Tuesday, January 07, 2014

And Then What Happened?

Years ago when I was a baby lobbyist (for a nonprofit regulatory association, not the kind that had money to spend), my boss and mentor gave me what might be the most valuable advice I've ever gotten.

"Before you say something," he said, "Think about the response you want."

It's not possible to have both sides of a conversation, and for the most part we shouldn't try. In fact, presuming you know the outcome before you begin is a recipe for disaster. But in anything that resembles a sales pitch — and quite a lot of our daily interactions come down to sales pitches — you have to start by imagining the response you want.

Over the weekend I got a couple of emails from complete strangers who asked me to nominate their books (which I had not heard of, much less read) for prizes at upcoming conventions. I replied politely to the first message, but discarded the other as spam.

What I would like to ask those authors, however, is, "What response did you hope for? What response did you expect? What response would you make to a similar request?" My guess is that the authors in question didn't think this through at all. Which tells me that whatever their other attributes might be, they're probably not great plotters.

Because "And then what happened?" is the question that should carry anyone, writer or reader or watcher, through any kind of story. The hero — the person who wants something, the person on the quest — wants something, and does something to get it or make it happen. And then what happens? Well, someone else wants something different, or does something to block the hero's journey. And then what happens? The hero has to regroup and try something different. And then what happens? Keep asking the question, and eventually you've got a novel (or a screenplay, or a law; choose your own adventure).

It's useful in almost every situation, although if you're not careful, all the different possibilities can paralyze you. As long as you're asking "And then what happened?" you keep moving, until with luck you get to the end: "And they all lived happily ever after."

(But even as a child, I wanted to know: And then what happened?)

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