YES, BUT– NO, AND

[6/15, 11:15 am: This post has been edited–when I originally posted, late last night, I had accidentally switched ALL THE PREPOSITIONS, giving “Yes, and,” and “No, but.” Which can still generate some good ideas, but I think you’ll find these slightly more useful. Thanks again to Mary Kowal for catching my blunder!]

This spring I went to the Rainforest Writers Village writing retreat (hey, click that link–that’s me in the blue-and-white striped sweater!), and while I was there, I attended a presentation about outlining by Mary Kowal. Mary had a lot of wonderful advice, but the best she gave us were these four little words: Yes, but… / No, and…

How can you use these simple, one-syllable words to help you develop your story or novel outline? Well, every story can be boiled down into a series of scenes, where each scene is a concrete nugget of conflict spinning our characters toward or away from something they desire. As the scene builds, it will answer a question about whether or not the characters get that desire–but it’s only successful if the answer leads to further complications that develop the story. Sounds tricky? Well, let’s look at a story we already know.

At the opening of the movie Ghostbusters, our three amigo scientists work at a prestigious university and want to make a living studying the paranormal. When they go to learn more about a ghost in a local library, the ensuing disaster causes a kerfuffle in the office politics. Will our scientists keep their jobs?

NO! And…

Peter Venkman gets the great idea to start their own company that specializes in eradicating paranormal troubles. Will they be able to help their first client, the beautiful Dana?

No, and…

She becomes romantically involved with Peter, and her neighbor, Louis, becomes possessed by a demon. Do the Ghostbusters figure out how to help Louis?

Yes … but…

You see how this focus on compounding difficulties leads naturally to chain of linked events? That can really help you develop those pesky midsections of your pieces. The chains can be joined by offshoots–less important story developments that affect your characters’ desires or wind up fleshing out the larger story line. For example:

The EPA decides the Ghostbusters are a hazard to public safety because they have an unlicensed nuclear reactor in their basement. Can the scientists convince the EPA that their business is harmless?

No, and …

When the reactor is turned off, it releases all the Ghostbusters’ trapped spirits. The city is overwhelmed by paranormal activity.  Can the Ghostbusters find the hidden power center that’s causing this problem before their city is destroyed?

Yes. but…

It’s in Dana’s apartment, and she’s opened the door for Gozer the Gozarion, who’d like to bring on the end of the word. Can the Ghostbusters destroy Gozer?

No, and…

They can choose the shape of the world’s destroyer and melt it into a million pounds of marshmallow fluff!

Sorry. I had to finish the movie, even though I’m sure you already had the point.

Anyway, what all these “Yes, but” and “No, and” phrases are particularly great for is helping you become unstuck when you’re generating an outline. If you’re like me, a wonderful scene will just pop into your head while you’re doing dishes or going for a walk, and you become really excited about it. It’s only later, when you sit down to work through the scene that you realize this scene is so perfect and complete that you can’t figure out what could possibly come after it. It’s really helpful to look at one of these tricky scenes and see if there is a way to write it so that the character’s desire is thwarted, but a door is left open–or that the character gets what she wants, but isn’t fully satisfied.

The other wonderful thing about this process is that it forces you to constantly be framing your story in terms of your characters’ wants and needs. It’s all too easy to create a thrilling plot that batters the characters around to get the point across–you’ve seen it in bad movies half a million times. (Like that terribly cringe-worthy moment in so many horror movies: Why is she going into the basement unarmed? Noooooooooo!) Exciting plots mean nothing if they don’t mean anything to your characters.

It’s amazing that four simple words can help a writer keep their story grounded in humanity, but sometimes the simple things surprise us. Thanks so much to Mary for sharing this great tactic!

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