I’m deep in revisions right now, and one trick I use to test my plot and make sure my story is, well, going somewhere, is to ask three simple questions in every scene:
Question One: What is the protagonist trying to do?
This shows me the goal of every scene. If I can’t answer this, then I know the scene goal is either nonexistent or needs work. This allows me to make sure my protagonist is being active (not re-active), that she’s moving the plot forward, and that there’s action going on to hold reader interest. It also makes sure that the scene is an actual scene and not just the protagonist reflecting on something or spending too much time in her head.
Question Two: What is keeping her from doing that?
This shows me the conflict in the scene. If I can’t answer this, then I know nothing (or no one) is trying to keep my protagonist from acting and there’s nothing for her to struggle against. No struggle = boring scene. It can also indicate that my protagonist is just going through the motions and not affecting the plot. If there’s no risk of failure, then her actions don’t matter and they won’t make the reader care. Not caring also = boring scene.
Question Three: What happens if she fails?
This shows me my stakes. If I can’t answer this, then I know the outcome of this scene doesn’t matter to the story. If there’s no consequence for failure, that’s a red flag that the scene isn’t serving the story at all. The stakes are what holds the entire scene together because they make the goal worth pursuing and the conflict a problem worth worrying about.
Once I answer these questions, I write down my answers in a separate file. What’s especially helpful about this, is that I can see in a glance if the plot is holding up or if the novel is just a series of things happening. Each sentence should build on the previous goal and show story progression, and if it doesn’t–that’s a hole that needs filling.
For example, let’s look at the opening scene of my teen fantasy, The Shifter.
Question One: What is the protagonist trying to do? Steal eggs for breakfast.
Question Two: What is keeping her from doing that? A night guard and the owner of the chicken has caught her in the act.
Question Three: What happens if she fails? She goes hungry and ends up in prison.
My next step is to combine these pieces and summarize the scene.
Nya is stealing eggs for breakfast when a night guard and the chicken rancher he works for catch her in the act and threaten to send her to prison.
This is the essence of my opening scene. What’s handy about this, however, is that it naturally ends on the next goal: Nya tries to try to escape so she doesn’t go to prison. Which leads to the next goal, and the next conflict, and the story unfolds with my protagonist driving the plot forward.
If I can’t answer these questions or the plot list looks like a series of random events, then I know I need to strengthen my core plot and find a way to weave these events together into a coherent story.
While this is useful for revisions, it also very helpful during the planning or drafting stage. I can do a quick summary of my entire plot and see where my holes are, and have a good idea of what needs to happen to fill them before I start writing. The answers also work as guides for every scene so I’m not staring at a blank page wondering where to start.
And an extra bonus: this list make writing the synopsis way easier when you’re ready to start submitting the novel.