Think about the words you see in a rave book review. Pacey, right? Propulsive. Riveting. Compelling. Page-turner.
And those are all shorthand for “fun to read,” and also for “something happens.”
Problem is, it’s textbook-easy to begin a novel and have something happen: that’s why there’s a story, right? Something happens.
But then to keep your story going, to keep it pacey and compelling , things must keep happening. (And that’s called telling a story. Or even better, revealing a story.)
And when faced with all those empty pages, it can be daunting to keep the engine of your book running. To keep the plane flying.
How do you keep your story propulsive? Here’s a trick: Think of it as a series of five steps. A repeating and varying arc of five specific segments. Here’s what I mean:
Step one: What does your character want in this segment?
It can be as small as a drink of water, or as big as stopping the guy with his finger on the nuclear button. Each step in a Hank-segment has a goal. And at the end of the segment, that goal will either be reached or not. And more on that in a minute. But if they don’t want something, there’s no reason for them to do anything. And more on that in a minute, too.
Step two: And why does that person want that thing?
Are they thirsty? Or maybe,if they don’t get water they will die? If they don’t get water they will not be able to take their pill? (And then they’ll die?) Or if they don’t stop the nuclear-button guy, they will die and so will everyone else? There’s got to be a reason the person wants the thing in the segment. In each segment, and depending on where it is in the story, it can be tiny or cataclysmic. but there’s got to be a motivation for them to do what they are about to do.
Step three: They decide what to do!
Should they they call room service? Do they fumble down the stairs in the middle of the night and go to the kitchen and search for a glass and turn on the water? Do they pull out their stun gun or brass knuckles or call on their power of personal persuasion to distract nuclear-button guy? Your character must decide what to do, and that decision-making process allows you the author to examine the setting and all of its possibilities, as well as the psychology of the character. Do they make a wise thoughtful benevolent decision? Or a selfish venal self-centered decision? The decision they make reveals their character, right? And the setting matters profoundly: what you’d decide in a potential blizzard or in the midst of a drought or in your bedroom (or someone else’s) are very different things, so how does that alter their thought process?
Step four: they do whatever it is!
And when they do it, what does that mean for your novel? It means action! It means forward motion. It means something is changing, and all of the dominoes and all of the ramifications of this particular decision crash into a new place. Here we go, the reader thinks, let’s see what happens! This could be a critical moment! And your story takes flies even higher.
Step five: the obstacle.
And then, every time: WHAM. Up pops the obstacle. The conflict. The barrier. Oh no, there’s no water! Oh no, they fall down the stairs. Oh no, the bad guy nuclear button guy turns around–it’s not who they thought it was, it’s a good guy! Oh no, what is happening now? The power goes out, The bad guy has suddenly-appearing henchpeople, your character trips and falls on their face. The action they chose is thwarted because suddenly now there’s a new conflict–they have been stopped on the way to their goal. What do they need to do now? Now that the situation is different, now what do they want ?
Which brings us back to number one, see? What does your character want? And you start again.
Meanwhile, you have written a segment with a goal, with understandable motivation, with revealing decision-making, with propulsive action, and with a twist or a shock or a surprise or an obstacle. Hooray. Your story is moving ahead.
Goal. Motivation. Decision-making. Action. Obstacle. Then, result and regroup and restart. What do they want now? Is that different from the past? Whether it is or whether it isn’t, either way works. Because your story and your character have evolved and it advanced.
From beginning to end, your novel is a series of these five steps.
Important to note: I called them segments, and scenes and not chapters. They may be each of those, but where you break your scenes or chapters during this series may differ. You may end a chapter when the character hits the obstacle. You may begin the next chapter when they take action. That all depends on the rhythm of your book.
And also: what your character wants in the big picture, your big thematic “want” for happiness or love or peace or success, is the goal of these incremental “wants.” Does the “big want” change as the incremental wants proceed? Of course it does. And that makes your story even better.
Try the Hank’s-five-segment method. Might it work for you? What do you think? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page!
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