Last post, we talked about constructing an imaginary clothesline (or a real one, if you wish) on which to hang the events of your story. The clothesline, you’ll recall, functions as the story’s backbone or structural support.
Writing Tip for Today: Once you’ve strung your story’s clothesline or story goal, you’ll need to write scenes that illustrate each step and setback your protagonist takes on her way to that end. Here are some ideas on how to organize these scenes:
Clothespins Plot Points
You may be familiar with the term “plot points” as key scenes in your story where either a reversal, complication or event crucial to the story takes place. As long as we’re thinking clotheslines, we may as well take the analogy further: think of these five or so major plot points (read more on these here) as the gold-plated clothespins of the story. To tease out your plot points, try writing your hero’s main goal in one or two simple sentences. These do not need to be original—girl gets guy, hero defeats dragon, character discovers what really matters in life. Now take your character and think of five important scenes she’ll need to go through to get to this goal. The hard part is not making it too easy. Be sure to mount worthy obstacles against her in all five scenes.
No More Easy-ville
Last post, I mentioned how in the good old days, hanging laundry meant you were careful never to allow the clean wet wash to touch the ground. Think of the ground as “Easy-ville,” a place you generally don’t want your scenes to go. Easy-ville is any scene where your character gets what she wants too easily without conflict, where the author pulls in deus ex machina to solve a character’s problems (the cavalry rides in to save the day) or any scene where the character’s feet are not being held to the flames. Some writers claim they want a “quiet” scene to let up on the tension every so often. Bad idea! Even if the scene has no physical conflict, showcasing the emotional turmoil is often more exciting to readers than car chases or stuff blowing up. Keep every scene off the Easy-ville ground, and heighten tension as much as possible.
Rearrange as Necessary
If you’re like me, you might end up with some scenes where the wonderful tension is repeated in the same way once too often. Or scenes that wander off topic, or have little to do with anything except that great research you did for the story. After you’ve pinned scenes along the clothesline, it often becomes necessary to rearrange them, cull repetitive scenes and heighten tension in others. It appeals to our sense of order to pin all the socks together, group the shirts by color or some other organization that lets all the air out of the story. A better idea is to group all the scenes which are smallest in terms of tension and stakes and graduate all the scenes so they get bigger and bigger until you reach the story climax. The reason this works is because of the logic readers use—they know if the “BIG” scene happens too soon, the story is over before it starts. So start pinning your baby scenes (in terms of what’s at stake and how much it matters to the protagonist) so you’ll have plenty of surprises for readers at the climax. If you try this clothesline/clothespin scene structure idea, I’d love to hear how it works out for you!