Plot Bunny Prep School

Resources for Writers

Storytelling is emotional alchemy: the art of using ordinary words to conjure feelings that can linger long after a story ends.

The most vital and versatile ingredient of an emotionally engaging story is dramatic tension (a.k.a. suspense). Dramatic tension keeps audiences—and authors—immersed in a narrative. And it’s easy to create juicy dramatic tension when you know where to find it.

Tension, dramatic or otherwise, always manifests in and around conflict: the threat of conflict, the presence of conflict, and the consequences of conflict. The challenge—especially if you like to write long stories like novels—is to make your story’s tensions and conflicts meaningful, not merely dramatic.

Meaningful dramatic tension:

  • Has fascinating, believable causes and effects.
  • Changes characters and settings over time in plausible, poignant ways.
  • Offers worthwhile answers for the exciting questions it raises.

When you prioritize meaningful dramatic tension in every scene, you can prevent infodumps, “muddy” middles, and pointless tangents from weakening your story’s emotional impact.

My “Task, Twist, Turn” Scene Template provides a framework for cultivating thrilling, meaningful dramatic tension throughout a story on a scene-by-scene basis. If you don’t like outlining, you can use the template to vet plot bunnies (wild ideas for new plotlines) before you chase them too far.

A note for improvisers (a.k.a. pantsers)

As an incorrigible improviser, I hate outlining… but I also hate writing myself into corners, running out of ideas halfway through NaNoWriMo, and abandoning drafts.

My best plot developments come from pure improvisation, but so do my most ruinous ones! So what am I to do? A little bit of planning could help, but too much planning takes the joy out of my creative process.

Improvisation itself is not the problem. When I turn my editor’s eye toward my wayward drafts, I notice that they fall apart for one of two reasons:

  • Too little drama means I lose interest in a draft. This happens when I describe settings, characters, and situations in detail before creating tension or conflict among them.
  • Too much meaningless drama means I lose focus and momentum. This happens when I add characters and plotlines without considering whether they’ll converge nicely.

However, when I focus on depicting tense Tasks, tension-boosting Twists, and consequential Turns, I easily find all the meaningful dramatic tension I need to forge ahead confidently. To prevent unnecessary tangents, I also try to make sure each Task, Twist, and Turn I introduce relates firmly and uniquely to my story’s central predicament.

Of course, it’s fine to discover a story’s true purpose as you write it! If you are a true improviser, that’s just how your creative process works! Don’t stop unless you want or need to. And you only “need” to if you’re trying to prevent a lengthy, violent revision process.

For me, the “Task, Twist, Turn” Scene Template offers a reliable and flexible path forward, no matter where I am in the creative process. With its gentle guidance, I spend less time fighting my instincts and more time writing.

Tasks, Twists, and Turns

During a TASK (special mission), a TWIST (fresh surprise) leads to a TURN (pivotal consequence).

My definitions of Tasks, Twists, and Turns are open-ended on purpose, to leave room for nuance and experimentation. Any Task, Twist, and Turn will do… if they come together to form a coherent, cathartic pattern of cause and effect.

The TASK (special mission) should breed tension

Let’s face it: Special missions are more interesting to write and read about than calm, safe, ordinary occasions. That’s because special missions are naturally tense, due to their rareness, mysteriousness, riskiness, oddness, importance, or whatever else renders them special. And at the center of every special mission is a motivated, agentic character.

So don’t dally! Set your characters, settings, and plot events in motion and under pressure right away to breed immediate tension. Add bits of relevant context (exposition and backstory) as the mission unfolds rather than dumping it all upfront.

The TWIST (fresh surprise) should boost tension

When a mission proceeds exactly as planned and expected, dramatic tension fades. Don’t let it! Shake things up with a surprising, tension-boosting thrill or threat—something your characters (or audience) won’t see coming.

Twists do not have to be earth-shattering. A Twist’s freshness (i.e., its novelty or uniqueness compared to other plot beats) is more important than its shock value. So let each clash between your protagonist and antagonist go sideways in a fresh way, for a fresh reason. Twist every battle, conversation, stealth operation, magic spell, or dream sequence in a distinct way.

The TURN (pivotal consequence) should renew or resolve tension

To be meaningful, tension must be consequential. So make sure your characters gain, lose, or learn something pivotal from the Twist. Provide evidence of growing, lasting change in your characters and settings. A good Turn either creates momentum for a new Task or provides closure for a previous Task.

When characters react and respond appropriately to Twists (where appropriateness depends mostly on the story’s genre and each character’s traits), Turns take care of themselves.

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That’s my simple scene recipe: During a TASK (special mission), a TWIST (fresh surprise) leads to a TURN (pivotal consequence). Repeat as needed to craft an engaging, meaningful story of any genre and length. Use it to craft a story in which every part is “the good part.”

Download the “Task, Twist, Turn” Scene Template Worksheet here (.PDF)!

This resource works well as a companion to the Plot Pattern (incorporate at least one Task, Twist, Turn per stage) or as an even simpler alternative. If you need help developing meaningful dramatic tension in your narratives, consider hiring a thorough, thoughtful editor like me!

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