When setting out to write a story, we juggle a lot of things: characters traits, plot twists, overarching conflicts, scene conflicts, archetypes, red herrings, hooking the reader, narrative devices, maintaining a consistent pov, delivering the correct information etc…
These are all meant to instil the one question in our audience: What happens next? That’s our aim whenever we tell a story. That’s our goal. Turning pages.
To reach that end, I often lean on the moniker coulda, woulda, coulda.
In writing, there are things characters should do, things they could do and things they would do. This is an oversimplification. But once you internalize this simple moniker, you’ll find this works into, and plays nice with, a much more complex understanding of writing.
When you really get down to it, stories are just illustrations of a character’s action. Bold and underscore action.
Action doesn’t mean explosions and fire and jumping out of helicopters. It just means that they are doing something. It could be anything. Making a sandwich is action.
Actions are spur other actions, even if that action is as simple the act of learning new information. For example, someone makes a sandwich because they found a new recipe.
We humans have our brains wired to view life through the filter of cause and effect. When we string together events that may seem loosely related, we connect them as a sequence. In this way, we paint a picture and can trust our audience—like a detective stringing together clues—to stitch the story together on their own. Take these actions. A man gets fired from his office job. He plays a lot of video games. His ex-girlfriend watches a lot of cooking shows. He makes a sandwich.
I mentioned nothing about the timeline of those actions. But our minds automatically slam them together and punch them into an order. We get the sense that this guy, our main character, might be depressed and maybe makes a sandwich to remind himself of his once stable life with a girlfriend and a job.
Crazy as it seems, that’s storytelling in a nutshell. It’s putting actions in an order that paints a picture. Like paintings, this illustration can be realistic, impressionistic, abstract, vivid etc... Our job as writers is to pick the actions that paint the picture we want our audience to see.
When deciding what actions to show people, we go down the coulda-shoulda-woulda chain. Before we dissect that chain, we need to understand what a story is.
What is a story?
So, the first question then is, what do we paint? Really, what is a story? Big question, I know. But it gets demystified when you realize one simple fact.
Stories happen to, and are told by, real people. Always remember that.
Every day—at work, among your friends, through gossip at school—you hear fascinating stories told by people in an order that is textbook as far as plotting methods go.
Three-Act Structures, The Hero’s Journey, Fichtean Curves; all of them were made as ways of analyzing how stories are naturally told. Writing was made to capture speaking. We humans told stories long before any books were bound. So, if you’re ever curious how to structure your novel, be it fiction or not, just look around and examine how stories were delivered to you.
So to learn about plotting, just pay attention to the stories life hands you. If your eyes are open, you’ll see the universe has been slapping you in the face saying, “Here, write like this!”
All that said, here’s a few tips. First, there’s a set of unities—an idea from Aristotle on storytelling—that you should be aware of. Stories concern and surround one character. They should circle one event, generally in one place. And they should concern one point in time.
Without giving you the full filibuster, stories essentially surround one dramatic event; one big surprise; one big plot twist that stands above all the others. The beginning of a story is simply meant to lead up to this event. The end of the story is all about the fallout from that one event.
Essentially, there is a focus your story should have as you lay out the actions actions that comprise your plot. These actions should illustrate a cause and effect sequence that both leads to and leads from one big event.
This idea of unity is easy to picture by again thinking of a painting. Most paintings feature one thing. The artist clearly, up front, made the choice of what their subject would be. They said, “I’m going to paint a boat.” How they paint it, the way they work with layers, what style they illustrate it in is all a matter of craft. The same goes with a good story. We decide the characters, settings, style, feel, events, twists and actions etc… but we, like painters, still have to choose one main event to write about.
Once we’ve chosen a dramatic event, we have to choose the sequence of actions that best illustrate it’s beginning, middle and end. And for every action you lay in place, you have to look at the next action with three questions in mind: What could happen next? What should happen next? And what would happen next?
What could happen next?
Think again about cause and effect, each action is a product of the actions that came before it. But what about moving forward? How, when creating fiction, do we tackle the blank page where no action has come before?
Could gives us is our broadest realm of possibilities. And though we inevitably ask ourselves, “what could happen next?” at every juncture of our plot, it’s particularly hard to nail down in the beginning.
This is when we look to the dramatic event as a sort of North Star. To narrow down our possibilities by asking a more pointed, “What could get us to that North Star?”
Imagine the dramatic event of a character named Phil falling in a hole. What are all the things that could lead Phil to that hole?
He could be walking through the park; trying to find his way out of a forest; lead to and shoved into the hole by his arch nemesis. Any choice will do and we’ll soon whittle these choices down with the coming questions concerning should and would.
But what about after he’s in the hole? When our story is underway and the dramatic event has passed? What are all the ways Phil could get out of this hole?
He could pull some Jackie Chan moves and jump out. His friend could rescue him. Some stranger could fall in and both of them have to decide who’s to get hoisted out first.
The biggest thing to keep in mind when wandering the realm of could is that stories are imitations of life. People have a b.s. Detector and can tell if an event is forced. So all the actions should have a hint of realism to them. What could realistically happen next?
What should happen next?
Once you’ve established all the possibilities that tickle your fancy in the realm of could, it’s time to move onto the realm of should. Here, all the tools and tricks and devices that aid the craft of storytelling put their grubby hands on your precious plot.
When you ask, “What should happen next?” You’re asking yourself what literary techniques may narrow down your choices.
If you are writing in first person, you shouldn’t kill Phil because you’d have just killed the narrator. Whereas, if you were writing in third person, feel free to let Phil die in that hole! He wasn’t telling the story. Who cares?
This is also a time to think about worldbuilding for a second. What are the rules of everyday life that exist in the world the story takes place in? Is Phil in a fictional world where zombies come out after dark? If so, you know you should make Phil more desperate with every passing second. You should illustrate actions that involve complete life or death fear like clawing at the walls of the hole; jumping in vein; not yelling because zombies might hear.
Are there social constraints in this world? Maybe Phil exists in less of a fiction and in the world he lives in (in his life), his family is brutally judgemental and would never stop making fun of him if he called for help. This might mean phill should not call for help as his first move.
Asking what should happen next is really taking into account all the external factors of a story—the narrative devices, the rules of the world, the social factors, etc… Then using them to whittle down the massive amount of possibilities found from asking what could happen.
What would happen?
Similar to asking the shoulds of our story, asking yourself, “What would happen next?” is a way of whittling down the possibilities.
Here, in the land of would, we turn to the constraints already found within our story. It’s where we think most critically about cause and effect. We look to the actions that have already passed and examine their natural trajectories.
Let’s say when Phil fell, he twisted an ankle. That would dictate a lot of next actions. For one, he’d have to rest for a while and would likely rely on yelling for help.
In Aristotle’s Poetics—his short guide to the six elements involved in writing tragedies—he pleads that characters are not a sum of personality traits. Instead, he tells us that characters are just the actions we see them perform. I believe this to be true, wholeheartedly.
Applying that to this discussion: gifting characters with endless personality traits and quarks is nice. But what helps more is to flesh those traits out with actions. “Phil is old” then equals “Phil just celebrated his grandson’s eighth birthday”.
When asking what would happen next, think of your carefully crafted character traits and put an past action to them. If Phil’s a drug addict, maybe he’s burned all his social capital by both borrowing and stealing thousands of dollars from his family and friends. With those actions in his personal history, if he were to call someone from the hole asking for help, they wouldn’t come.
All these questions can happen in an instant and intertwine together instinctually. Being aware and examining the constraints that could, should and would give you, over time, will help you internalize a good sense of plotting.
Let’s look back to that beginning list of coulds that may lead Phil into the hole. Our options were Phil (1) walking through park, (2) finding his way out of a forest, or (3) getting pushed into the hole by an arch nemesis.
If Phil is old, it’s reasonable for him to be walking through a park. It could happen. It’s not likely he’d get pushed by some evil nemesis. If Phil is really old, he could have dementia and would be pretty good at getting lost. So, being lost in a forest is still be a possible scenario. So, he could be in a park or in a forest, but not in an evil lair.
If Phil is old, he should be more careful than a teenager would be. I mean should in the sense that older people are more careful, and stories should hold facts of life to be true, even in fiction. So, it stands to reason, he wouldn’t fall in a hole in the park. So, he should be lost in a forest. This means he could have dementia. If he has dementia, his idea of how long he’s been stuck in the hole would effect how he acts to get out of that hole.
At every moment, could, should and would can work together to help you discover your next plot point. Every step we put our characters through reveals to us a new direction they could go; a new direction they should go; and a new direction they would go, all at once.
In this way, we can naturally create a series of actions that feel real—that logically follow cause and effect—regardless of setting, genre or style.