Let’s look at a long hypothetical example (see Figure 2). We start with three horizontal boxes. I’m gong to purposely use the most common plot formula. Each box represents a different scene. In the first let’s put “woman loves man.” In box two we’ll mark, “woman loses man.” Box three is, of course, “woman gets man.” When I filled in box two, I lost the interest of eighty percent of my audience. Not because they don’t buy my story line–on the contrary they see some variation of it every day in novels, TV sit-coms and as the basis for much commercial advertising–but because it’s too predictable. Yet this is the plot of The Bridges of Madison County, isn’t it? And that was on the best seller list even longer than Love Story. Robert James Waller keeps us interested by serving up particular ingredients of this formula in a slightly different way than we’ve been used to getting them–the woman is only with her lover for two weeks, most of their lives are spent in separation and she gains him only figuratively through the understanding of her children who find her account of their affair after her death. I’m not Robert James Waller, but I want to make the formula in our boxes more interesting also.
Let’s start by adding more boxes (see Figure 3). We can’t have five scenes be “woman and man.” That would be monotonous. Therefore we need to add more characters. This is still the story of the woman and the man, but now sometimes we are going to tell it by using the reactions of supporting characters. I’m going to add some detail, and I want to keep it purposely obvious so you see the mechanisms at work. Let’s say the woman and man have both been hired as new attorneys in a Chicago law firm. There’s a mutual attraction. They’re both good looking, young, smart and are interested in law. Scene A with the man and the woman establishes this. But they are also different. Remember, it’s exaggerating opposites that adds drama. She is from a wealthy suburb and is ambitious. He is from a rural town in Wisconsin and more interested in enjoying himself than in making big money. Scenes B and C can establish these characteristics, and to do that we’ll introduce two secondary characters: her sister and his college friend. If Scene A is in the firm’s reference library, perhaps Scene B can be our male lawyer meeting his friend for a few drinks at a bar after work. The friend is saying, “What the hell are you doing, Bob, falling for someone like that. She’d be embarrassed to bring you to her parent’s house for dinner. Besides, you’re too young. You’re finally out of school, have some money and a great place of your own. Come on, man, let’s party.”
Scene C shows our female lawyer shopping with her younger sister. Sis is laying it on too, “Look at the statistics, for God’s sake, lawyers who have a husband and kids aren’t going anywhere professionally. You’ve worked too hard to throw your dream away on some farmer, just because he has a nice build and a winning smile. I’ve always looked up to you, listened to your advice. Now I’m telling you, listen to me or you’ll make a big mistake.”
This is fun, isn’t it? Following this progression, and limiting ourselves to these four characters, who would be in Scene D?
We started with the man and the woman (Scene A), next presented the man and his friend (Scene B), then proceeded to the woman and her sister (Scene C). The friend and the sister represent opposite extremes of the man and woman’s spectrum; to bring the conflict to its dramatic peak, Scene D should be between them. Finally we end up with the climax in Scene E: the hour of decision. In a way we’re right back where we began. And, after all they love each other so they’ll come to some way of reconciling their differences, right? Well that’s why we escape from real life to romance novels, instead of escaping from romance novels to real life.
Look at what we’ve gained. We can now address the man and woman’s relationship directly or indirectly through other characters. At times the couple is “on stage,” sometimes other people are in view instead, even though the focus is still on the couple. This is already more interesting to a reader. Now let’s expand these options even further. Go back to Scene C in our diagram. Its format seems very close to Scene B, and too convenient of a coincidence that the man and his friend are talking one day and the woman and her sister, the next. We know what we want Scene C to convey (just as you picked scenes to dramatize certain character traits in the last written exercise), but there’s no reason our choice is limited to the present. What if Scene C was a flashback ten years earlier, in which the two girls are talking about their hopes for the future within the wealthy environment in which they grew up. We’re breaking chronology and it’s more credible. As long as we are playing with sequences, why not switch Scene B in front of Scene A? The advantage of starting your reader in the middle, rather than at the beginning, is that you double the reader’s curiosity. Not only does the he or she wonder what will happen, but also the reader is curious about what has happened to lead up to these events.