The “What Happens Next?” Exercise

Why: Have you ever had a story stuck in your head but weren’t able to get it down on paper? Or it just doesn’t translate onto the page the way you envision it? Or maybe you’re like me and you just need to get the @#&% thing on paper to get it out of your head so you can come back to it later.

All of these reasons are why the “What Happens Next?” exercise came into being. This exercise will help you sort out your story by allowing you to effectively write your entire piece at the structural without getting lost in the details.

Purpose: To put onto the page everything that happens in your story in sequential order. The exercise focuses on plot development step by step, highlighting parts of your story that do not work correctly, are repetitive or missing. It also forces you to think about your story analytically so that when you sit down to actually write the text of your creative work you will have a clear direction in which to write.

Challenge: Write down each thing that happens in your story in outline form in the order in which they occur using a new line and only one sentence for each event. Describe the event as minimally but as specifically as possible. Do this from beginning to end. Push yourself, don’t get lazy, and don’t forget to finish. It can be very tempting to abandon the exercise before completing it because it can be very taxing on the brain and surprisingly difficult. In only a few hours (or days, depending on the length of your work) you can lay out your entire story from beginning to end.

RULES:

  • Start from the beginning and finish with the end.
  • Do no skip anything. If you know a part is missing, indicate so, including a summary of what should or might be there and what it needs to lead to (such as, “our main character somehow survives and manages to make it back with proof that he has recovered the artifact”). It’s okay to be generic or vague here, but not okay to summarize huge chunks unless you absolutely don’t have anything for that point.
  • Do not include details other than those necessary to explain each element, event or incident.
  • Do not include character background or any other such depth that is not directly relevant to the plot.
  • Keep your notes, discoveries and comments elsewhere.
  • If you plan to rearrange things out of chronological order, you may choose to put them in chronological order first to make sure your story doesn’t have any holes and reorder them as desired later.

EXAMPLE:

  1. Bjorn wakes up tied to a chair.
  2. Bjorn breaks free and searches the house for something to eat.
  3. Bjorn is confronted by a stranger, who wants to know the color of his favorite socks.
  4. After a brief exchange, Bjorn leaves the house to find a basket of goodies abandoned by a tree.
  5. Bjorn cries at the memory of his mother and how she used to bake goodies for him, flashes back to an incident where he burned himself while she was baking cookies and how she lovingly cared for him.

ALTERNATIVE FORMS:

  • After completing the exercise, expand what you’ve written into an annotated step outline.
  • Watch a movie or read a short book with a partner, then wait a day or so and sit down with someone else, having them ask you, “What happened next?” or “And then what happened?” (etc.), not letting you skip anything. It will force you to remember events in the order in which they occurred in a sort of oral step outline. It’s much harder than it sounds because your brain tends to only remember the highlights of a story, not all the steps in between.
  • As above, have a partner ask you what happens next for your own story, whether or not they know anything your story.

The “Everything You Know About This” exercise.

In this version of the exercise you will be able to get a story out of your head before it is fully formed at a time when you aren’t able to actually write out the whole piece. This will preserve your creative work for later use when you have time to come back to it and do it justice.

  • Write down absolutely everything you know about your story in bullet form, including character elements, background and other details or thoughts which pertain to the plot.
  • They do not have to be in order. You can re-order them later.
  • I highly suggest writing by hand because it gives your brain more time to think and connect dots and make discoveries you might not otherwise make while typing.
  • When finished, type up your bullet list and put everything in order. You will be surprised at how much you know about your story.

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