Lynette M. Burrows
You can have interesting characters in a striking setting and have a boring book. Plot structure can create tension that keeps the reader engaged and eager to finish your book. But learning how to plot is confusing. Many writers have their own theory on how to create an interesting plot. Some argue the number of types of plot structure and they name anywhere between one (man against man) to seven. Others talk about the elements of or the stages of plot. Those folk teach five, six, seven, nine, or more elements they call stages, or doors, or plot points. They say to use a diagram or an outline or to write freely and figure it out as you go. What’s a writer to do? Learn as much as you can. A good place to start is 7 Plot Structures for Pantsers by John Peragine. If you’re looking for a simple and effective tool for creating a cause-effect, can’t-stop-reading plot use the WHAT-BUT-THEREFORE method.
What is Plot?
At its most basic level, plot is the chain of events that make up a story. But a basic chain of events does not make a story. Consider this pared-down version of Rumplestiltskin by the Brothers Grimm:
The miller says his daughter can spin straw into gold.
The king gave the girl a room of straw to spin into gold.
The girl made a bargain with a droll little man.
The girl spins the straw into gold.
The king marries the girl and she becomes queen.
The queen gives birth to a little girl.
The droll little man wants his end of the bargain.
The queen guesses his name, and he goes away empty-handed.
As a plain chain of events, this classic story has no tension. It’s boring.
A more complex definition of plot is the sequence of events which causes a character to react in a way that affects the next event through the principle of cause-and-effect. With this definition, you can still create an unexciting story. The tension must rise.
The way I make certain story tension grips the reader is to use a What-But-Therefore outline of each scene.
The first time I heard about this tool, I believe they labeled it the THEN-BUT-THEREFORE. I have lost track of the person(s) who introduced me to the concept. It may spring from the creators of South Park, though they may not have been the originators of the idea.
This group of sentences helps you create a causal plot. One act leads to a complication and a decision or new action. Used properly, they can help you build the steps of an interesting plot that shows your theme and compels your reader to turn the page. So let’s examine what those three words stand for in this application.
For a scene to compel your reader to turn the page, there must be forward movement of the story. The main character must have a goal that matters. The character must do something, take an action they believe will get them to their goal. Sometimes this may include thinking, planning, or weighing choices, but an effective scene will always include or lead directly to an action.
The action taken by your protagonist leads to an obstacle. The obstacle can be geographical, a person, weather, or just about anything else. Whatever the obstacle is, it blocks the forward movement of the protagonist toward her goal. These obstacles are progressive. Each more difficult to get past.
She must change her strategy, her tactics, her direction. This decision can mislead her or force her to retreat or make her reconsider and change her goal.
Put together it is: WHAT the character does (an action) toward the goal of the viewpoint character BUT something or someone interferes (progressive complication) THEREFORE the character is compelled to do something she wouldn’t at the beginning of the scene (which becomes the action of the next scene.)
WHAT: The king takes the miller’s beautiful daughter, places her in a room of straw and demands she spin it into gold by morning or die. BUT the girl cannot spin the gold. THEREFORE she cries and pleads for help.
WHAT: A droll little man appears and offers to help for something of value. BUT the girl can only offer a necklace. THEREFORE, the little man accepts the necklace and spun the straw into gold and the king is pleased.
WHAT: The greedy king brings in more straw for the girl to spin into gold or die. BUT the girl still cannot spin the straw into gold. THEREFORE she cries for help again.
WHAT: The droll little man reappears and offers to spin the straw into gold in exchange for something of value. BUT the girl only has her ring to offer him. THEREFORE, he accepts the ring and spins the straw into gold and the king is pleased.
WHAT: This pleases the king who gives the girl even more straw to spin into gold and promises she’ll be his queen if she does it by morning. BUT the girl still cannot spin the straw into gold…
You get the idea.
Rumplestiltskin doesn’t have an ideal plot, but it’s a classic because the plot complications and rewards grow and grow until the girl outwits her opponent.
What I Love about What-But-Therefore
When I make my What-But-Therefore sentence outline, I write fast and make them run-on sentences. Some writers need to follow the rules of grammar. That’s okay. You can write these out any way that works for you. The primary object is to write a series of scenes with cause-and-effect actions that build tension.
The reason I love this method of building an outline is that the words remind me to put the tension in each scene. But I don’t have an outline so detailed that my inner pantser feels restricted. I leave the specifics of the complications and how the characters get into or out of the complications. Therefore, my pantser side gets to play during the writing.
Story is More than One Thing
Can you build an interesting plot using the What-But-Therefore sentences? Absolutely. You can also make it uninteresting. Story is more than one thing. It takes a compelling theme, a set of characters with goals your reader cares about, an interesting plot that creates obstacles and twists, and the right mix of tension and release.
There is no one right way to create a compelling story. You must find a way that works for you. Study plot structure as taught by Aristotle (Poetics), Gustav Freytag (Technique of the Drama), Joseph Campbell (The Hero’s Journey), Larry Brooks (Story Engineering), James Scott Bell (Plot & Structure), Jessica Brody (Save the Cat! Writes a Novel), Jennie Nash (Blueprint for a Book), or experts you follow. Must you read all those books? No one will force you to do so, but the more you learn and understand, the better able you will be to choose the things that work for you and your stories.
Whether you use templates like the Hero’s Journey, or Story Engineering, or Blueprint, they all help you build your plot. Without complications and building tension, your plot isn’t compelling. Your story doesn’t satisfy. If you need a quick-and-dirty outline that gives you a flexible outline, What-But-Therefore can work for you.
What do you love about the plot template you use?
Lynette M. Burrows writes action-filled science fiction with characters who discover their inner strength and determination, then make courageous choices for themselves, their family, and their world.
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