A while back, I was talking with a young writer who was bogged down in mid-novel. The conversation went something like this (with names and plot points changed to protect the guilty):
Writer: “I’m totally stuck. My characters are down in the ravine and I don’t know what happens next.”
Me: “Sounds familiar.”
Writer (despairing): “How do you decide what comes next?”
Me (frowning slightly): “That’s not really your problem yet.”
Me: “You can’t make a decision until you have something to decide. Right now, you have nothing.”
Writer (wails): “So what do I do?”
Me: “Make stuff up. Then you decide whether it’s useful, because you’ll have something to decide about.”
At which point I got a blank look, but after a bit more discussion (OK, a couple of hours worth), she did get things back on track. The problem was that the writer was looking too far ahead. She was trying to think about the next scene, the next chapter, what the next exciting bit was going to be, how to get her characters from the bottom of the ravine to the triumphant climax of the novel. What she wasn’t thinking about was the very next step.
Getting to that step can be a little trickier than it sounds (which is why it took a couple of hours). First, you have to be clear about where the characters are. Where is their location? What do they know (or think they know) at this exact point in the story? And most important of all, what is it that they think they need to accomplish next?
What the characters think they need to accomplish right now – whether it’s rescue someone from the villain’s dungeon, or head to the cafe for a well-deserved cup of coffee after having decimated the wolf pack that was (they think) eating the sheep – will play a large part in determining the next step they take, and what direction they take it in. If they want to rescue a companion from a dungeon, the cautious one will want to plan a rescue mission and then get some supplies, while the reckless one may grab a musket and head for the lockup, but whatever they pick as the very next thing to do, it will take them in the direction of the dungeon, not in the direction of the coffee shop.
Sometimes there are multiple ways in which the characters can proceed. If they have just realized that the villain is up to something, and that they need to find out what, they may spend some time discussing the best way to find out, or they may go running off instantly in a variety of possible directions. Once the writer recognizes this, the first step is to figure out what the likely possibilities are.
Then one has something to decide: would these particular, individual characters, in this particular situation, do A, or B? If they need to find something out, will they stay in the ravine and plan for a few hours, dash back to town as a group to check the local gossip sheet, or send one of their number off to the oracle while the others compile lists of things to investigate and people to question?
Having made this first decision – what is the next step, or the next several steps, that the characters are going to take to try to do what they need to do – one has a second thing to decide: whether it is interesting and relevant enough to show in detail, or whether one would be better off skimming lightly past all the planning and dashing around, and going straight to the meeting three days later when they tell each other what they’ve found and realize, to their horror, that things are much worse than they thought.
The second decision is more complex, because it’s not only a decision about whether the next few things your characters choose to do are interesting and relevant; it’s also a decision about whether the writer can or should try to make them more interesting by throwing in something unexpected or having something go totally wrong. A trip to the library to check the microfiche of the 1851 newspapers that haven’t been digitized yet may not rate a full-blown scene if that’s all that happens, and sometimes what the writer wants is to say “Three days later, they got together and Gerald told them what he’d found.”
Sometimes, though, the trip to the library is the perfect opportunity for the secondary villain to send a thug after Gerald to collect that gambling debt, or for an unexpected car accident, or a fire at the library, or an apparently unrelated attack by mutant ninjas on the library. So the writer has to decide: is this worth making into a scene on its own, and if not, do I add something to make it something worth showing? Or would that be too distracting? What does it do to the pace and the plot development and the characterization if I show or don’t show the scene – and which is more effective for the story I want to tell?
My writer friend was trying to start by knowing about the gambling and the fire and the ninjas, before she even knew that the characters were going to send Gerald to the library. What she really needed was to back up, slow down, and think about what her characters needed to do next, one tiny step at a time. (And not just the characters in the ravine – the villain wasn’t just sitting around twiddling his thumbs and waiting for the heroes to show up and thwart him, after all.)