Apr 27, 2012

Mission: Possible

by Debra Erfert

It’s hard enough to sit down and write that first paragraph of a new story, but most of us don’t necessarily have a clear plan plotted out all the way to “the end.” At least I haven’t in the past. But I had the opportunity to listen to Larry Brooks, winner of the Top Ten blogs for Writers in 2011, StoryfixHe was the keynote speaker at the LDStorymaker’s conference in Salt Lake last year, and after I took his class at the ANWA conference in February, and I've started to change my ways. Okay, truthfully, I was very resistant to his rigid way of writing. Larry knows exactly what happens in his stories from beginning to end—every plot point and turn before ever typing them out.

Me? I discovered from Larry that I am, what he affectionately calls, a “pantser,” or, I tell a story by the seat of my pants, without knowing from one scene to the next what is going to happen. At first I resented that term, mostly because I have a hard time defending myself against anybody criticizing me. It’s not in my nature to confront anybody. (Read my last post  Unintentional Pain you’ll understand a little bit more why.) But after I had a chance to think about what he’d said, I figured out that I am not a true pantser. No, I am a cross between a plotter and a pantser. I mean, I can clearly “see” exactly how I want certain pivotal scenes to “look like” and all I need is the time to find the right words to describe those scenes, including the ending. I always know how I want the story to end, even before I know how it begins.   

I’ve been an artist since I was six or seven years old, and I’ve always been able to “see” the piece of work before I start it—I mean actually see it! It’s called visualization. Every pencil stoke, every swipe of colored pastel brings me closer to that finished product. I don’t do anything to that painting that isn’t advancing my project. Why would I? It would be a complete waste of precious time and energy. 

A painting is a single moment caught in time. I think that's why I like writing so much. It takes that moment and makes it move, creating a scene that leads to a whole story. Visualizing each scene as if it were real life (I write contemporary romance/suspense) is important, but what is more important is having that scene mean something. It needs to work. Larry calls this kind of writing a mission-driven scene. He explains, “The bottom line is this: every scene should have an expositional mission. Meaning, it delivers one piece of story that propels the narrative forward.” 

Expositional = explanation.  How well do we explain our story? Would you have your main character stop and smell a pretty rose if it had absolutely nothing to do with the story or her character other than you wanted to have a chance to describe a rose? I don't think so. It would be a waste of your time in writing it, and a waste of time for your reader to read it. But--if she needed to be there so a handsome hero could push her out of the way of a truck with darkened windows intentionally trying to run her down, then you've just driven home that fact that your character is in mortal danger--and advanced your narrative forward. 

Ah, but in the next scene your character clobbers the handsome hero with a solid upper cut to his jaw with a closed fist and tells him she doesn't need or want his help, you've just given us insight to her unappreciative, and even spoiled nature. This is also moving the narrative forward. As readers, we need to know more than just the action around the characters. We want to know what makes that characters tick, their motives, the desires, their idiosyncrasies. If they are stiff and uninteresting, then we won't care if that truck runs over them, and we most likely won't turn the next page, either. 

Make every word count. Make every scene work optimally.  


  1. I'm trying to become a reformed pantser by outlining my new WIP. It's been a challenge.

    Do you have Larry Brooks book, and if so do you recommend it? I didn't get to attend his class.

  2. I haven't purchased one of his books, but I've listened intently when he's talked. He basically gives away all his secrets. I don't know if I can outline completely, but I'll have huge parts of it outlined and I'll fly by the seat of my pants filling it in between those parts. Read his blog and maybe you won't have to buy anything.

  3. Nice post, Debra! Thanks!


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