Talk to 'Em: House of Cards

Rita Lorraine

It’s a house of cards.

No, I’m not talking about the popular Netflix series. I’m talking about writing your picture book or novel and the fact that when you plot a story, it’s like you’re building a house of cards. Every card leans precariously against the card next to it, above it or below it. Everything is fine as long as you don’t move or change anything. But the moment you make any type of adjustment, no matter how miniscule, the whole structure is in danger of collapsing.

CASE-IN-POINT: I helped a writer with her story line. One of her female characters was being chased through her house by an angry boyfriend. He knocked her down and then ran out of the back door. But in the very next sentence, he was standing over her glowering at her. This didn't make sense because she never wrote how he magically reappeared in the house and stood over her. PLUS, she forgot that in an earlier paragraph, she had established that the female's doors locked automatically once shut. In other words, it was physically impossible for him to be back in the house unless he knocked the door down or broke through a window. I told her she needed to re-think the scene.

She decided to rewrite the scene so that the boyfriend had his own key and used it to come back through the front door.

This might have SEEMED like the right solution but it wasn’t. Wouldn't the female have heard him fumbling the key inside the front door lock and prepared herself before he reentered? Shouldn't she have tried to call 911 or at least retrieved a weapon? And if she didn't do either because she couldn't move, that should have been mentioned.

The author hadn’t thought this far. She hadn’t considered how by moving one scene (or one card from the house of cards), she was in danger of making the entire structure collapse. Of course, she could have written that the female was dazed when she was knocked down...but what about neighbors? Wouldn't they have heard screaming or thumping or banging?

The fact is, the author was in too big a hurry to finish her story to consider that all the scenes in a story flow into other scenes; that all the scenes are like the individual cards that make up the house of cards. Changing one scene is like removing a card from the house of cards; it may affect the foundation of the plot and will probably impact future actions. When a writer changes a scene, he/she must consider how that change affects the ENTIRE story and not just what is happening at that exact moment.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: First, think of your manuscript as your baby. You are responsible for raising it properly. You would never expect to raise a productive, intelligent, self-sufficient human child in a week’s or a month’s time, so the odds are that you cannot write a story, edit it once, and then expect it to be successful in a short amount of time. Don’t get me wrong; it CAN happen, but the odds are that it won’t.

Second, when you write your story, think about how all the separate parts work together to make the whole. Think about how when you stack a house of cards, you do so carefully...remembering the part that each card plays to hold up the entire structure. Simply put, whenever you make a change, check out the entire story to see if you've weakened or destroyed any of the plot line. Don't just patch up individual scenes that don't work; re-think your entire story line and find ways to extract or insert this new card (or change) so that the story isn't affect.

If you can’t bear to keep re-reading your story as you make edits and changes, consider hiring an editor who deals with plotting and continuity for a living.

Hope this helps you in your quest to publish your writing.

Rita Lorraine


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