This is the seventh of a 6-part series on the W’s.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

First off, sorry it’s been a few months. COVID-19 and all, I don’t think I need to explain more than that.

Put The W’s Together

Second, now that I’ve outlined the W’s, it’s time to put them all together. You can certainly do your own thing, but I usually take them in the order I set out above, Apparent Event, Actual Event, Environment, Character and Relationship, Conflict, and The Moment Before. THIS IS NOT A RULE. I can and do violate this order all the time.

But why suggest that order, then? Wouldn’t it be better to decide on the characters first? Or the actual event? I usually have a pretty decent idea of where I want the story to go, and I know the main character of the scene before I get to the W’s. Choosing the apparent event forces me to get creative, and will usually tell me who the other characters in the scene should be. Not every scene can be in a law office, right? Setting the apparent event constrains my choices for the rest of the W’s. Also, once you know your main characters, apparent events will present themselves to you almost unasked.

The actual event is the character or story element that needs to happen during that scene, which often (most every time?) has very little to do with the apparent event. But the character or story element happens to a character, which means it will happen in that character’s context – apparent event and environment – which kind of drives the details of the actual event.

Conflict is often the most difficult part of this to define, though it might not seem so at first. If you only think of conflict as a fist fight, you’re getting it all wrong. Sure, there can be a fist fight, but that would probably be an apparent event with a huge subtext for the actual event. The conflict is internal to the characters, usually, sometimes external. But you don’t want it to be trite or on-the-nose. No black knights blocking the bridge into the abandoned castle, please. How about a lovely peasant girl inviting the knight to cross the bridge? Would you trust her? Why not?

The other three elements follow once you have the apparent event, actual event, and conflict. The environment is determined largely by the apparent event, and once you get into the story, the character and moment before are set already, for the most part.

What Does It Look Like On The Page?

I’ll share a bit of my work in progress below. It’s how I plot out my stories using the W’s.

Remember, for a regular novel you have about 70,000 to 90,000 words, which seems like a lot until your first draft has 125,000 words and you have to cut it by a third. A novel is going to have between 60 and 80 scenes, which again seems like a lot but is actually nearly nothing once you get into it. You need to be economical, you need to work smart, you need to know what you’re doing before you start writing. You do that by using the W’s.

An image of a scene breakdown for my current work in progress:

I tried not to give too many spoilers, since this novel is a sequel to ‘The Guilty Die Twice,’ but you can see how I work. I don’t have the characters listed with the other W’s, I have them at the header of the scene so I can tell at a glance who is getting the focus. Later on I may have to rearrange things, and having the characters up top makes that easier. Then I have notes to myself on the scene, including possibilities for later scenes, and then the W’s nicely outlined.

Give It A Shot

Feel free to take this advice and make it your own. Recall that I came to this method as an actor and adapted it to my writing. My acting teacher gave all her students a business card with the W’s on it, and I have that card to this day, I’m looking at it right now because it stays on my desk centered beneath my computer monitor, where I can see it every time I write.

Good luck! Let me know how it works out for you.

This is the sixth of a 6-part series on the W’s. Coming into the home stretch.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

What Just Happened? – The Moment Before

This part is essential for an actor, as it determines his character’s state immediately before the scene starts. Does he come in calm, cool, and collected, or does he enter in a rush, frazzled, beside himself. The moment before matters. It’s vital. It determines the audience’s first glimpse of that character in that particular scene.

But what if you’re a novelist? Does the moment before matter for your characters on the page?

Maybe it matters more than it does to an actor.

The Moment Before Can Be Told

For an actor, the moment before is only shown through the lens of behavior; the audience will never see it, unless it’s from the scene immediately preceding. For a writer… ah, for a writer the moment before can come alive on the page.

Remember, the unique strength of prose is that it reveals the characters’ inner lives. Their internal voices. For a writer, their characters’ moments before not only can be told, those moments must be told for the narrative to make sense.

Let’s go back to our birthday party example. You know the apparent event, the actual event, the environment, a relationship, the conflict, and now you give your hero a moment before. She’s just been evicted. She’s effectively homeless now.

Would that change the way she approaches the conflict? Absolutely, desperation makes people do odd things. Would being evicted change the way she approaches the apparent event? Of course, maybe she now thinks she has nothing to lose… or, maybe she’s already lost too much and needs to re-think things.

The Resolution Of A Scene Leads To The Next Moment Before

This only stands to reason, but so many writers forget it. No matter how the particular scene you’re writing ends, it’s the moment before for the next scene. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, as it were.

In our example, let’s say our hero musters up the courage to go through with it, and tell her ex-husband she’s moving across the country with their son. How does the husband react? Not well, obviously, or there wouldn’t be much of a story. But say he threatens the hero, tells her that she can run but she can’t hide. He’s going to find her no matter what.

What does the hero do next? Whatever it is, it’s going to be with that threat hanging over her head.

Of course, the resolution of the scene for the ex-husband is also his moment before his next scene.

Next time: we’ll put it all together.

This is the third of a 6-part series on the W’s.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

Where Are You? – The Environment

The environment for the scene is the set dressing. This includes the stuff your characters can touch, like tables, chairs, rocket ships, guns, salad forks, powdered wigs, piles of severed limbs, etc. etc. etc.

The environment also includes the stuff your character can’t touch, like the wind, or darkness, or humidity. Or the seething emotion of a crowd about to turn into a mob. Or the gentle, welcoming smile of a grandmother.

In our birthday party example, your character probably is going to see a cake, some decorations, maybe some presents, and other people gathered around. But a birthday party in a bowling alley is going to have a very different environment than one on a billionaire’s yacht. Think about the fixtures and furniture you’d see in each place, aside from the cake and presents. Think about the people in attendance. It’s the same event (ostensibly) but the environments are completely different.

Story Drives The Environment

If your story is a hard-boiled noir, the hero probably won’t be seeing any androids or Jetsons-style moving sidewalks. By the same token, if your story is a high fantasy, your hero probably won’t be watching TV or driving a car.

Your story will have tropes, it’s inevitable. That doesn’t mean that tropes are necessarily bad. Used properly, they can give your reader something to latch onto, a familiar entry point. A lonely lakehouse, for example, would be right at home in a romance. It could also be the setting for a horror tale. The rest of the environment fills in the story. A romance would have sweet carvings of initials on the boathouse; a horror story would have a charnal-smelling basement where muffled screams echo at night.

The story you want to tell will determine your environment.

Environment Drives The Story

And yet… as you move along in your story, the environment has a lot to say about the direction your characters might take.

In our birthday party example, aside from the cake, candles, presents, and attendees, the event takes place at a Roaring-20s Gatsby mansion. So there are idle rich, and servants, and opulent appointments, and maybe a live jazz band. And maybe your hero hates her party and hates everyone there, but somehow finds a kindred spirit in the hip, dropout drum player from the band.

Well, now there’s a story. Rich socialite, grubby jazz musician, 1925, too much champagne, negligently unguarded revolvers… the environment has just moved the plot along.

Put The First Three Together

When you determine the apparent event for your characters, the actual event, and the environment, you’re well on your way to constructing a good, meaty scene.

Only three more Ws to go.

This is the second of a 6-part series on the W’s.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

What Do You Want? – Actual Event

The Actual Event is the meat of the scene. What the scene’s about. If the Apparent Event is what you see through a keyhole, the Actual Event is a plot point. A story element.

Okay… so what are those things? For the Apparent Event, we used the example of a birthday party. Everyone knows what a birthday party looks like: candles, cake, singing, presents, etc. etc. And for 99% of birthday parties, the Actual Event is also a birthday party.

But not your story. No, the Actual Event at your characters’ birthday party is something completely different. Maybe it’s when the detective realizes the murderer is his own wife. Or when the villain confesses everything, knowing that no one will believe his confessor. Or when the star-crossed lovers finally come together, at last.

The Actual Event Is The Story

Every scene must involve change. Either the plot moves along (the story changes), or the character grows (the character changes). Or both. A scene that does neither serves no purpose.

The Actual Event does not have to be positive. Most of your story should be setbacks for the characters; if every development is positive, you’ll have to twists to your tale.

If your main character has a birthday party, the fallout should be dramatic. He thinks he’s going to get cake and a few well-intentioned but ultimately useless gifts. Instead, he gets the news that his mother isn’t his real mother, she’s his grandmother, and the woman he thought was his older sister is really his mother, and has been all along.

That would be devastating news to anyone. Maybe positive in the (very) long term, but at that moment – at that party – the news is a definite blow to the character, and a setback. How’s he going to deal with this? What about his plans to get married? Is she really his cousin? How can he know for sure? And on, and on, and on.

The Scene Can Have More Than One Actual Event

If your scene has more than one character, there can be more than one actual event. This is tricky to pull off, and delicate balancing act, but it can be done. When it’s done right, it’s usually a smorgasbord of dramatic irony.

I would avoid doing this with any but main characters. To be honest, secondary and tertiary characters are there to serve the plot and the needs of the main characters. I wouldn’t bother giving them an actual event. Sometimes a bartender is just there to serve drinks. But if your hero and your villain find themselves at the same birthday party… someone’s gonna win and someone’s gonna lose. And it may not be who you expect.

How quickly should you move your story along? That depends, what kind of story are you telling?

I think the biggest structural mistakes I see in writers’ work is the wrong pace for the material. You need to pick your pace as carefully as you pick your scenes and your characters.

A Big Story Needs A Fast Pace

Let’s say that, for some reason, you’ve decided to write the next ‘War and Peace.’ That’s a huge story, and, full disclosure, takes its time like a stoned sloth staring at wallpaper. But it’s not the 19th Century and you’re not Leo Tolstoy, your writing needs to move faster than his did.

A big story is going to have a lot of characters, and a lot of plot points, and a lot of incidental characterization and detail. You absolutely cannot take your time with that kind of story. You have to hammer it out, rapid-fire. Get it done.

Imagine you’re explaining your story in detail to an interested party. Imagine also that you can see their eyes start to droop. You’re losing them. Every part of your story that you’d gloss over for the purpose of keeping them interested you can probably lose from your first draft. If it’s not vital to the ‘and then…’ part of storytelling, dump it.

A Smaller Story Can Go Slower

Notice I didn’t say ‘less dramatic’ or ‘less important.’ Instead of ‘War and Peace’ you’re going to write the story of a man’s slow failing and transformation as his marriage dissolves after the death of his only child.

That’s some serious, serious storytelling. Heart-wrenching drama that will probably make your reader cry. But it’s not a ‘big’ story. You can and should take your time with this kind of story, because the meat is in the characters’ internal voices, and in their sad, inevitable interactions with one another. There’s no war or peace with this kid of story, no tales of sacrifice and heroism, just the very real tale of one man’s misery. Take your time.

Know What Kind Of Story You’re Telling

I’ve seen people with big, big, stories spend far too much time on their characters’ internal lives, while outside the world is ending. Maybe you can pull that kind of juxtaposition off, but you probably can’t. Big stories mean big choices, and big choices mean broad strokes at the keyboard.

Alternatively, I’ve seen authors try to tell small stories with smash-cut urgency, which no one can sustain. It’s exhausting to read, and those stories tend to reach several conclusions as the author pads the word count to reach novel length.

Be honest with yourself as you plan your story. Is it big or is it small? Then pace accordingly.

I learned this technique as an actor, and it’s invaluable for bringing authenticity to your performance. So why not use it in your writing?

Characters Don’t Exist In A Void

Just as your life is a continuum from birth to death, so are your characters’ lives. And every scene you put your characters in has context in those lives. In order to bring veracity to your writing, you need to think about what your characters were doing JUST BEFORE the scene started.

Their emotional states prior to the scene will inform their actions within the scene. For instance, if a character had just been in a fist fight before a scene in an emergency room, the fallout from that fight will inform their attitudes – even their dialogue – in the emergency room scene.

Nothing happens in a vacuum.

The Moment Before May Not Be Anything You Write

That is to say, it may not be anything that appears in your novel. Unless a scene is a direct follow-on from a prior scene, your readers will most likely never see the moment before. But you will know it. And your characters will live it and react to it.

That said, sometimes it’s helpful to write out the moment before, just as in acting you and your scene partner may improv the moment before. Don’t think of it as wasted time, or wasted words, think of it as making concrete something that was abstract in your head. That’s always a worthwhile effort.

The Scene You Just Wrote Is A Moment Before Another Event

You only have so many scenes to finish your story, so pick and choose them wisely. The scene you just wrote, with its moments before for the characters, is itself a moment before the next thing to happen in your characters’ lives.

The subsequent scene may not be one you write, but it is one that will then be the moment before another scene, etc. etc. etc. Think of events in your characters’ lives as pearls on a string. Each is precious, even if you only focus on a few rare, exceptional ones. They all matter.

I don’t see me getting any less stir crazy in the next two weeks, so today’s tip is about plotting: how your characters and your plot connect.

Character Drives Plot

This is the first principle. You have events set up, things are gonna happen. But they don’t happen in a vacuum, they happen to your characters. How your characters react to the setup drives the next event in the plot.

Think about it in real life. No two people are going to react to the same stimulus in the same way. Someone can be in a fender-bender and be mildly annoyed, while another person might become a gibbering mess. This can be true of passengers in the same car. What happens to each person next depends largely on how they react. Character drives plot.

Plot Drives Character

Excuse me? Didn’t you just say…?

I did, and that first part is true. This second part of plotting is also true. The events of the plot spur character development. In the fender-bender example above, the person who is mildly annoyed probably wouldn’t think much about the accident other than to register it as an inconvenience. The person who is devastated by the accident, on the other hand, might make changes – good or bad – to their life as a result. They’d be substantially different after the accident than they were before. Plot drives character.

Character Drives Plot Drives Character Drives Plot…

This knot, this dance, is what a good writer masters. There is a feedback loop between plot and character and it’s in this tension that you’ll find the best story.

People read fiction for the story, and that story should be dramatic. Nobody wants to read about my morning routine, or my drive to the grocery store, and I don’t want to write that. But if I write about a broken family trying to come back together… yeah, there’s an audience for that.

No matter how good your setup, though, or how well-considered your story, if there’s no dramatic tension there’s really no reason to read it. Or to write it, for that matter. There are many ways to create dramatic tension in a novel, and I’ve outline four good ones below.

1. Get Your Reader To Ask Questions

You want people to become immediately involved in your story, and the way to do that is to get them to ask a question. Just one, at first. It could be about the plot, it could be about a character, it could be about a relationship between characters, but you should get them to ask that question.

For instance, you could start the story with a main character on the road, destination unknown (to the reader) but it’s clearly somewhere the main character would rather not go. Throw in an encounter with someone who recognizes the character (from where?) and knows where they’re going. Now the reader is hooked, they have to know where the character is compelled to go, and why, and what’s going to happen when she gets there.

2. Create Character Conflict

There’s an awful lot to this one, as it incorporates characterization, plot, and pacing. Conflict between your characters will (almost) always drive your story.

But it can’t be pointless conflict. The conflict has to serve the plot, and move things along. Does the conflict resolve? Well… usually. But not every time (see #3).

Family conflict is great, there’s always tension and conflict between people who’ve lived in the same household. But there can be workplace conflict too, or neighbor conflict, or business conflict. Any time one character wants something, but another character wants the same thing – and there’s only one of that thing – there’s conflict. Or if a character wants something, but another character wants the exact opposite, there’s conflict. Or, maybe the best, is when two characters want the same thing, but disagree on how to go about getting that thing. Both want world peace, but one sees that possible only through war while the other sees it possible only through peace.

3. Use Cliffhangers

This term was coined for the very old movie serials, where the hero would be literally hanging from a cliff at the end of one episode, with the promise that there was no way he could survive, but to come back next week to see if he would anyway.

You should use these within your story, as structural elements and chapter breaks. I would STRONGLY caution against cliffhangers at the end of novels, especially for main plot elements. Nothing will turn your reader against you quicker than your refusal to answer a central question you raise in their minds.

I favor cliffhangers at chapter breaks. Think of them as the button right before the commercial on a TV show. You want your reader to get a payoff from what you’ve set up so far, but you want to give them a reason to turn the page and find out what happens next.

4. Employ Dramatic Irony

I touched on this in a prior post, but dramatic irony is delicious, it’s the sizzle on the steak that is your story. Dramatic irony is that perfect situation where your reader is clued into a truth that the characters are not. Or, better yet, that one character knows but another does not.

Here’s a concrete example: remember that Futurama episode where Fry finds the fossilized remains of his dog from a thousand years before? He spends the episode wondering if he should have Seymour cloned so he can have his dog back, but ultimately decides not to, reasoning that he only knew his dog for a short time and Seymour lived a good long life after Fry disappeared. Except we, the viewers, know that Seymour spent his long life waiting for Fry to come back. (makes me cry every time)

The dramatic irony is that Fry does the right thing, by every measure. Except it’s the WRONG thing, and only we, the viewers know it.