourself writing a lot of and then, you know you don’t have enough conflict and your character’s goals aren’t being thwarted. You don’t actually have a plot, just a series of scenes.

But if you find a lot of but, therefore or and so, then you can rest easy that you have a plot and it’s driving the story.”

What If We Find a Lot of “And Then” Scenes?

If a scene doesn’t tie into other events, we can either:

  • change the plot to create that connection,
  • summarize the events in a different scene, or
  • get rid of the scene entirely.

Note, however, that scenes can relate in many ways. For example, a sequel to a scene might seem like it doesn’t cause changes, but sequels usually end with a character making a decision for a new goal or action. In other words, the previous scene caused an effect in the sequel, and the decision of what action to take next is a cause for the following scenes.

On the other hand, if we like an “And Then” scene, we may not want to get rid of it. Deleting fun banter or cute interactions can feel like a waste, and if our readers love our characters as much as we do, they might appreciate more vignettes of their lives.

Slice of life scenes can be perfect bonus material for our website (or enhanced ebook). Those readers who love the characters would enjoy reading these bonus scenes, and at the same time, the “And Then” scenes won’t slow down our pacing. Perfect!

Knowing how our scenes or plot events fit together (or don’t fit together) is a great way to improve many aspects of our story. Better cause-and-effect means that our stakes, pacing, and storytelling are all improved too. And that’s a bonus we’ll all enjoy. *smile*

Do you think the episodic style can work in long-form writing, and if so, how? Do you agree or disagree with how all the elements of our story are related (consequences to pacing to storytelling)? Had you heard of the “Therefore” and “But” rule before? Have you ever analyzed your stories with that rule, and if so, what was the result? Can you think of other exceptions or ways to use “And Then” scenes?

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31 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Elle Love December 9, 2014 at 8:16 am

Hi Jami,
This post is exactly what I needed. My critique group asked me, “What is the goal for this chapter? What is the character’s motivation?” So I knew I needed to add more stakes. I just didn’t how. Thanks for your excellent advice, as always. Now I can fix my story.

Luckily, there’s some hope for my novel. Most of my chapters do end with my main character making a decision. Thanks again.

Reply

Jami Gold December 9, 2014 at 8:43 am

Hi Elle,

Exactly! Every major story element we hear about is related. We’ve probably all heard about GMC–goal, motivation, and conflict–and they’re all related to this issue as well.

Goals are what create that risk–the risk of failure. Motivation is the reason our characters continue despite the risk (they want to avoid those consequences/stakes). Conflict is the stuff that makes the goals trickier (higher stakes) or further away (obstacles).

Once we understand how the puzzle pieces fit together, it’s much easier to fix our story. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Ping Wan December 9, 2014 at 11:22 am

Dear Jami,
You are handing me another piece of gold. I have to print it out together with the comments. This is exactly what I need (sounds like I’m repeating Elle, but I’m not.) My writing tends to fall into “a day of life” trap. This post will help me fix some of the issues.

Happy Holidays!
Ping

Reply

Jami Gold December 9, 2014 at 11:31 am

Hi Ping,

Yay! I hope this helps you find and fix those issues. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Robin December 9, 2014 at 11:44 am

Thanks for another clear and useful post, Jami.
I struggled to understand what was really meant by “episodic” until I read the one of the original Mary Poppins books earlier this year. It’s a great example of an episodic structure… and I think it shows the danger of that kind of story, too… it’s a lot easier for the reader to ask themself, SO? and then put the book down.

Reply

Jami Gold December 9, 2014 at 12:17 pm

Hi Robin,

Exactly! We can find examples of episodic writing or movies or whatever, but they’re risky because they don’t have the same “so what” factor as a story. Thanks for stopping by!

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Robin December 10, 2014 at 2:30 pm

“stopping by” hehehe. I’m sure you noticed that I’m cyber-stalking you full time, Jami. half the time I read your new blog post Before it even gets to my inbox. 🙂

-robin

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Jami Gold December 10, 2014 at 2:41 pm

Hi Robin,

LOL! Too funny. 😀 And thank you!

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Glynis Jolly December 9, 2014 at 4:17 pm

This is a great tip. So simple to find the mistakes that are going to breakup that nice flow. So far, I haven’t used the ‘And then’ phrase in my draft. I’ll make sure to watch for that and other phrases that say pretty much the same thing.

Reply

Jami Gold December 9, 2014 at 6:05 pm

Hi Glynis,

I hope this helps. 🙂 Yep, this isn’t about literally using the words “And Then” in our draft, but when we’re looking at the higher level plot outlines or story beats, the phrase can definitely creep into our explanation of how events happen. LOL! Thanks for stopping by!

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Serena Yung December 9, 2014 at 9:58 pm

Hey Jami,

Yay I got mentioned! 😀

Oh about episodic tv shows, that reminds me of a famous superhero cartoon series. Every season, they have mostly episodic/ slice of life episodes, but there are a few episodes that lead to one another (cause and effect, consequences), I.e. the “important episodes.” Though the episodic episodes are often funny or cute or interesting, I do always like the “important”, consequential episodes best, BECAUSE what happens there actually changes a future episode.

The slice of life episodes in this cartoon series are nice for character development (esp. great if it stars your favorite character) and are a great comic relief, yet I do enjoy those “consequential scenes” more. So you can say I have a positive attitude towards the episodic/ slice of life approach, but still admittedly prefer the cause and effect approach, even for TV shows, lol.

Hmmm since I’m doing a sort of epic, I do the meanwhile A LOT. D: For the “Not having more than one meanwhile at a time”, and those moments when books jump to an unrelated scene, yes these can be annoying especially if the last scene was a cliffhanger, but George R.R. Martin does that unfortunately, lol. Though maybe in his case it’s not that bad because he does have a mega epic, tons of characters, and it may be several hundred pages (or books!) before you get to see this character again, haha, so cliffhanger endings are good for him.

Speaking of cliffhangers, there was a time when I used this cliffhanger method for a story, where it was not an epic per se, but the team of six kids were divided into two or three teams (so two or three plotlines at once sort of)–don’t remember what they were doing exactly, but they were on some mission together. It was fun to do cliffhangers after each scene, but nowadays I prefer to end on a “momentous note”.

By momentous note, I do often mean something that will make the reader feel dread or anticipation. Something happy/ exciting/ bad will happen soon or sometime in the future! I just ended the scene I was writing today on a “dread” note. If I remember correctly, I have had scene endings that emphasize a moral message or theme too.

Back to the meanwhile, you mentioned the having internal cause and effect within each plotline, so does that mean that consecutive meanwhiles are okay if your scene was long enough to cover some internal cause and effect in that scene? I feel like I’m misinterpreting here, haha.

Actually for cause and effect, since I do multiple plotlines (and subplots and lots of characters!), I have to keep using meanwhiles, yikes. But each scene will have future consequences; some consequences are obvious, like getting this secret letter in this scene will let them deliver this secret letter to this secret powerful person in a later scene and he will then be willing to help them (totally made that up!).

Many scenes will have less obvious consequences though. You know how I focus on relationships. The interaction between the heroine and girl X in this scene builds up their friendship in this way, and the next scene they are with each other, stuff from the previous heroine + girl X scenes will affect this scene. So e.g. that talk about what kind of sibling they would ideally want in this scene, increases the intimacy (closeness) between the heroine and this girl in later scenes, because talking about your ideal sibling is a more personal issue. That ideal sibling talk makes them know and understand each other better and their friendship deepens.

That idea came from my psych course on how self-disclosure on personal things (esp. emotional ones) to someone makes you feel closer to them, and that person will probably also feel closer to you; and that this self-disclosure thing tends to be mutual, so when you tell that someone stuff about yourself, they will likely reciprocate and tell you something about themselves. All this self-disclosure stuff, as it gets deeper and broader in topics, makes people become closer and closer to each other. This could be for friends, siblings, etc., not just for lovers.

And I find that talking about issues that you really care about (e.g. gender equality) with a friend makes you feel closer to them too.

Anyway, I have some scenes with such self-disclosures or issues-you-care-about-discussions, and though on the surface nothing really happened in this scene, actually something HAS happened, and it’s that these two characters have deepened in their relationship with each other! And the development of relationships (the platonic as well as the romantic ones) is probably what my story is all about, haha.

However, I do like to make my relationship progress/developments more explicit, especially to readers who are neither psych majors nor people very sensitive to how social interactions can build relationships. By more explicit, it could be writing in character emotions (yay emotion naming and telling, lol), so e.g. what she carelessly said really hurt his feelings/ made him really sad. And these hurt feelings could have more than a momentary effect, I.e. it will have consequences in future scenes.

For instance (making this up too), they are in a romantic relationship, but she is quite insensitive and says all sorts of hurtful things without realizing they are hurtful, and he bottles up his feelings and never tells her how much her words injure him, and so all of these hurtful stings accumulate and make the relationship quite unpleasant for this boy, and eventually he might want a break up.

Or, there’s a group of people, and this guy is the only one who says encouraging and supportive things to her, whilst everybody else either says negative, discouraging things to her, or doesn’t even bother speaking to her. If this happens in a few (or even just one) scene, it’s perfectly conceivable that this girl would naturally be more drawn (interpersonally) to this guy, because he makes her feel good and happy about herself, and she would be more likely to develop a friendship with this guy than with any of the other people in this group. Hmm we could call this a “gets special positive treatment from one member of the group, so in later scenes become friends and maybe even close friends with this person later” kind of plot.

A similar thing would be the “in a group conversation, these two characters for some reason seem to be more attracted (interpersonally, not necessarily romantically) to each other than to other people. (This happens in real life!!) And because of this mutual attraction, these two characters are more likely to find chances to talk alone with each other in later scenes (because they like each other, even if just platonically); and these tête-à-tête scenes with these characters would develop their relationship, and they may become friends or even close friends / most trusted confidants in even later scenes!”

So talking explicitly about the emotions one character feels towards another gives clues to how this relationship will develop.

But sometimes I’m even more explicit than naming emotions. I could say something like “X really appreciated what Y said, because it showed a lot of sensitivity to her feelings.” E.g. X made some kind of embarrassing blunder in what she was saying to her friends, and Y, sensing her embarrassment, says something that somehow “rescues X from her humiliation” or at least helps X recover some of her dignity. Or e.g.”X was very thankful to Y for defending her against a very rude question that Z asked X.” Of course there are also negative examples like saying that “the hero really didn’t like how haughty and rude girl Y was when she was talking to them.” (All of the above examples would be worded more elegantly than that, but you get the picture!)

These little windows of revelation into how one character feels about another character in that specific moment, cue you into how the relationship between these two characters will develop, because every little thing matters! Of course some social slights and wounds can be forgiven, overlooked, or shrugged off, and some positive moments can be forgotten or overridden by something really terrible later, but in general, little “character relationship and emotion revelation moments” give you hints on how things are changing (or not changing) between two or more specific characters.

And sometimes I’m even more explicit, by saying that “X likes Y much more than Z, because Y is so…and Z is so…” More madeup examples of explicit relationship development hints:
–“Everytime she sees him, her face lights up.”
–“He felt almost ashamed that he was starting to grow fond of this little boy he was forced to shelter.” (a fatherly fondness, not a pedophilic one. He’s ashamed because he’s a sworn cold-blooded misanthrope, lol.)

At times, I even do explicit “relationship analyses” like:
— “X feels conflicted about Y, because on the one hand, Y…, but on the other hand, Y…”
— “what Sara feels for Fierre is not romantic, but it was great platonic love, admiration, and respect. She saw him as a close friend, confidant, mentor, older brother, and son all at once, even if that didn’t seem to make much sense.”

Those relationship analyses might be particularly useful as the reader may not understand what exactly is going on if you don’t explain, lol, especially if it was something like Sara’s situation there.

So, with all those emotional/ relationship hints, readers get the sense that the scene WILL matter later, and they will SEE that the scene indeed mattered. They don’t matter in terms of the adventure plot, but they totally matter in terms of the relationship plots! But again, all of this is lost on the reader who is not at all interested in reading about how relationships grow, haha. Therefore, that would be my kind of “cause and effect”.

However, again since I have so many characters, I have to use the meanwhile method between almost all scenes, unfortunately. Sometimes the next scene directly follows from what happened in the previous scene (a therefore or but), but more often, we don’t get to see the next scene in this plotline until a little later. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to simultaneously cover the multiple plotlines.

But as you said, I COULD do several same plotline scenes in a row (I.e. indulge this plotline for a while), and just summarize lots of events when we skip to the other plotline. I can imagine this having a lot of forward momentum. Yet sometimes we WANT to see how exactly an event played out, maybe because it’s entertaining, does excellent character development of a beloved or neglected character, is emotionally satisfying/ touching/ deep/pleasant, etc.

If the latter is the case where we do want to see a specific previous scene in its full glory, we COULD insert it in between the summary narrative parts, though hopefully this scene isn’t too long, or else it might look awkward or clumsy. But a problem would be that it becomes a “flashback”, and you know some readers don’t like reading flashbacks much, or at least too many of them.

I don’t have a problem with flashbacks, but even I prefer to stay in the “present” as much as possible, because these present events feel the most immediate and important. Flashback stuff feels more detached from me, or doesn’t feel as urgent or “fiery”, if that makes sense. And you might feel the anxiety of “when are we getting back to the present? When are we getting back to the present?” as you read, as I sometimes do.

Therefore, there are pros and cons to the method “write the two plotlines simultaneously, with scene 1 being about plot A, scene 2 about plot B, scene 3 about plot A again, and scene 4 plot B again, etc.” and the method “indulge one plotline for a while, and then rush through/ do a fill in on the other plotline later when you finally come back to it”.

The first method may have more interrupted tension, I.e. less forward momentum, but the second method may make you “miss” certain “good scenes” or make you do flashbacks, which are okay but I would like to keep the story mostly in the present, and not be overwhelmed by flashbacks!

Both methods could have plotlines with tight internal cause and effect scenes, though.

” On the other hand, if we like an “And Then” scene, we may not want to get rid of it. Deleting fun banter or cute interactions can feel like a waste, and if our readers love our characters as much as we do, they might appreciate more vignettes of their lives.”

Oh I have quite a number of these as well! Yeah we might not want to mercilessly take out these scenes. But then in my stories, even cute interactions advance my relationship plots, so in a way, nothing is REALLY inconsequential! Haha

Reply

Jami Gold December 10, 2014 at 11:12 am

Hi Serena,

LOL! I think you broke the record for the longest comment. 😉

Yes, none of this is meant to say that episodic novels can’t be enjoyable, but they will definitely have a more limited audience. As you said, people prefer stories where events feel like they matter–otherwise, what’s the point?

Great point about how the use of “Meanwhile” transitions can depend on the genre or story style! Yes, epic and/or large cast (with POV scenes) stories will need to use more of those transitions just because their structure is different. As you pointed out, we might very well have to have several “Meanwhile” scenes in a row.

My statement there was more of a guideline than a rule, which is why I gave the reason behind it. 🙂 As I said, “Meanwhile” scene can make a reader un-immersed in the story. So when the story structure requires us to use multiple “Meanwhile” scenes, the question becomes: how can we avoid losing the reader?

  • Especially at the beginning of a story, each “Meanwhile” scene can make a reader feel like they’re starting a new book. So we’d want each scene to start with strong opening paragraphs that will pull readers through, just like a first page.
  • We’d want to ensure the scene before the “Meanwhile” scene ended with a hook or story question that readers will want the answer for. As you noted, authors like GRRM or Dan Brown sometimes end each scene before a “Meanwhile” scene with a cliffhanger. 🙂 (I like your “momentous note” term too.)
  • We can try to minimize the feeling of a jump by hinting at how the “Meanwhile” scene is related to the previous scenes. A “Meanwhile” scene won’t have a direct connection, but can we do anything to assure the reader that these scenes are part of the same book and that they’ll all come together in the story in the future? 🙂 Think setting–is it obvious they’re in the same world, same place, same day, same cast of characters, etc.?

The statement about “Meanwhile” scenes needing internal cause and effect isn’t about when that needs to happen. It’s just saying that parallel plotlines each should have a cause-and-effect chain.

Hmm, back to your question about “is enough happening?” 😉 Okay, let’s take your example of characters sharing personal details and feeling closer as a result.

One of the posts I read about this “Therefore/But” rule gave an example of the hero and heroine looking deeply into each other’s eyes and experiencing emotions. A “Therefore” would be that they changed their action and/or behavior because of that: Therefore, they kiss. A “But” would be that they changed their action and/or behavior because of that: But, she remembers that she hates him and slaps him as he closes in for a kiss.

In both cases, action and/or behavior is affected. There’s a change.

On the other hand, an “And Then” would be that there’s no change: And then, they got lunch and continued to stare into each other’s eyes.

There, the emotions don’t get deeper, they don’t lead to a change, etc. There’s no progress.

So it sounds like you’re trying to have your scenes include a realization of some kind (which is good), and the question then becomes, does that realization change their behavior, and if so, how? Are the characters acting on that closeness? Do they do something in the next scene they wouldn’t have done before? Do they have new goals? Do they have new motivations? Do they see something as a conflict that they didn’t worry about before? And if so, how do those new goals/motivations/conflicts affect them? How does it change what they do or how they act?

In other words, we know that in real life, we can have a realization (“I really need to go to the dentist.”), but unless we act on that realization (like making an appointment), nothing actually changes. I can have 50 realizations about things I’m procrastinating about before breakfast. LOL! But unless I do something about at least one of those things, the realizations are empty.

It’s that action that creates the sense of events building toward something–an accomplishment or goal or story pinnacle of some kind. Does that make sense?

All that said, we know that in real life, we sometimes need multiple realizations to actually take that step. That’s okay in books too, but the reader would want context.

For example, if a character has a realization that they should be nicer to someone, they might not change right away. That’s okay as long as the text calls them out on that fact. Maybe she internally chastises herself. Maybe he actively decides to ignore what he knows he should do. Etc., etc. Both the chastisement and the active decision are actions, so they count.

What we wouldn’t want is for the realization to happen and then nothing happen in the text one way or another. That would be empty and an “And Then.” Hopefully that makes sense. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Serena Yung December 10, 2014 at 1:29 pm

Lol! Sorry Jami for such a long comment. XDD. But thanks for your answer! It was very helpful!

HAHA tons of realizations that we’re procrastinating on lots of things, but not taking any action on them…

Mmm yes that makes it a lot clearer when we talk about behavioral, action changes. It was good that you pointed out that chastising oneself or deciding to ignore a thought count as actions too, though, since they aren’t physical behaviors! And good idea on using the text to explain that the character realized, but refused to change. Oftentimes stuff HAS happened but the reader doesn’t know it, so we have to show them more explicitly lol.

Yeah those epic stories having a structure requiring constant meanwhiles. :O. Yes I would definitely need pointers on how to avoid losing the reader with such a structure, so thanks for the bullet points! Mmm strong openings and strong endings. I pay attention to my endings with my must end on momentous note (at least most of the time) thing, but I don’t pay much attention to the opening paragraphs of my meanwhile scenes, so I’ll add this to my list of to-edits!


We can try to minimize the feeling of a jump by hinting at how the “Meanwhile” scene is related to the previous scenes. A “Meanwhile” scene won’t have a direct connection, but can we do anything to assure the reader that these scenes are part of the same book and that they’ll all come together in the story in the future? Think setting–is it obvious they’re in the same world, same place, same day, same cast of characters, etc.?

Ooh haven’t thought of this! For most of my meanwhiles so far, it’s not that bad. So it’s like a gang of 15 people traveling together on this journey. In one scene, I’d have (random madeup names) Johnny, Leon, and Sharon interacting, in the next scene, we see Jimmy, Priscilla, and Danielle interacting, and in the scene after that, Pearl and Joshua interact.

All these people travel in this same gang, and they all get opportunities to interact with each other, though certain people are more interested in talking to certain other people than to others. E.g. a brother and sister may want to stick together, best friends hang out a lot, and lovers spend tons of time together, etc. Whilst more casual friends or mere acquaintances/ allies might be less interested in interacting with each other.

But there’s some mix and match here, where the next scene after the last scene above, could be between Pearl and Leon, for instance. So the scenes are connected in that they are all in the same setting (all on the same journey) and about the same group of people who can talk to any other character in the group if or when they want to. It’s fun if there is even more linkage than that, though. E.g. if Johnny and Sharon were talking about X in scene one, and later Jimmy and Danielle talk about something similar to X in scene two, then that’s sort of an additional link, I suppose, and could even give the reader a feeling that X may be a story theme. So that would be a thematic link.

Will they all come together in the future? Well some plots may merge, but some other plots may be independent and separate from the rest…E.g. Laura, Ken, Ashley, and Jake’s love square (lol!) has nothing to do with Heidi, Collin, Elizabeth, or Kyle’s life, haha. Even if the latter may sympathize with Laura and co or try to help somehow. But this interference is only a character interference, not a merging of another plotline…

Oh well maybe it won’t matter that much though, since at least the characters in each plotline interact with, know, or are friends or family with characters in some other plotlines. So it’s not that unrelated, haha.

E.g. Tiffany is loved by Terence but Tiffany only sees him as a good friend. On the other hand, Valerie and Calvin are happy lovers and Calvin is Tiffany’s beloved older brother (the siblings are very close). So the Tiffany-Terence plot doesn’t affect how the Valerie-Calvin romance is going, but Calvin and Tiffany are siblings with a close relationship, so Calvin will care about what’s going on with Tiffany, and Tiffany will likewise care about her brother and future sister-in-law, lol.

Ooh progress/ change in the romance plot! Yes, that’s like analyzing if your scene does something to advance the plot, or if it’s a plot point (from your list of scene elements post!)

Hey BTW in romances, why is it that it’s almost always the boy who makes the first move to kiss the girl, rather than the other way around?! I like it when the girl initiates the kiss, haha. Yes, she may be shorter than him, but she could either stand on her tiptoes or yank his head down, or if they’re sitting, they may be about the same height, and the girl could easily make her move, Lol!


does that realization change their behavior, and if so, how? Are the characters acting on that closeness? Do they do something in the next scene they wouldn’t have done before? Do they have new goals? Do they have new motivations? Do they see something as a conflict that they didn’t worry about before? And if so, how do those new goals/motivations/conflicts affect them? How does it change what they do or how they act?

Good questions! Hmm, well, Val could especially like Ella and the two have some kind of tête-à-tête about their personal opinions on religion (which they care a lot about). Maybe after this scene, in some future scene, they will feel comfortable sharing increasingly personal stuff, and maybe even tell some very private secrets to each other. Closeness leading to confiding of big secrets counts as a change/ action, right?

But it is useful to think of even the friendship plots as a kind of romance plot, to see if previous scenes cause some kind of “elevation” in their relationship in later scenes. For this elevation, I was just thinking of an emotional, internal elevation (e.g. on a scale from 1 to 10 of how close you feel to Patrick, I used to feel 3 for him, but now I feel 5. And after this scene, this increases to 7).

But the interesting thing is how we should SHOW this increase of closeness, since my relationship plots are all about the progress/ change/ development of the relationship. Actions would definitely help show this. For friends, it could be spending increasing amounts of time together or hanging out more frequently, telling each other more and more personal/ private things, buying/ making each other birthday and Christmas presents, joining some fun activity together, teaching each other skills (e.g. how to play a cello), etc.

Apart from actions, again I could explicitly say something like, “Jared and Robert gradually learned to like and trust each other, overcome their differences, etc. over those past few weeks of acquaintance.” (Not as crudely as that, haha, but you get what I mean.)

Hmm, what else….well I guess we might see changing emotional reactions to a certain character. For instance, at the start of the story, James really really worships and loves Jonathan because he thinks Jonathan is the coolest guy he has ever met. But later James becomes disillusioned because he gradually sees more and more flaws and imperfections in Jonathan, so James is less enthusiastic/ ceases to worship Jonathan.

And later James discovers that Jonathan did a terrible thing in the past (e.g. he tortured and murdered an innocent person), and so Jonathan plummets in James’s esteem so that James’s love, admiration, and veneration of James at the beginning, has now turned to a cold, disparaging, and condemning attitude, and there may even be hatred.

However, in the last chapters of the story, Jonathan risks his own life to save James’s life (and Jonathan succeeds), and James feels, well…conflicted inside? James struggles with his automatic hatred of people who torture innocent people, with his awe and gratitude at Jonathan’s selfless act of saving James’s life. So his feelings towards James are confused now. (I would feel pretty confused myself if I were James, lol.)

SO, if we want to show how the relationship between James and Jonathan changes, we can also show James’s different emotional reactions to Jonathan, I.e. how James’s feelings towards Jonathan as a person change throughout the story.

Hmmm so if we want to show how a relationship arc develops, we could use actions, explicit descriptions, or emotional reactions. We could also use a character’s changing opinion (a thought change) of another character, but that is similar to the Jonathan and James example above, except it’s in internal thoughts rather than just emotions. (But then thoughts can be emotions and emotions can be thoughts…) If you can think of other ways of showing relationship changes, please do let me know. 😀

A question I have is, what if we ONLY use the explicit description/ emotion/ thoughts method to show relationship progress, and NOT actions? (Even though it might be hard in practice to have no actions at all, haha.) Would readers still be interested in reading on?

I personally might keep flipping the pages, because I LOVE watching thought/ emotion changes like this, but I’m not sure about other readers…In fact this internal change stuff reminds me of the internal journey stuff usually attributed to literary fiction. And I want to avoid my story looking literary, lol. (It’s funny how some people want their story to be literary, whilst I want to prevent my story from becoming literary. XDD. Even though I’m an English lit major! lol)

Um, sorry for the long post again! ^_^”

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Jami Gold December 10, 2014 at 3:10 pm

Hi Serena,

Right! If we think of one style of story movement as choices and decisions, then when we show a character facing a choice and making a decision, that’s “character progress” as long as they’re conscious about it and it’s explicit in the text. That’s because decisions are change. At the very least, even if they don’t change their direction, they’re still changing by being more stubborn, more determined, etc.

Not every scene needs to be a Turning Point, where the story/character changes direction. Sometimes, they’re going to continue in the same direction but be “more” about it. 🙂 That‘s the change.

Yeah, we have to worry more about losing readers’ immersion when “Meanwhile” scenes are a big jump. If the scenes still flow somewhat, the reader shouldn’t be too jarred. And that’s really all we’re talking about with those tips–how to reduce jarring. 🙂

Ha! I can’t answer your romance question because in my stories, the girls kiss the guys just as often as the reverse. 😉 I figure, the more alpha my heroes, the more alpha my heroines should be to match them in a healthy relationship. LOL!

As for your James/Jonathon example, yes, all those events are showing change (from worship to disillusionment to questioning) and lead up to a big turning point/pinnacle at the end of the story. That counts. 😀

We can show those changes through endless ways: action (spending more time together), descriptions, emotional reactions/thoughts (as you noted, these often overlap), etc. Another way would be dialogue, such as defending Jonathon when someone else puts him down, etc.

I think we’d have to use action or dialogue (which is another form of action) at some point, or else we’d run into the same problem as empty realizations. At some point, those emotions or thoughts would have to change their actions or behaviors, or they’re meaningless. Does that make sense? 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung December 10, 2014 at 3:55 pm

Oh, right! How could I forget dialogue when I’m so crazy about dialogues?? (Like how in an anime club charades game, my friend couldn’t believe that I couldn’t guess she was pretending to be pikachu, given my fanaticism for pokemon. XDD. Anyway, that’s unimportant…) Thanks for the reminder though, haha.

And oh awesome! Apart from decision making as an action, dialogue can be an action too!!! :O. I like that example of defending someone you worship as a show of how much you worship them, lol. And this is random, but though I was just making up the Jonathan/ James example, I almost cried when I wrote down the “pinnacle” part, lol! I CAN be sentimental sometimes. XDD. (Even though it is a commonly seen plotline…But oldies can still be goodies!)

But really, including dialogue as part of the action that can show relationship change, is really adding a very useful weapon to my “arsenal”. :D. Because my story’s obsessed with dialogues…


Sometimes, they’re going to continue in the same direction but be “more” about it.

“more” about it, lol! A very nice way to put it! Yeah in those cases I would call it action to advance plot, but not a plot point/ turning point.


in my stories, the girls kiss the guys just as often as the reverse.

YAY! I’m glad your heroines go against that gender norm I see in a lot of romances, lol. Hurray alpha females! 😀


I think we’d have to use action or dialogue (which is another form of action) at some point, or else we’d run into the same problem as empty realizations. At some point, those emotions or thoughts would have to change their actions or behaviors, or they’re meaningless. Does that make sense?

Yeah, it does! Maybe the empty realizations might be permitted in the literary genre though? I’m not sure and am not going to do that anyway since I’m avoiding the literary on purpose. XD

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Jami Gold December 10, 2014 at 4:38 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! about dialogue, and yes, I understand the sentimental aspect too. 🙂

“I would call it action to advance plot, but not a plot point/ turning point.”

Exactly! Because the situation is MORE, the plot is advancing, as long as that “more” leads to something by the end of the story. That is, the plot is advancing toward something and not just changing in random ways. 😉

Yes, empty realizations are acceptable in literary fiction because their worldview is often negative. That whatever you do, nothing changes, we’re all doomed to remain in meaningless lives, etc. And for that theme, having an empty realization that changes nothing fits.

And yeah, I’m with you in avoiding that route. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Laura December 23, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Thank you for this! I just got a critique of my RD which told me to cut every single scene of the two main characters talking to each other. That pretty much IS the story, to me, and it’s probably 1/4 of my word count (ok, maybe 1/8). It’s the two romantic leads getting to know each other. If I cut those scenes, I cut pretty much all of their character development and all of the believability of them falling in love.

Of course, she also said my plot was horrible, my writing horrendous, my dialogue atrocious, and I needed to get rid of my main character’s entire family. And also my main character is awful and unlikable. But, you know. If I scrap most of it, keep a few scenes, and turn it into a YA sci-fi novel, it could be salvaged. :-p I have spent the last week thinking I was just going to give up. Maybe I won’t, but I definitely won’t wrote again for a while.

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Jami Gold December 23, 2014 at 1:19 pm

Hi Laura,

Yikes! I’m sorry you had that experience. 🙁

Remember that critiquers don’t know the story you’re trying to tell. So keep in mind what your story is, and ignore the advice that does’t help that story come forward. Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung December 12, 2014 at 11:09 am

Hey Jami, I thought of another question. What if our scene is neither “therefore”, “but”, “meanwhile”, or “and then”, but it’s “by the way”? You know those stories where you see an inserted scene (or one that is slyly woven in between the main narrative passages) that gives some character background or development and/or shows the social world of the characters a bit more?

E.g. in this romance where the hero and heroine finally get married (still in the middle of the book, though), the story slips into a scene that shows the husband and wife talking about their beliefs and methods on art and painting. This talk fleshes out their characters and reveals another side of their relationship not seen in the main plot, but it isn’t within any strict cause and effect chain. Yet it isn’t as unimportant as a slice of life/ episodic scene either, because it does add to the story (character and relationship or even worldbuilding revelations.) Plus, this didn’t exactly take place subsequently after (“and then”) the previous scene.

What do you think of such “by the way” scenes? They do slow the pace and sometimes even interrupt the tension/ flow of the story, yet they are so good in revealing extra character development, especially in showing a different side to the characters or their relationships that we would otherwise never see in the main story! And it’s not a subplot either. :O

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Jami Gold December 12, 2014 at 5:32 pm

Hi Serena,

As you noted, those scenes do slow down the plot, tension, and pace. As with every writing rule, however, we can break it if we know what we’re doing–and most importantly why. If we think our story can risk a breather for a scene, and we know it’s a risk (both with readers and agents/editors), and we decide to do it anyway, no one is going to stop us from trying. 🙂

However, I’d also question whether there’s some element that could be added to the scene–even if just in the last paragraph–that ties it back into the plot or tension. In other words, can the scene at least be a trigger for kicking off the next phase of the cause-and-effect chain? In that way, the scene has a plot-reason for existing, so it’s not nearly as bad. I hope that helps! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung December 13, 2014 at 4:33 pm

“some element that could be added to the scene–even if just in the last paragraph–that ties it back into the plot or tension. In other words, can the scene at least be a trigger for kicking off the next phase of the cause-and-effect chain? In that way, the scene has a plot-reason for existing, so it’s not nearly as bad.”

Oh! Interesting idea! Thanks. 😀

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Deborah Makarios December 12, 2014 at 6:02 pm

This is something I struggle with – the WIP I just finished first-drafting is a road story, going from place to place, sometimes driven by a need to find something or someone, sometimes driven by a need to flee from the last place. I guess I’ve just got to make sure that the MC always has a clear motivation for what she’s doing/where she’s going – and make sure she doesn’t know where she’s going in future just because I do 🙂

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Jami Gold December 12, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Hi Deborah,

The need to flee is a fine plan sometimes. 🙂 That’s a goal, even if they don’t know where they’re heading. LOL! Thanks for stopping by!

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Bella ardila December 15, 2014 at 8:16 am

Nice. Thank you for this lesson. Reading it will be helpful for me to writing a new story.

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Jami Gold December 15, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Hi Bella,

I hope this helps. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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Dwane Knott December 15, 2016 at 6:20 pm

I need more time to read and reread to gain an understanding of the post and some of the comments.

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