Brace yourself! (Spoiler alert: there is good news coming.) But first . . .
Here’s a hard fact: 97% of writers never finish a first draft.
Here’s an even harder fact: 96% of those finished manuscripts are rejected by agents and publishers.
And the indie route? Statistics show that the vast majority of self-published books sell under 100 copies. Mostly to family and friends. Who, ahem, say they’ve read it. Look, a squirrel!
Sadly, I am not surprised. I’ve spent my career working with writers, manuscripts, story, and in that time I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve read where if you asked me, “What’s it about?” I’d say, “It’s about 300 pages. I have no idea. It’s just a bunch of things that happen.”
Which neatly answers the question: Why do so many manuscripts fail?
It’s not because the writer didn’t know how to “write well” or that the prose wasn’t polished enough or that the plot wasn’t rip roaring enough. It was because the manuscript was nothing but a bunch of things that happen.
But what does that mean?
It means there was no cause-and-effect trajectory – internal, external, escalating or otherwise -- so nothing to anticipate, nothing to care about, nothing to root for. Instead, it was: this happens, and then that happens, and then . . . wake me when it’s over.
And to make matters worse, the two most popular “schools” of writing tacitly encourage exactly that.
Pantsing is the worst culprit; plotting a close second. Why? Because both methods start by focusing on page one, when the story itself – the place from which all meaning and all plotting springs -- starts long before that. After all, a story is about how someone solves a problem they can’t avoid. And let’s be honest, as real life has taught us, even though it can feel as if problems spring out of the blue, the truth is they take an awful long time to reach critical mass – that place where we have to pay attention to them.
Besides, the story isn’t about the plot anyway, it’s about how the external problem the protagonist faces causes her to make a long needed internal change. In other words, the plot comes second – the first goal is to figure out what internal change, scene by scene, it must force your protagonist to make. All of which is created, in story-specific detail, before you get to page one.
Pantsing ignores all this, promoting the killer misbelief that if you have “talent” the story will simply come. Head hits desk. Heart breaks. It doesn’t work that way.
Plotting, on the other hand, by focusing on the plot first (big mistake!), tries to create a cause-and-effect trajectory, but the problem is, it’s merely a surface cause-and-effect trajectory. It’s math. And faulty math at that. For two reasons.
- It’s just a string of external events. Readers don’t come for what happens, they come for why it happens, hoping to pick up a little inside intel that will help them navigate their own lives. And the reason why anything happens inherently lies in the past. Which is why, as Faulkner so brilliantly said: The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. Meaning you have to know WHAT the story-specific past IS, not only in order to understand the WHY behind what’s happening, but to know what’s happening in the first place. Make no mistake, it’s the “why” that creates the “what.”
- Which brings us to the second reason plotting relies on faulty math: The WHY stems from the characters, not the events. Why would your protagonist do that? Hell, why would any character do what they do? Without knowing that -- and getting it on the page – the things the pre-ordained plot will force your protagonist to do won’t make any sense. And guess what, then neither will the plot!
But what if you ARE a dedicated pantser or plotter, and committed to beginning on page one of the manuscript come hell or high water, what can you do? How can you make sure your WIP doesn’t turn out to be nothing but a bunch of things that happen?
Yep, we’ve reached the good news! There is a method you can use to help make sure you’re not writing yourself out into a big, empty, directionless (albeit beautifully written) field:
As you write forward, approach each scene by focusing on one of these three words: Because, But, Therefore.
Because: Just focusing on the “Because” gives you a head start – because you’re focusing on the “why.” Again, readers don’t merely want to know what your protagonist does, what we’re hungry for is why she did it. Why did that happen? By focusing on “Because” you’re developing the ongoing causal connection between what’s happened in the past, and what’s about to happen now.
But: Stories are like life – they’re about how we navigate the unexpected. Think: unintended consequences. Collateral damage. Often the “But” is something the protagonist could have foreseen if only she hadn’t been so focused on something else. Sometimes it’s a total shocker. But always, when the protagonist stops to think about it, in retrospect it’s explained by the story-specific past.
Therefore: What is the consequence of what just happened? How does it play forward? What change did it spur? Often the “Therefore” is internal, as in: as a result of what happened, the protagonist realized this, and so decided to do that.
Want an example? This is from a brilliant, dedicated and savvy client of mine, who sent me a shorthand outline of what we’ve been working on for months, and thus inspired this post. She’s writing contemporary fiction, and has already written all of the below in scene form, and it goes deep. She’s now working on the last third of her novel, and decided to quickly synopsize what she has so far. The full document is far longer than the snippet here. Note that it begins long before the novel starts.
- Because her friends pushed her to do it as part of a Cosmo quiz, high school senior Emma finally bares her heart and writes a secret love letter to Ryan, thinking he'll never see it.
- But her friend betrays her and gives it to him.
- Because she’s is humiliated by the letter, when her dysfunctional mom announces they’re moving out of Texas that very weekend, Emma is relieved and doesn't look back, never calling friends. She disappears from their lives, believing you can’t trust anyone.
- Therefore as soon as Emma graduates high school, she moves to New York and focuses on her career.
- But because she deeply craves a family connection she’s never had, she becomes an event planner, so she gets to be close to families, but not in them. No risk of hurt.
- But what she doesn’t know is that Ryan loved her letter, and was heartbroken when she disappeared.
- Because Ryan thinks that Emma will reach out to her hometown BFF Natalie at some point, he becomes friends with Natalie and her boyfriend, Frank.
- But he finds he really likes these people. And as the years pass, even though he’s moved to London, their friendship becomes genuine. He's uncle Ryan to their 3 kids.
- But Ryan can’t forget Emma. Now the successful CEO of a tech startup, he still has that letter and every once in a while checks FB searching for her. He finally finds her new, very successful company’s FB page.
- But when he Ryan reaches out to Emma on FB, her assistant, who handles all social media, not knowing who he is, dismisses him. Ryan believes it was Emma who blew him off.
- Therefore he decides it was just a stupid letter, and that he’s been nursing a ridiculous fantasy, so he asks his girlfriend of four years to marry him. She's been dropping hints, they’re living together already, all their friends are getting married, and he feels maybe it doesn't get any better than this. I have it good.
Here’s where the novel starts:
- But when unforeseen circumstances force both he and Emma back to their Texas hometown, he discovers the spark is still burning bright -- in both of them.
- Therefore each one must confront . . .
And with that the novel is off and running, fueled by what happened in each character’s past, barreling toward what each one entered the story already wanting, already fearing. And those “unforeseen circumstances”? For both Emma and Ryan, they were the culmination of a long and, in retrospect, inevitable series of events.
My advice? Whether pantsing or plotting, focus on those three key words: Because, But, Therefore. Don’t write any scene that begins with the deadly, “And then . . .” If (make that when) you find you need to go into your protagonist’s past to dig up the reason “why?” – the because -- do it! Because that’s where meaning, depth and the real truth that you’re writing about is buried. And that is what hooks readers. Story is about an internal struggle, not an external one. The plot? Without the internal story driving it, that’s just a bunch of things that happen.
Are you a pantser? Plotter? Can you see how, either way, this can help?
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Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her video tutorial Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story can be found at Lynda.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.
Lisa has worked in publishing at W.W. Norton, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and Court TV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency. Since 2006, she’s been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and she is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA program in Visual Narrative in New York City. In her work as a story coach, Lisa helps writers, nonprofits, educators, and journalists wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. She can be reached at wiredforstory.com