Building Plot: The Power of Yes

When I had been writing fiction in earnest for about two or three years, I was doing some revision when I noticed a pattern: my characters said “no” a lot in dialogue. It ranged from quiet “no”s to big, dramatic, Luke-finding-out-who-his-father-is “NOOOOooooo”s. I mean, I was a middle schooler at the time, and my writing looked about like you’d expect from a middle schooler, with lots of exclamation points as a hamfisted attempt to fill the plot holes. And all those “no”s. And that was when I wondered: “What would happen if my characters started saying yes instead?”

What if the light turned green?
Photo by Hermes Rivera from StockSnap

Using “no” makes sense at first glance. Plots live on tension. No is a word of denial, so it should create tension. After all, plot exists when characters disagree, so they should say “no” to each other a lot, right? Let’s imagine a simple hero-and-villain fantasy plot and walk through all those “no”s:

Our heroine (for the sake of clearer pronouns, let’s do female heroine and masculine villain) has some great innate power that the villain needs to complete his plan. It doesn’t matter what that power is; we’ve all seen this basic plot. And of course at this point, the heroine knows the villain is evil and has every reason to hate him.

“Join me,” the villain says to the heroine.

“No,” she says.

“Then you must die!”

“No!”

Now, maybe they fight. Heroine wins. End of story.

As plots go, it doesn’t have much interest. There’s no coveted twists, and it’s perfectly predictable. It doesn’t really explore our heroine or villain as characters, either. As an author, you don’t have to figure out why the heroine says no—he’s the villain, he wants evil things, she doesn’t want to participate because she’s good.

But watch what happens if we replace every “no” with “yes” in this scene:

“Join me,” says the villain to the heroine.

“Yes,” the heroine says quietly. “I’ll do that.”

“Then you must d—wait, you said yes?” the villain asks, a little surprised.

“Yes, I did,” the heroine says, tears in her eyes. “It’s what I have to do.”

Now, as a writer, you have to figure out why the heroine said yes, even though she clearly wanted to say no. And that is a much more interesting question. Perhaps the heroine believes that by joining the villain, she can take him down from the inside. Perhaps she believes he can be reformed, and she’s the one to do it, even if she doesn’t want to. Perhaps the villain is holding her home town hostage, and she thinks that betraying what she believes in is the only way she’ll ever see her family again. Any of these explanations could produce a more interesting plot than our “no” scene before.

What direction does “yes” take your story in?
Photo by Matthias Zomer from StockSnap

Every “yes” or “no” is a decision point. No closes options off and shuts down the discussion. “No” says the character doesn’t want that, no need for further explanation. “No” is a stop sign, but generally we want plots to go, not stop. Of course, a well-placed no can be very powerful, as, for instance, in the case of the villain’s henchman finally saying “no” at the climax when the hero has no other chances, giving the hero that one last opportunity to win and turning the tide. But that example depends on the henchman having established a pattern of “yes” already, so the “no” is only important because of the change it represents.

“Yes,” however, opens options up. When characters say “yes” to each other, it forces the author to think of possibilities, and it invites characters to work together, even if they don’t want to. “Yes” is a word of beginnings. The buddy cop story starts with a detective agreeing to take on the rookie for a partner, even though they show no promise; but perhaps that’s because it’s the detective’s last chance to prove himself. The quest starts with the farmboy saying “Yes, I’ll go,” even though it means leaving everything behind. The romance starts with the lovers saying “yes” even though all reason says they should say “no.”

Replacing some “no”s with “yes” forces you, as the author, to explore complexity in your characters and plot. It allows you to measure motivations against each other: what is a reason powerful enough that this character will say “yes” to something that they really shouldn’t? It continues conversations and moves stories forward.

So, try it out. Take a scene in your work in progress, or a scene from an existing story with a lot of “no”s and rewrite the “no”s to “yes.” See where it takes you.

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