Part nine of my analysis of “Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling” (that aren’t really Pixar’s) is not about everything, except what it is about.
(9) When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
This rule has a great gem of an idea in it: that having ideas, trying them, and then rejecting the ones that don’t work is the right way to find the best idea. But the terse format has led to a statement that taken at face value can potentially get you stuck.
Because infinity things wouldn’t happen next.
You could spend the rest of your life writing down a list of what wouldn’t happen next if it’s unbounded. The important issue worth delving into is how to constrain this exercise in order to make it useful.
For example, if your two awkward teenagers have just bumped into each other in the local record store and you start writing:
- Everyone sits down and eats some pie.
- Earth consumed by World Serpent.
- Close-up shot of someone solving differential equations.
It’s going to be a while before you say “oh, that wrong thing is actually the right thing for my story”. Unless you’re Luis Buñuel.
But even if you omit gross non-sequiturs from the list, it’s still potentially very long if it’s merely “what wouldn’t happen next” in terms of the plot and overall world mechanics.
Better to ask how the characters in the scene wouldn’t respond to the situation, to ground your ideas about what wouldn’t happen in the personalities of the characters involved:
"What’s the last thing this character would do when faced with this situation?”
It seems like a subtle difference, but it’s not. Your character’s personality, their needs and wants, goals and obstacles, and the point in their arc are all fundamental considerations when deciding how events will unfold in your story.
The reason for the advice is to get you thinking about what your character wouldn’t do because when you’re stuck the fallback position is to just muscle-through with the obvious responses. This is one thing that flattens arcs and makes stories too predictable, and the exploration of what wouldn’t happen gets you thinking in about non-obvious solutions.
Once you’ve drawn a box around who your character is, you need to think outside that box about who they are and what they may do in order to keep things interesting and stay out of ruts. By thinking about what wouldn’t happen, and grounding it in character personality, want, and need, you’re really exploring for things that actually could happen if you take a more nuanced, complex view on your character and the situation.
You don’t want to take actions that are totally out of character, but challenge the preconceptions you’ve given your characters and put them in situations where they’re forced to make uncomfortable decisions. Create novelty through character-motivated conflict, not false conflict by putting the novelty cart before the character horse.
Note that the decision-driving character isn’t always the protagonist, not in every scene. Sometimes the villains and other antagonists need to make decisions that force the protagonist to respond. Yes, the protagonists choices, broadly, should get her into and out of conflict — but the obstacles are provided by active antagonists.
So, for example, if the character needing to make the decision about what happens next is an assassin, and the current situation is that she’s found the person she’s looking for, the most obvious “what wouldn’t she do next” scenarios is simply “let the target live”.
But in order to make this exercise most fruitful, to help you find the pieces that will enable you to develop a better story, you want to be more specific.
In the assassin example, letting the target simply escape is an option, so is maiming them but not killing them. However, maybe attempting to befriend the target, falling in love with her, switching sides, or even deciding she is an unworthy adversary are more interesting.
And that’s what the point of this exercise should be: to explore specific, seemingly unlikely ways that each of the characters involved actually could respond to the current scene.
Each individual involved has an obvious, cliche response to whatever the current situation you’ve put them into. First find that (if you haven’t already), and then challenge yourself to think through all the other “impossible” options based on what you know about your characters, and the situation they’re in.
Some interesting combination of each character’s seemingly unlikely responses to the situation (while still meeting enough expectations as to be grounded and believable for that character) is probably going to be your best bet for your next scene.
This is not only a way to un-stick yourself when you’re stuck, but also a way to think about creating better scenes when you are producing but have fallen into a rut and are writing generic, obvious scenes.