A few months ago, I attended a workshop given by Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein (she’s amazing — if you have the opportunity to take her class, do it!). She shared with us a simple rule of plotting that she’d picked up from Matt Stone and Trey Parker (creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon): If you line up every scene or plot beat in your book, and the only words that connect them are “and then,” you have a problem; instead, each scene needs to be connected with either “therefore” or “but.”
Put simply, your book should go something like: “A therefore B therefore C but D therefore E but F.” Rather than “A and then B and then C and then D…” You can see Matt and Trey talk about it more here.
This sounds really simple, but it really works. Essentially what they’re saying is that there needs to be a causal connection between the scenes of your book. I think of it like setting up dominos — the inciting incident is when you push that first domino and that sets everything in the book in motion. If you don’t push that domino, the book doesn’t exist — nothing happens. But once that first domino falls, it causes a chain reaction. Every action in the book is tied to every action that came before.
So, imagine that a giant, a Spaniard and a Sicilian kidnap Hero’s true love (we’ll call her Tulip) and haul her up a cliff. Therefore, Hero chases after them to get her back. But the trio sees him coming and throws obstacles in his way which Hero overcomes. Therefore Tulip and Hero are reunited again. But, Tulip’s fiance, Prince, has found them and will kill the hero to get back his Tulip. Therefore Hero and Tulip escape into a swamp.
At every point above, there is action and forward movement — nothing is static. If you look at each scene and ask, “Why did this happen?” you point necessarily to the preceding scene(s). Why did Hero climb the cliff? Because the trio kidnapped his love. Why did they throw obstacles at him? Because he was coming after the girl they’d kidnapped. (note: it doesn’t always have to follow a therefore/but/therefore/but pattern — just happened that way above).
Notice what didn’t happen — …”and then Tulip decided to pull out her knitting to finish up that project she’d started back at the castle since winter is coming…” Which, okay, that’s a bad example of “and then” but hopefully you catch my drift. Each scene escalated what came before — nothing was static.
So what happens if you have multiple plotlines and/or characters? Cheryl Klein refers to that as the “meanwhile.” Essentially, even with multiple plotlines each should follow the therefore/but rule. (i.e. if you have plot 1 and plot 2 it could look like: 1A therefore 1B therefore 1C meanwhile 2A but 2C meanwhile 1D therefore 1E, etc.) The way I think of it is that if you pulled out each individual plotline into its own file, they’d follow the same “therefore/but” rule.
Thus you have: Prince regains Tulip and tries to marry her at the castle; therefore, Hero and his new Spaniard friend crash the wedding; but once they get inside, the Spaniard discovers the man who murdered his father; therefore the Spaniard fights the man; meanwhile, Hero finds Tulip; but, the Prince interrupts their happy reunion; therefore, Fiance and Prince fight.
Maybe you look at the Tulip and Hero examples and you think, “Yeah, but I could just as easily replace each ‘therefore’ and ‘but’ with “and then,'” and you’d be right. But that’s not the issue — the problem comes when you can’t replace an “and then” with a “therefore” or “but.”
Therefore, as you’re thinking through your plots (at any stage: planning, drafting, revising), be aware of the the “glue” that’s connecting each scene and plot beat to the next and make sure every one is a “therefore/but” and not “and then.”