So – above all – you’ve completed step 1 and got something written! What’s another way to make your story richer and more complex?
If you want it in video form, you can watch Shamus’ talk about this method here.
He calls it “domino worldbuilding” (which is good) but I like to call it the “therefore” plot.
One sign I consider that a story is still in its rough draft is that much of the plot still operates under the “and then” model. Like I’ve said before, step one IS TO ACTUALLY WRITE. And when you’re just trying to get the first draft out of your fingers, “and then” is your best friend. Again, you MUST plow through step one and sometimes the best way to do that is to just stitch it together like Frakenstein’s monster: “Character scene – and then – action scene – and then – worldbuilding scene – and then – romance scene – and then – another action scene…”
Again, a completely fine and necessary friend to help you get through the first step of writing. But again let me stress that a sign of how rough a draft is is how many of these “and thens” remain. This was one of my biggest problems with the Robert Downey Jr. version of Dr. Dolittle – much of the story works on “and then” like “and then the queen gets sick and sends for him.”
I think by far the trickiest challenge in transitioning to a “therefore” plot is that you can fool yourself into accepting a simplistic answer. The most obvious of which is MacGuffins. Need to get from scene A to scene B? Just declare that scene B has a MacGuffin which the protagonist requires and presto! Scene A therefore scene B!
Well… not quite. All you’ve really done is papered over the “and then” without really reaching the goal. Prophecies are another very common “papering” I’ve seen in stories. Extremely simplistic motivations of characters is another. If I had a dollar every time the antagonist did something just because “they hate protagonist” I could probably run my own publishing company.
Again, it can be a start, but it’s not where you want to leave your story. So how to fix it? How do you even tell between a good and bad “therefore”?
I’ll admit, I’m still thinking and formulating on this and am open to suggestions. There are 2 methods I’m developing now.
METHOD ONE (STRIP)
Notice above how I was able to provide an example of a bad therefore using generic terms? Strip away as many details of your story as you can. Take away even your protagonist’s name and history – boil everything down as low as you can go to the most basic tropes and techniques. Now check your “therefore.” Does it still work? If yes, it’s a bad transition. If no, then start adding details to the segment. Figure out what is the absolute bare minimum a reader needs to know to grasp the “therefore” between your scenes. The more details required, the better a “therefore” it is.
The ideal is for your readers to have to know everything you’ve shown them to get the therefore. (and if you find out there’s some details that they don’t know – consider whether they can be trimmed or not, but that’s another post)
METHOD TWO (WHY)
A method inspired by interactions with two-year-olds. In this method, ask yourself “why” and then keep asking yourself why and see how many layers you can go. For example, when a MacGuffin drives the protagonist to a scene, don’t just ask why the protagonist wants that MacGuffin, ask why is the MacGuffin there in the first place. Why this thing as a MacGuffin and not another thing? And as you answer those whys, ask “why” of the answers and go again. That is the “layers” of it.
Baahubali is such a great example of this. Why does Bhallaladeva want to kill his brother? Because he wants to rule. Why does he want to rule? Because his father felt the throne should have been his as the eldest child (and seems to have taught & pushed Bhallaladeva down his path). Why wasn’t the throne given to his father? His father believes it’s because he is a cripple. Why does he believe that? Because it’s easier than facing the truth about the populace’s dislike of him.
And all of that revolves around a plot point so basic to these type of fantasy stories the writer could have probably left it out and nobody would have noticed. But they didn’t, and there’s multiple scenes in the film that layer motivations and rationale to even the villain, making it a rich and complex story.
As in real life, you’ll find you can run this game for awhile until you reach a “it just is” or an infinite loop. Unfortunately authors are mortal and if you want to write more than one book in your life, you can’t quite do this for every aspect of it. So I usually recommend about 3-4 “why” layers before leaving the rest up to the audience. At a bare minimum, 2.
Push yourself to think further back in the world and characters beyond your protagonist. The deeper you can make your “therefore” the better a story you’ll have.