Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I like lists. I like checking boxes because it makes me feel like I've accomplished something. And I like how lists make everything nice and organized.

Chaos=Bad. Order=Good.

So here's a handy checklist from Jack M. Bickham's Scene and Structure regarding Planning and Revising Scenes for Maximum Effect. This is only part of his full list (there are 12 items in the book), but I thought they were helpful reminders for those of us who like lists.

1. Make sure the stated scene goal is clearly relevant to the story question. Spell it out.

2. Show clearly that the viewpoint character considers the scene as vitally important. Never allow a lead character to enter a scene with a lackadaisical (my all-time favorite word!) attitude.

3. Make sure you have provided enough background for the opposition character- or have him state enough motivation from the outset- to justify his opposition to the lead character in the scene. Don't just have someone be antagonistic on general principles!

And my favorite (which is actually #6 on the list):

In searching for you scene-ending disaster, don't always grab the first idea that comes to your mind. Your reader will be guessing along with you, and you don't want him to outguess you and anticipate the disaster before you give it to him. Chances are that if you made a list of six or eight possible disasters that would work, one of them well down the list from your first idea would be fresher, brighter, worse for the lead character- and not predicable by the reader. You always want the reader guessing!

That last one is my favorite because I recall reading something similar from Sue Monk Kidd (author of Secret Life of Bees). I'm paraphrasing, but she said that people are always told to go with their gut. But when you're writing you'll usually have better luck with your third (or so) idea for just the reason that Bickham pointed out above.

So what about you? Do you go with your first plot idea most of the time or do you go with an idea further down the list?


Donna Hole said...

I only go with my first plot idea during first draft. I'm a pantser, not a plotter, and I just have to put something down to keep up the momentum. If I stop to think about it too long, I'll get stuck in the "what if" cycle and never move on from that scene.

I make lists in a different manner though. I know what outcome I need to achieve, the specifics area matter of trial and error, and sometimes aren't perfected until several scenes later, when a critical point is achieved, and the light comes on and I say "oh, there is where it starts."

My lists are a series of deleted scenes kept in a file so I can refer back and see if one jumps out at me. Chaotic, I know, but I'm a slow thinker (plotter).

I'm not intimidated by my internal editor. Regardless of the methodology, I think I use all your points in perfecting a scene. For me, point number 2 resonates the most, because I am a character driven writer.

My POV character has to be invested in the scene, even if she is not the focus. If I've done my job correctly, anything of interest to my MC is of interest to the reader.

That's not to say I disregard the importance of plot. If I could think that far ahead, I'd probably encounter less revision later. I feel a plotter (list maker) has a majority of the novel written in the layout phase and need only write the character(s) to interact with the basic premise.

Sorry, that probably went way off base of what you asked. The short answer is: no, I don't always go with my first idea, though I never toss it completely either.


Rick Daley said...

I'm usually pretty good at thinking about things from a sideways angle, in life and in my writing. Robert Frost would probably tell me I chose the road less traveled by.

I do plot out scenes, it helps when I get stuck because I'll move on to the next scene, knowing revisions and re-writes are a fact of nature and I will have the chance to come back to the troubled sections later. Often times, an early rough spot will be resolved by a nuance added later in the story; when I go back to the rough spot, set up for the other nuance/sub-plot can help fill the holes (and tighten the overall story).

Taryn Tyler said...

To me there really isn't a first option and then second third, etc option. There is only one. The one that belongs to the story. Sometimes I don't know what that is and I guess in order to have something on the page while I figure it out but I already know I'm going to replace it. I wouldn't really call it my gut feeling.

paulgreci said...

Great Post! Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure was the first writing craft book I read. He really cuts to the heart of how to craft a story.

L. T. Host said...

Hm; I can't say I've ever really thought about it. But I'm certainly thinking about it now...

Great post!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I usually start with a main plot idea, and then end with it tweaked in several ways.

I'm not surprised you love lists. My hubby the history teacher is a list freak!! LOL! :-)

Susan R. Mills said...

Definitely further down the list. I do this, but I never heard this advice. Well, thank goodness, I'm actually doing something right for a change. :)

Emily Casey said...

Interesting thought, #6. I usually pick the first one that makes me smile or that gives me chills. But I hadn't thought about brainstorming my twists and making a list of possibilities. It sounds like a good technique for curing writer's block, too. Thanks!