Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Mining my life with the but equation – David Thorpe

I know the title of this blog appears to make no sense but bear with me...!

I've invented a thing called 'the but equation'. It helps me to write a book and even a scene (but I have to be careful how I spell the word 'but' because Americans might misunderstand).

It goes like this. It is usually of the form:

"X wants (or needs) to do Y but Z."

X is the name of your character.
Y Is what they want to do.
Z Is what is stopping them... in the scene or even the whole book.

So on the left-hand side of the 'but' is the thing that needs to be achieved and on the right hand side are the things that are in the way of that achievement.

Think of it like a seesaw. The 'but' is the pivot:

Your character and his need is sitting on the plank on the left hand side and pushing it down.

Whatever it is that is stopping them from getting what they need is on the right hand side and pushing up from underneath the plank:

The more you can pile on the problems on the left-hand side and the more you can push up the resistance on the right-hand side, the steeper the plank becomes and the harder the task will be and the more dramatic it will be.

 The guy with the ice cream is never going to get what he wants.

(I'm sorry, these pictures are rubbish and really not explaining what I mean. Bear with me even more while I explain...)

So I thought of this in relation to an episode in my own life. I was going to school with my bag and got picked on by some bullies who went to a different school, and they took my bag. I had to get it back but I was scared of them. They were rough kids (I thought they were anyway – since I went to a public school).

I wanted to turn this story into a scene in a book. So the formula became:

 The boy needs to get his bag back but the bullies have it and he is scared.

I thought, I need to make this stronger, more dramatic, so readers will care more. So inside the bag I put some precious medicine that the boy must get within the hour to his mother's bedside in order to save her life. That's two lots of extra weight on the left hand side – the medicine and the time limit – to make it more dramatic.

On the right hand side, not only is he afraid of the bullies, but I'll give them weapons. Knives. And there are more of them. Ten!

This pushes up the other side of the see-saw to almost vertical. How's the boy going to get out of that?


I'm sure you can think of a few more things that you could pile on either side.  The boy could be blind, or injured.  The bullies could be holding his brother hostage. The police think he stole the medicine, or the drugs are illegal. Etc. etc.

And then I had to figure out how the boy gets the medicine to his mother (of course, he does).

(In real life the bullies gave me my own bag back by the way, after five minutes and they'd got fed up with taunting me.)

Maybe this will come in useful when you've got a scene that needs a bit of livening up to make it more suspenseful.

Unless your past really is a lot more interesting than mine and furnishes you with unedited material!

[I am the writer of Marvel's Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels Hybrids, Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller. I also run a regular writing course, called 'Making Readers Care' that can be taken online. Contact me if interested.]


Pippa Goodhart said...

Useful to picture that problem on a pivot, with something needing to change before the direction of it all can be changed. Thank you, David.

Savita Kalhan said...

I like the see-saw approach to trying to solve plot problems! Visualizing things can make them clearer, in theory! Thanks, David.

Andrew Preston said...

That seems to be a very large amount of ice cream on his side of the see-saw.
Does he consider offering some to the other side? The offer of food does sometimes work wonders.

David Thorpe said...

Ah, Andrew, I fear the ice cream is a self-centred distraction from the task at hand, a self-defeating consolation, therefore an impediment to success. Yes, he should give it away but at this point in his character arc he's incapable of it, it's a lesson he has to learn before he can achieve the plot goal or face a tragic/cautionary ending!