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A Secret from Improv: The ‘Yes/No’ Trick In Fiction

April 24, 2014

Writers are always getting stuck in scenes. I know I do, a lot. Yes, you love your characters a lot. Yes, you want them to achieve their goals, and they often do (after you’ve put them through hell and back for it). The hero grabs their destined item, holds it aloft, and…now what? Have you been asking yourself that question a lot while writing fiction? ‘Well, now that they’ve done it, what else do they do now?’ you may ask. Well, very recently, I have discovered a great little trick that can help oil up the plot and help it moving along to the finish line.

Before I begin, I have two things I want to say.

First, this is by no means a be-all, end-all means to plotting! Do NOT think of this as a rule that has to be obeyed with every single scene or story you write. This is merely a tool! By all means, if you think every single scene in your book will benefit from this book, go wild with it. But don’t start discarding or regretting scenes because it doesn’t obey this trick. It’s not a rule! It’s something to help you.

Second, I didn’t think this up all by myself! To claim so would be a disservice to Ashe Elton Parker (www.asheeltonparker.com) who gladly sat by as I endlessly brainstormed at her (not with, at — very much a one-sided conversation). Also, a few thanks for random articles on the net which tried to teach me the same thing, but often stated their main case to use this tool as ‘a guy who made books said it, so follow it!’. I often find those useless.

So, into the good stuff. In order to understand this rule, let’s first take a slightly jarring and somewhat uncalled-for dive into the world of improv acting. In improv, there’s a problem that can plague novice actors. Let’s say you’re on a stage in front of a crowd, and you’re doing an improv skit with a novice. The scene goes something like this:

You: “Look, up there, in the sky! Is that a UFO I see before me?”

Friend: “Yeah.”

Well, thanks, wiseass. You’re trying to set a scene in front of yourself and the audience, and your friend gives you a return which lies dead on your feet, with an expiration date of last week. Now it looks like you’re the one doing all the legwork. To avoid this situation, improv actors have created a golden rule, called the ‘Yes, And’ rule. This rule states that, when your partner is setting up a scene, you don’t just confirm, you add to it as well. Such a rule means that the above example turns into this:

You: “Look, up there, in the sky! Is that a UFO I see before me?”

Friend: “Yes, and it’s coming to abduct us! We need to find shelter!”

As you can see, this is much easier to work with on-the-spot, and the two of you are doing equal parts in building this scene for yourself and the audience. There is a second, uglier side to the rule, called the ‘No, But’ rule, but improv actors don’t use it because negating your partners statements can lead to the two ‘arguing’ over what the scene is. Because we’re fiction writers, however, we’re going to go through their discarded offal and steal it for ourselves. Yoink.

So now we have the ‘Yes, And/No, But’ rule. So, what does this have to do with helping people write whatsoever? Well, when you’re writing a scene, there’s a good chance you’re creating a subconscious question in the reader’s mind. When two people are fighting, the question is ‘who will win?’. If the main character is in a race, it’s ‘will he beat everyone?’. The story doesn’t even need to feature the question anywhere in the prose; as long as you have a dilemma where things could go either way, the question is there in the back of the reader’s minds.

Also potentially unbeknownst to you, you actually answer this question as well, with a yes or a no.  Either the character wins the fight, or he loses. Wins the race, or he loses. The key here is that, if you just state ‘yes’ or ‘no’, you’re doing what our bad improv buddy did above — letting all that energy smack face-first on the floor. Want some examples? Sure, lemme grab some. Here’s a few plot-based questions, and their answers:

During a ferocious fight with the villain, will the main character be victorious? No.

After exploring the forsaken ruins of the Farrak Temple, will the hero manage to acquire the sword he was destined to get? Yes.

Kinda boring plot points, aren’t they? These kind of scenes are the ones that leave writers thinking “well, now what?” to themselves. Sure, you could make the fight or the exploration super exciting and packed with intelligent writing and scene-setting, but there’s still some track left, and your train has come to a stop. So, we need to get it going again. How? Well, let’s apply the Yes, And/No, But rule to these two scenarios:

During a ferocious fight with the villain, will the main character be victorious? No, but during the fight, the main character shatters the villain’s mask, partially revealing him as the mayor of the very town he is terrorising. Why is the mayor putting his own people through so much grief?

After exploring the forsaken ruins of the Farrak Temple, will the hero manage to acquire the sword he was destined to get? Yes, and the sword still contains the spirit of its last owner, a humble old swordsman called Geoff. Geoff reveals that he had faced the very same quest the hero is currently partaking on when he was alive a hundred years ago, and has something to share about the reoccurring evil…

See how both of these lines suddenly get a plot lead, just by adding ‘and’ and ‘but’ to the end? This is why it’s a good idea to try to use these little nuggets when you next think about where your characters are headed. Try finding when you’re answering the subconscious question in your readers minds, and add an ‘And/But’ to it. Try to work out all the answers that could branch from the new statement. Then pick the one that screams at you loudest.

And the best bit? This is only half of the trick. Some quick-minded readers might be thinking about what happens when you reverse the ‘and’ and the ‘but’. This creates the darker, more sinister brother: the ‘Yes, But/No, And’ trick. Let’s use this new trick on the example above:

During a ferocious fight with the villain, will the main character be victorious? No, and while the main character is knocked down, the villain makes a quick grab and manages to steal the main character’s necklace, the source of their magic. Now, the main character has to continue his quest without the magic powers he’s become so used to.

After exploring the forsaken ruins of the Farrak Temple, will the hero manage to acquire the sword he was destined to get? Yes, but the sword has been smashed into five clean pieces some time in the past. The hero is going to need to find an expert blacksmith to get his destined weapon back into fighting form.

Did you notice the difference between these examples, and the ones for the ‘Yes, And/No, But’ trick? The examples for the first trick all have a positive spin on them, while these ones have a negative spin. You can even see this from the rule names themselves: ‘Yes, And/No, But’ amplifies a yes, and subverts a no, while ‘Yes, But/No, And’ subverts a yes, and amplifies a no.

What does this mean? This means that you get to pick what kind of feeling you want to invoke with the answer. If you’re writing humour or children stories, you might want to stick mainly to ‘Yes, And/No, But’ to keep it fun and hopeful. If you’re doing horror, suspense, or a story with dark themes, ‘Yes, But/No, And’ will keep your characters constantly crushed under one foot of destiny. It is entirely possible, however, to use a combination of both to make a rollercoaster of ups and downs, peaks and troughs.

So, let’s see how we can use this tool. If you’re stuck on a scene wondering where it’s going to go:

  1. Identify the question you’re asking at this point.
  2. Ask yourself if the goal will be met or not, or observe what you have already plotted and see how you answered the question there.
  3. Do you want the completion of the goal (successful or not) to have a positive or negative spin?
  4. Tie the two answers to 2. and 3. together. Do you use ‘Yes, And/No, But’ or ‘Yes, But/No, And’?
  5. List as many solutions as you can think of and pick the best.

 

For example, let’s take a really boring plot point. Let’s say the plot point is a man goes into a store for a tin of baked beans.

  1. What is our question? The best one I can see here is ‘Will the man get his baked beans?’.
  2. Do we want the man to get his baked beans? Let’s go with Yes.
  3. Do we want a positive or negative spin? My stories are usually cheery, so I’d pick Positive.
  4. Tie the two answers together. We have a Yes with a Positive spin. The rule that supports positivity is Yes, And/No, But, so we use Yes, And for our plot point.
  5. List as many solutions as you like. Yes, And when he gets it home, he discovers it’s a winning can that will send him to the International Space Station for a holiday. Yes, And at the cash register, he locks eyes with the most beautiful cashier he has ever seen. Yes, And when he takes the last tin of beans from the shelf, he discovers a portal to a magical world behind it. Yes, And on his way home, he chooses to donate it to a poor person on the streets, who will save his life later on in the story.

 

We’ve turned the simple task of buying a tin of beans into a whole myriad of plots. We’ve got the space station one which sounds like it would be funny. A romance-oriented plot. One with a bit of urban fantasy in there. Maybe the last one can be quite dark and gritty, given the right tone. Pretty good going, for a man trying to buy a tin of beans!

Next time your story sticks when you resolve a goal, give this little trick a try. You don’t have to use it on every single scene or plot point, but it can definitely shake up an otherwise stale part of your story for some loose change hiding under the cushions.

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2 Comments
  1. So you are saying, the hero takes two steps forward, one step backward in the scene? Maybe two steps backward, one step forward?

    • That can definitely work! ‘Yes, And’ is two forward, and ‘Yes, But’ is one forward, one back. ‘No, And’ is two back, and ‘No, But’ is one back, one forwards. You could definitely, as you say, do two steps in one direction, and then one in the other. How many steps, and in which direction, depends on if you want the scene to be a positive or negative influence on the main character.

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