On the Links

Many of you have started NaNoWriMo. I wish you the best. May your fingers never flag. May your dreams–if you sleep–deliver scenes and characters. Put them in! May your brain send ideas: the surprising, the wild, even the ordinary–no judgment, just so they generate words. Go, writers, go!

On January 21, 2020, Writing Cat Lover wrote, I was wondering, how do you link things? Like, I, as a pantser, always have trouble with the plot – and it seems that everything is separate. Any tips on linking everything together so my plot doesn’t die? Any advice would really help!

Several of you responded.

Christie V Powell: I think it has to do with linking cause and effect. For example, in my rough draft, I had a teenage daughter of the family run away right before the climax begins, when her father and brother confront angry townspeople. So, in editing, I had to figure out what might have caused the running away, and what consequences running away would have in the story. In this case, I decided that she ran away at this particular moment because her friends warned her that the angry townspeople were gathering against her family. Her father and brother go into town trying to find her, and that’s why they end up in the middle of this dangerous meeting.

I’ve enjoyed following KM Weiland’s blog, and she likes to talk about how story threads need to be linked thematically. The main characters have a Lie they believe about the world, and over the course of the story they learn to reject that Lie and learn a new Truth (for a positive arc story). Each action in the plot takes the characters along that path.

Melissa Mead: Exactly! “This happened, which caused X, and because of X…”

Raina: I’ve had the same problem, and here are some strategies I use:

  1. Cause and effect. This is probably the most basic one. A detective finds a clue, which leads them further down the trail and into the next plot point. Two friends have a fight, and one of them goes off on their own, advancing the plot. The cause and effect connections doesn’t have to be super direct or big (though you probably don’t want too many extremely-tenuous connections either). For example, my character ends up at a tavern where a major plot point happens because she’s on her way to somewhere and passing through. The tavern is not directly connected to the previous plot point (her escaping a magical tower), it’s just a small “normal” thing that happens as a result of her travels. The cause is that she needs somewhere to go on her way away from the tower, the effect is that she ends up stopping by the tavern because that’s where a traveler naturally would stop. In contrast, the plot point AFTER that is directly caused by her actions in said tavern. The cause is that she accidentally starts a bar fight. The effect is that she gets hauled off by the guards, which leads directly into the next plot point, which is her escaping from a dungeon. In both cases, the connection is there, but in one it’s more direct (consequences to her actions in the previous scene) but in another it’s more transitional (she finished doing this, and she was on the way to do something else, and this happened to her).
  2. Character motivation. This is a big picture thing, and it’s important for more than just connecting plot points, but it’s a useful tool to connect plot points. Everything your character does is connected to an overall goal, in addition to being connected with the cause-and-effect of their previous actions. If cause and effect is like two Lego blocks linking together, character motivation is like a tree. The branches aren’t all necessarily directly connected to each other (though they can be), but they’re all connected to the trunk (underlying character motivation). For example, a detective visits a hotel, a mall, and a warehouse. Maybe those three places and the events that transpire there aren’t directly related, but the reason the detective visits all of them is because they’re his leads to solving a mystery (his motivation).

As a note, characters can have (and frequently do have) multiple sources of motivation. Maybe the detective visits the hotel, mall, and warehouse to look for clues (motivation: solve the mystery), and then goes to a bar to meet with his crush (motivation: love). These things aren’t necessarily cause and effect, but they’re all “caused” by the detective’s personality, who he is and what he wants as a person.

Oh, and one more point: coincidence is also a tool you can use, although you shouldn’t use it too often. It’s perfectly okay to have your character randomly stumble into the inciting incident because they were walking on the street and saw/heard something that propels them into the plot (like the beginning of Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, where the MC is at a party, just another normal day for her, and sees someone gets murdered, which then leads to her finding out about a secret world of demon hunters). The problem with this is that it’s a passive form of plot progression (where an outside force acts on the MC, rather than have the plot be based around the MC’s actions and their consequences), so you don’t want to use it too often. That’s why you typically don’t see this used beyond the inciting incident. You can also later reveal information that justifies the coincidence or suggests that it wasn’t really a coincidence at all (in the case of CoB, MC was actually the daughter of an ex-demon-hunter-in-exile, and thus she has the ability to see magical things, which was why she saw the murder).

And since you can continuously edit stories (at least before they’re published), retconning (changing previous events to make them fit with new ones) is a powerful and very useful tool. A new plot point doesn’t fit with the old ones? You can change the old ones! You need your character to do something that doesn’t fit with their personality or motivations? You can change their personality! Granted, you should do so carefully because it’ll change the whole story, but if you don’t like it, you can change your entire story and as long as the change is consistent throughout the entire thing, no one will ever know. I think writers sometimes take that for granted, because I certainly did, until I figured out that other mediums (like role-playing games) aren’t like that.

I love reading everyone’s approaches, because we all get to the same place–story–by different routes. And I’m with Raina on the infinite possibilities of revision.

Here are some approaches that I use that may be helpful:

Even though I’m mostly a pantser, I do need to know the overall problem of my story. At the moment, I’m thinking about my next project, and I’m turning the fairytale “Aladdin” over and over in my mind. The problem is the problem, because I’m not sure what that is. Is it the love story with the sultan’s daughter? Defeating the evil magician? Wielding the genies’ magic? If I’m going to go forward, I’ll need to know.

Knowing helps with the links. When a scene wants to be written, we can think about how it relates to the problem. If it doesn’t relate, we can explore how it might be shaped so that it does. (This may require a list.)

Once I’ve figured out the problem, I move onto my characters. What kind of person will my Aladdin need to be to both overcome the problem and struggle with it? Who will the princess be? The genies? What sort of villain will the magician be? These can change, as Raina says, but to get started, I need a preliminary idea.

Same with the ending. From the start, I need to know where I’m heading. Even pantsers can know that much. The ending is a beacon that lights and guides the writing road. As we write, we can ask ourselves how the scene we’re about to write will move us toward the end, either by throwing up obstacles or by overcoming them.

All of these will automatically pull the story together and forge links.

Most of my novels are from a single first-person POV, though the Trojan War manuscript I’m revising now is told in the first half by one character and then, several years later, by another. Unity is natural when there’s one teller. The reader reads her thoughts and understands how events connect.

But even with multiple POVs, a POV character’s thoughts can pull plot points together.

Writing chronologically also creates links, which is similar to the causality that everyone above wrote about. This happened, then that happened–and the reader connects them.

I’ve written here about handling flashbacks and backstory, which are fine techniques–please use them at will!–but they do wrench the reader away from the current action and make the linking harder. Even foreshadowing does that. If our story is getting unruly, we can stay in one time zone.

Lately, from more than one sad experience of losing my way, I do write a very basic outline, a few paragraphs, maybe a page–even though I’m almost intolerably bored by the exercise. Once I start writing, I forget the outline, but it influences me anyway.

I also do a sort of rolling outline sometimes. In my notes, I write about what will come next based on the scene I’ve just written, what arises from it. This may yield bullet points that will carry me through a few more scenes, when I have to regroup again and plan ahead.

If we’ve already written, say, fifty pages, that don’t seem to link, we can look them over with a dispassionate eye. We can ask questions about what we have. Is there a problem that seems more pressing than any other? If yes, how can we make it filter into everything else? If not, is there a problem that particularly interests us? Can we punch it up? Which character (or two or three characters, probably no more) interests us most? Can we relate the problem to this character? How might the problem end? We can list possibilities.

We don’t have to wait until we reach the end to revise. We can reshape our fifty pages and then continue, keeping our eye on the problem and the ending we’re aiming for while remembering that we can change any of it.

Finally, trust yourself! Trust your mind! Don’t yell at it or poke it. Let it meander and find the connections.

Here are three prompts:

• Let’s take another fairy tale that continues to confound me: “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” The reader is supposed to rejoice at the success of the soldier in figuring out why the princesses wear out their shoes every night, but these young women come out of it without gaining their freedom, and the reader never finds out what’s really up with the underground dancing princes. In my opinion, the story solves the mystery of the shoes, but not the more interesting problems. Decide what the problem is, who the MC is, and what the ending might be, and write the first scene. If you like, keep going.

• Look at three unrelated articles in your newspaper. Stare at them. Imagine they are somehow linked. Consider what the links might be. If the three don’t yield links, you can add more articles. Find a story in them, with a problem, an MC, and an ending. Write the story as another news article with a banner headline.

• Personify an inanimate object, a plant, and an animal. Write a paragraph about each, including its personality, problems, backstory, and anything else you think is important. Look at what you have. Did you happen to include common elements that you can expand? If not, look for connections. Decide which of the three will be your MC, which your villain (if you need a villain). Write a first scene. If you like, keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I watched a video once where they (I think they were the writers of Southpark?) said you need to link scenes with BUT or THEREFORE in order to make a story. If they’re linked with AND THEN, it’s just a series of events.

    I think this is the cause/effect the others were talking about. Here’s an example:

    Once upon a time there was a princess who loved PB&J sandwiches.
    Her brother was deathly allergic to peanuts, so their father the king banned all peanut products from the kingdom.
    The princess went on a quest to discover if the legends about almond butter were true.


    Once upon a time there was a princess who loved PB&J sandwiches.
    Her father the king banned all peanut products from the kingdom.
    The princess used almond butter for her sandwiches instead.

    The latter feels more disjointed and not as interesting.

    • Thanks for this! I’m still in the very early stages of understanding how to apply plots to my stories (you know, the “It all makes sense until I try to do it” stage) and so this seems like a helpful shortcut. Also, I love your example. Someone should totally write that story.

  2. i'dratherbewriting says:

    One thing that’s always worked for me is using my characters. I’ve found that characters are the most crucial elements of my stories- they need to be complex and believable and 3-dimensional, because characters trump story. If I have dynamic characters, they can carry a bland plot, but no complex plot can support flat characters. That said, I find my characters to be the driving force of my plot. If I don’t know what to do or where the plot needs to go, I look at my MCs. I examine them and look at their motivations and fears and passions and usually one will spring forth that ignites a little cartoon lightbulb over my head, and bam! The plot advances.

  3. So, I just finished reading Writer to Writer and I really want to create a blog. Not one about my life, but one in the perspective of a fictional character. Is it ok to create a blog from a person in a magical world, or are blogs supposed to be real?

  4. The MC of the story I’m working on is 17. She’s not close to her mom, and can’t stand her mom’s boyfriend. In the course of the story, she meets her dad for the first time, and they hit it off. How plausible is it that she might go to live with him at the end of the story, even though they’ve only known each other for a couple of weeks?
    (She also finds out that every adult in the story is an Olympian god(dess).)

    • It seems quite plausible to me.
      It makes me think of Harry Potter 3. Harry was willing and excited to live with his godfather, even though he’d only learned that his godfather was not a serial killer who wanted to murder him a few hours previous.

    • I agree. It makes sense to me, especially since, to me at least, a major factor in making characters’ decisions plausible is how much time the reader has to think about it. A decision will make more sense if it’s made after two pages and a week than a couple paragraphs and a month.(Or whatever proportions you like.) The more of the story a decision takes up, the more it seems like the character’s thinking about it, and the more plausible their decision, whatever it is, seems.

  5. I have recently found your book, “Writer to Writer”, and have found many answers to my unspoken questions. I am a seventh grader, and have had a dream of becoming an author for years now. Any help you can give me would be much appreciated. Also, how do you start a blog and get it noticed? Thank you.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Yes, please ask questions! I’m delighted that WRITER TO WRITER has been helpful.

        I hope others can suggest how to get a blog noticed. Around the time I started this one, I was asked to write encouraging pep words for NaNoWriMo. When that was posted, people flocked to the blog. I didn’t have to do much.

  6. I ordered A CEILING MADE OF EGGSHELLS from Books of Wonder through Bookshop! I cannot put this book down. Thanks, Gail, for sharing your writing journey of this book on your blog. It’s a great mentor text for all of us. I love Paloma (we have a friend with that beautiful name)and I have visited Alcala de Henares when my daughter was studying there. Intriguing historical fiction I will share on my blog along with A VILLAGE OF SCOUNDRELS by Margi Preus. Thank you for all your contrubutors!

  7. I’ve been writing short stories and have started a new one. The thing is, I want to write a longer story, but no matter what I do to my previous stories, I can’t lengthen them.
    I really want to write a 81-120 paged book, but I can’t do that if I only can write stories that are 10-25 pages. I’m really frustrated with myself for not being able to change anything.
    Anyone know how to create a longer story/lengthen a old story?

    • Make more things happen. When you feel like you’re reaching a good ending point, stop and think. What can I do to make this get worse instead of better? For example, if your characters are trying to find their way out of a maze, let them escape, but stick a dragon in the forest outside that they will have to get past in order to get back to their families. It might feel a little jerky at first, like you’re just stringing along a bunch of different short stories, but that’s what editing is for.

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