By Alley Carter, author of the YA series The Gallagher Girls
Are you a plotter or a seat-of-your-pantser? If you hang out around enough writers you’ll eventually hear that question. And it’s a pretty good one.
Everyone has a different approach to plotting. Some people just sit down and start writing; some agonize for weeks or months until they know exactly what is going to happen and when.
I don’t think one approach is better than the other as long as something happens.
Personally, when I begin a book I always know the story, but I don’t always know the scenes.
For example, I knew Love You Kill You was going to be about a spy in training who meets a “normal” boy—that she’d fall for the boy, and that the pressure of living a double life would put a lot of strain on her grades and her relationships until, finally, she had to make a choice about whether she really wanted to follow in her parents’ footsteps or not.
That’s the whole story, but it took a lot of time and bad drafts to find the scenes in which all of those things would become evident.
Where would Cammie be? Who would be with her? What would be going on?
Getting the scenes right, for me, is the same thing as getting the book right—one can’t be done without the other.
Scenes give us (the reader) something to see. They give us dialogue we hear. They can show us who the characters are. They can make us laugh. The make a book a movie in our heads.
Well, it’s simple to say but hard to do. It’s about putting our characters someplace and giving them a challenge, a task.
Really great scenes have some sort of external goal or conflict (a bully is punching my face; my smoke detector won’t stop going off; the brakes are out on my car and I’m doing eighty down a steep hill!), but there’s also something deeper at play. (Who am I? What do I want? Am I good/pretty/smart/funny enough? Is my life as out of control as this car?)
I call this “giving an external driver to your internal conflict”, and when you can do that, you’re doing something right.
There should be a degree of conflict in every scene—even if the conflict is only that your heroine can’t get the spaghetti sauce out of her white blouse. This gives her a chance to rage against the stain (when, inside, she really just wants to rage against the guy who caused the stain.)
Your characters have to be somewhere, doing something.
You can cheat, of course, and a lot of authors do. They tell us “Sue was growing frustrated with Harry because he didn’t seem to care about her and pay attention to her needs.” Instead of having Harry be so distracted by the television that he knocks over the spaghetti sauce, staining Sue’s favorite blouse.
You could do that. A lot of authors do (some are even New York Times bestsellers). That’s called telling vs. showing.