What Do I Do Next? by Patty Blount

TRIGGER WARNING: In this post, I discuss the plot of a 2018 novel, which involves rape trauma.  

Have you ever heard the saying, "We're building the ship while trying to steer it?" 

It's often used in corporate settings, where teams are faced with multiple, often competing priorities, forcing them to juggle deadlines and projects. But it's also a great metaphor for story-telling. 

Stories have structure -- and that structure is called many, many things in the publishing world. "Three-Act Structure", "Four-Act Structure," "Hero's Journey," "Freytag's Pyramid," etc. But when you study each of these seemingly different structures, you'll find that, under the hood, they're all essentially the same. 

If you were to pop a story under a microscope and examine its basic elements, you'd find that every story, regardless of the structure used, is comprised of two basic components. 

  1. Information
    1. Characters think (or rethink) something they believed to be true
  2. React to that Information
    1. Characters make a decision
    2. And then act out that decision
That's essentially it. Your main characters, let's call them MCs, receive some new information, something they did not know before. This information should do 2 things: It should make them THINK about everything (or something) they believed to be true. And, it should compel them to MAKE A DECISION. 


In SOMEONE I USED TO KNOW, my 2018 YA release, MC Ashley is in school when she receives INFORMATION (Point #1) that her school is re-instating its varsity football program. This information upsets Ashley, who'd been raped by one of the football players two years earlier, as part of a scavenger hunt in which all the players were awarded points for "scoring." 

When Ashley's story opens, we learn it's been 2 years since she was attacked. She suffers from anxiety attacks. Her family is in tatters. She barely speaks to either of her brothers. Her parents are split in half because they love ALL their children and yet, feel as if they're taking sides. No real healing has taken place, despite getting justice. 

She considers this new information. (She THINKS about it, see point #1 above). She DECIDES (see point #2, above) that she can't allow her school to return to the old ways of thinking, when football was ALL that there was, that the players were gods, and that the old 'boys will be boys' attitude that pervaded her school was something everyone simply had to accept. To this end, she initiates a program at her school to tackle rape culture head on. 

In other words, her reaction is "Hell no. I will not let history repeat itself." 

At this point in the story, Ashley has steered the ship in a direction. Instead of reading about her attempts to reclaim 'normalcy' while battling anxiety attacks and her brother's role in her assault, she decides to take a leading role in what happens next. In other words, her REACTION puts her on a new path that drives the story forward in a new way. 

Some structures call this Turning Point the Inciting Incident but to be honest, every scene should have a point to it -- one that forces your MCs to decide what happens next. 

And here's the thing: it doesn't have to be RIGHT. Characters can make wrong decisions and realize that later (INFORMATION), then try to fix the damage (REACTION). The key is to remember that charACTers should ACT, rather than sit around waiting for things to happen. 

Another Example:

In The Smell of Smoke & Ash, my latest work in progress, MC Riley Carter does not believe in supernatural stuff, while his best bud, Davis, is Mr. Open Mind. For five years now, Riley's been having strange experiences -- dreams or really powerful memories of his dad and baby brother, who died in a house fire when Riley was 11. He's always explained them away as just grief, just a vivid imagination. Until one of these experiences leaves him physically injured. 

Ah ha! New INFORMATION for Riley to process! 

Now, Riley is forced to reconsider these experiences or memories or dreams as something "woo-woo." But to do that, he has to accept supernatural explanations. 

He DECIDES to give it try and visits a psychic, who informs him that he has psychic ability he must learn to use. 

Can you see how the rest of Riley's story will develop, based on this one event? Riley makes a decision based on INFORMATION. As each piece of new information is revealed, his decisions will steer the story. 






  1. I've tried a ton of different plotting techniques over the years, and you are absolutely right--story is always the same under the hood.


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