Over the weekend I dreamt I was caulking my bathtub with toothpaste while delivering a speech to the UN.
After the speech, I ended up at a resort that flooded every afternoon.
Fearing a mold infestation, I suggested hotel staff build a gate to prevent the high tide from soaking the first-floor rooms.
My suggestion worked, but it also trapped everyone in the resort until low tide. As we waited for the water to recede, a few disgruntled vacationers dipped their toes in the alligator-infested water.
Because this was my dream, I wanted to understand it. So after waking up I spent a few hours trying to find the dream’s hidden meaning.
But if this hot mess of disconnected ideas showed up in a published story, I might stop reading mid-paragraph.
Good stories make sense and help me understand something about myself.
Great stories have an invisible magnetic river that pulls me toward an ending so powerful I have to read it again to see how the author pulled it off.
To develop an invisible magnetic river you need a strong narrative arc, a powerful universal, and a continuous cause-and-effect chain that runs through your manuscript.
Master the cause-and-event chain and each item will propel your story forward.
Break the chain or fail to create one and you’ll lose, confuse, or bore your readers.
So how do you guarantee there’s a powerful cause-and-effect chain in your manuscript?
If you’re a plotter who likes to plan your entire book before writing the first word, Bret Anthony Johnston recommends you start with the end and then outline backward until you reach the beginning of your story.
This technique works well if you know your ending.
But if you don’t have an ending in mind or you’re a pantser who likes to discover the story as you draft, simply use this technique after you’ve completed a traditional outline or written a first draft.
If you’re not a fan of outlining, you can write a synopsis for your project after you’ve completed a strong third or fourth draft. If you’ve written a book, your synopsis should be between two to four pages in length. If you’ve written an essay or short story, shoot for a paragraph.
While this might seem like extra work, it isn’t. If you plan to publish your book, you’ll need a synopsis for the querying process. Plus, it’s easier to see the flaws in a two- to four-page document than it is in a two-hundred-fifty-page manuscript. Revising at the synopsis level can help you find targeted ways to improve your story’s cause-and-effect chain that might be impossible to see if you’re trying to complete a chapter-by-chapter revision of your manuscript.
Once you’ve written your synopsis, ask the following questions:
- How does your main character change from beginning to end? If the main character doesn’t change, your story has a serious problem.
- Do you know what the main character wants at every point listed in your synopsis? If you don’t, you need to figure out why these events matter. Once you’ve solved that problem, ask yourself whether the character’s need in each situation is related to the change you identified in question one. If it’s not related, consider cutting that item.
- Have you created an interlocking sequence of events? If you can insert the words “and then” between your events, it’s likely you’ve created a series of interesting yet unrelated situations. To remedy this, employ the principle of “but” and “therefore” used by the creators of South Park. You can read about this principle here, but let me share a few basics. The words “and then” suggest your events are not connected. For example, you can caulk your tub with toothpaste “and then” for unrelated reasons present to the UN. The words “but” and “therefore,” suggest a cause-and-effect relationship between your events. Here’s what my dream might look like if I applied the principle of “but” and “therefore.”
I was scheduled to give a Zoom lecture to the UN.
But two minutes before the event, I discovered the only place in my house with good WIFI was the bathroom.
Therefore I set up my laptop in front of the shower.
But the grout was in terrible shape.
Therefore I used some toothpaste to fill in the cracks right before my speech.
The speech was successful therefore we celebrated with an island getaway.
The hotel was great but it flooded every afternoon. Therefore I suggested they build a gate to stop the water.
Okay, it’s still not a great story, but do you see how inserting “but” and “therefore” improved it?
Once you’ve applied the principle of “but” and “therefore” to your synopsis, you can apply it to your chapter or scene summaries. If this interests you, check out the following blog post.
After you’ve shaped your scene or chapter summaries, it will be easier to refine your manuscript’s invisible magnetic river.
Don’t get discouraged if your early or even mid-stage drafts look a little like my dream. Most writers fail to see the problems in their cause-and-effect chains, especially when they’re working on book-length manuscripts. If you get frustrated, put your project away and work on something else. When you’re ready to revise, you’ll find the connection points that shape your idea into a praiseworthy story.
What strategies have you used to build your cause-and-effect chains?
How have these strategies helped you improve your drafts?