What should your character do next? Here’s the secret
by Kenneth Lawson
You’re staring at a blank page. You know you need to fill it with words, the words that will become the story you’re telling the reader.
Finally, you have inspiration. The words flow. Soon, you have an intriguing opening scene—but you want it to become more. Much more.
You read over your scene. It works. But what happens next?
There are two basic types of writers: “plotters,” those who outline and plan in advance, and “pantsers,” those who write by the seat of their pants. I happen to be a card-carrying pantser.
The plotters among us don’t have this problem as much, because they generally have at least an idea of where the story is going. Plotting can range from creating a detailed outline to writing just a few quick sentences that hit the high points of the story.
But if you’re a pantser, like me, what are you supposed to do?
Sometimes the next scene presents itself easily. But most of the time, not so much.
The concept is simple, really. Ask yourself, What is the next logical thing my characters would do if they were real?
Over the last few years, I’ve written a variety of short stories and two books, one of which consisted of just over 73,000 words. And I did it all without plotting a single story or scene in advance.
How did I do this? Truth be told, I never set out to define my particular method of writing. It just sort of grew organically, as did all my stories. But over the last few months, I’ve come to realize that there’s a method to my madness.
The concept is simple, really. When trying to figure out the next scene, ask yourself, What is the next logical thing my characters would do if they were real?
For example, in the opening scene of my first book, Killing Time In LA: A James St. James Mystery, my hero meets a woman on a street corner in the middle of the night. Just as he gets there, she pulls out a small pistol and points it at him. He doesn’t wait to find out what she has on her mind, he just shoots her. Dead.
By doing that, he may have saved his own life, but what should he do next? In this case, given that there is no compelling reason for him to flee the scene, he calls the cops.
And that’s how I wrote the scene: the cops come, they talk, they take the body away.
On the flip side, if there is a compelling reason for the hero to get the heck out of there, make sure it’s good enough to stand up for the rest of the story, because this is the groundwork the entire story is built on.
Like bricks in a wall, each scene builds on the ones before it. This is why it’s so important to create a good first scene, perhaps two to three pages that set the stage for the rest of the story.
When you’re stuck, think to yourself, What’s the next logical thing my characters would—or should—do? Then do it. This works most of the time, but if the story is going too smoothly, getting boring, or just not moving fast enough, have your characters do the exact opposite of what they should do. If they should stay, make them go. Or if they should go, make them stay.
The idea is to break it up and cause your characters to react to something they hadn’t thought of yet.
And once they do that, start the cycle all over again: what’s the next logical thing they should do?
That, in a nutshell, is my secret to writing. One scene at a time!
Kenneth Lawson started writing as a teenager. Today he lives in Central Virginia with his wife of 30+ years. He enjoys classic movies and television, along with a wide variety of music. When not in front of the screen or enjoying tunes, he can be found writing his eclectic mix of science fiction, mystery, and time travel.
Become a Fan of Kenneth’s at ChapterBuzz! You can also connect with Kenneth on his website and on Facebook, and be sure to follow the adventures of James St. James, a private investigator in 1940s L.A.
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