Saturday, March 29, 2014

GASP! How to Keep Readers Riveted

I've studied and experimented with a number of plotting systems and strategies, including Save the Cat, The Plot Whisperer, outlining, and the 9-Squares approach. All have given me wonderful insights and helped me structure my stories more effectively. Currently, the one that works best for me is Alexandra Sokoloff's system as explained in her books Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love. I've tweaked the process a bit to suit my way of working, but that's basically the template I use to think through my story. 

GASP Cards
Once I have my story down on the template, I make what I call GASP cards. GASP stands for Goal, Action, Setback, Problem. You can make GASP cards at any point--before writing the first draft, while drafting, or during revision--but I find it helpful to do them earlier rather than later; there's less backtracking that way.

GASP cards are a great way to ... 
  • verify that every chapter (or scene) is advancing the story
  •  make sure the protagonist is active, not passive
  • sequence events in a logical way
  • raise questions that will keep your readers turning the pages
Here's how to do it:
  • Get one index card for every chapter (or every scene, if you prefer)
  • Write the letters G, A, S, P vertically down the lefthand margin of the first card. 
  • Think about what's going to happen in chapter 1, and write it by the appropriate letter.
    • G = GOAL. Remember, this is your protagonist's goal; not your goal. Your goal for a chapter might be to give your protagonist certain information that will eventually help her solve a mystery that she doesn't know about yet. That's no good. Your character can't just mill about waiting to receive the info you wish to impart; that's a recipe for a passive character and a scene that doesn't advance the story. Figure out what she wants right now--it might be to get something (art lessons, a new pair of jeans, a bit of juicy gossip, an A on a test, an invitation to hang out with the cool kids), accomplish something (move up a level in karate, coax a cat out from under the porch, get the cute guy to notice her), or to escape something (evade a bully, get out of detention, avoid being caught sneaking out.) Whatever it is, that's your character's chapter goal.
    • A = ACTION. What action does your character take (or attempt to take) toward her goal? Other things may be happening around her, and her plan may go to hell in a handbasket, but she has to have one.
    • S = SETBACK. As she attempts to take action toward her goal, something unexpected is going to occur. Either her plan won't work out the way she hoped ... or it will work, but something else will happen to mess things up.
    • P = PROBLEM. At the end of the chapter, if the story is advancing as it ought, things will have changed in some way. Your character has refined her goal, or changed her approach, or put it on hold to deal with something more pressing. The setback she experienced has left her with a new problem that propels her forward into the next scene or chapter.
Disclaimer: I didn't invent the idea of breaking scenes down this way. All I did was make up the acronym GASP, which helps me remember what elements need to be emphasized in every scene. I'm not sure where I got the idea... if anyone recognizes it, please tell me and I'll attribute it properly!