Give your scene outlines drive and depth with conjunctions

Here's one for people who like to outline their stories. Do you find that as you fill in the details of your scene outlines, it's hard to tell if they're pulling their weight and pushing the story along? Or do the scenes feel shallow? Here's a simple idea for how you can sketch out scenes in a way that emphasises both drive and depth.

Conjunctions - 'and', 'but' and 'so'If you relate a story to someone, conjunction are everywhere – ‘but’, ‘and’, ‘yet’ and so on. These small words are used to connect other words, sentences, phrases and clauses. They define relationships between the things you’re talking about. So why not use them to connect the events in your outline?

The ones we’ll concentrate on here are correlating conjunctions. These are ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘or’, ‘nor’, ‘for’, ‘yet’ and ‘so’.

We’re going to use just four of these to spice up outlines:

  • And
  • But
  • Yet
  • So

So what’s the idea?

When you’re putting your story should (generally) make sure that several things are happening within your scenes:

  1. You don’t want things to go the way your characters planned. There should always be a ‘but’ or a ‘yet’. This is where you can bring situational irony into play. The problems your characters encounter drive their journey and motivate them to take the path they do. Otherwise they’d achieve their goal on page 5 of your novel of five minutes into your movie script
  2. You need your characters to react to the motivations provided by their situation. Something happens. So what next?
  3. And? What makes a character or place interesting? What makes a situation dangerous? Why should the reader invest in the story? Use ‘and’ to add dimensions to the stuff you’re writing about

So let’s see those three simple concepts in action.

Up the conjunction

Let’s start with an outline for a simple opening scene for a story. On the highest level, we could write something like:

Richard comes home the the summer. As he arrives, he hears his family arguing about a local boy who drowned in the river. When they see him, they pretend everything is OK.

That’s fine, but how do we get that from an idea for a scene to the bones of something that will take on life and breathe? This is where the conjunctions come in. If we outline the scene as steps starting with ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘yet’ and ‘so’, we can concentrate on adding depth to the events and characters, providing motivation for their next move and defining how they react to it. Of course, we need to start with a simple statement:

Richard comes home for the summer
But no one’s home
So he shouts for them and looks round the lower floor
Yet there’s no sign of them
So he snoops round to reacquaint himself with his family
And discovers they’ve developed new habits while he was away
But as he’s going through his dad’s desk his family come home
And they’re barking at each other angrily
So instead of greeting them, he hides in the study and listens
And he hears them talking about a local boy drowning in the river
But before they reveal why they’re arguing, they see Richard’s suitcase in the hall and stop
So Richard leaves the study and goes to the hall to meet his family
And they greet him as if they were never arguing

Pretty conversational, isn’t it? Notice that there’s always a ‘but’ and it’s always followed by a ‘so’. This cycle carries the story along, but without the ‘and’s, you have little depth. The ‘and’s are where you can riff off your themes. Here, Richard is excluded from a conspiracy within his close family. Exploring the house and discovering that they have changed in small ways might amuse him at first, but their more sinister behaviour should worry him. There’s the opportunity here for irony as well as establishing themes of alienation and families growing up and growing apart.

Try reading just the ‘but’s/’yet’s, just the ‘so’s or just the ‘and’s. You can follow the story, but does it have the same drive and depth?

It’s also easy to start picturing where you might go next. There’s always another ‘so’, which you’ll follow with a ‘but’ and you’ll want to add some detail in with an ‘and’. By looking for tasty twists to give your characters the runaround, you can soon build an interesting story. Remember, a plot is not just a sequence of events – it’s a chain of interrelated circumstances that take your protagonist from one place to another.

Of course, there are many ways to outline but this is a way of thinking I find useful. Let me know what you think – and your own methods – in the comments.

About Matthew

Matt likes writing, fancy chairs and procrastination.