Header / Cover Image for 'Writing Tip: Focus on Follow-Ups'
Header / Cover Image for 'Writing Tip: Focus on Follow-Ups'

Writing Tip: Focus on Follow-Ups

Some time ago, I discovered another potential issue in my writing. I say “potential”, because most issues will only bother some people and will only be in issue in some situations. The fact I never noticed until now says enough.

Still, I always aim to learn, improve and try something new. This article will explain the simple issue and how you might solve it.

The lack of follow-up

My brain is quite hyperactive. This means I quickly get bored and think I have to write the “next big scene”. The next action piece, the next major reveal, the next twist, MAKE STUFF HAPPEN!

Over the years, I’ve already learned to calm down and pace this. I spread out revelations, I build towards major reveals, I don’t do many action chapters after one another. Major twists and turns are only executed at the generally agreed-upon moments, such as the midpoint of the story.

This issue is a bit more subtle than that, and therefore harder to spot and correct (at first).

When translating some of my oldest stories, I noticed that I often wrote that big action scene … and then almost completely forgot about it. I build towards it, I spend 1000 words on some magical fight between animals, somebody wins—and all of that doesn’t matter because the story mostly continues as if this event never happened.

It’s pretty clear my jumpy brain just wanted to “do the cool thing now”, even though it had no ramifications for the plot and I just dropped it afterwards. Or maybe one part had ramifications, such as “the bad guys won this battle!”, but the other ten things that happened were all just temporary ideas for that chapter.

And so I present to you the issue: (major) events lack meaningful consequences. There is no follow-up. You can take them out of the story and, perhaps with minor rewrites, nothing that comes after it changes.

Additionally, I’ve come to realize that this follow-up is probably more important than the event itself.

Think about it. When a movie starts a battle between superheroes, are you really interested in the blow-by-blow? Is it interesting to see someone punch another, then fly away, then shoot some bullets that miss, then punch some more?

No, we keep watching because, at any point, the action might be over and we hope the end result has interesting consequences. Our superhero might lose. They might accidentally kill someone they had to protect. They might fall into the villain’s trap and lose their powers.

It’s about the consequences. They’re at least 50%, if not much more, of the cycle that keeps stories going. A cycle that writing advice often calls “scene -> sequel”. First something must happen in your story, then you must make space for consequences to appear.

How do we fix this?

The obvious solution that probably comes to mind is to … write the follow-up. After writing a scene in which something cool happens, use the next scene to show the consequences and have characters reflect on what just happened.

Don’t throw your protagonist into terrible danger, then have them shrug it off so they can immediately enter more danger on the next page. The reader needs a breather. It’s not believable that someone experiences something (dramatic) and is not changed by it at all. Not even thinking about it!

Perhaps the easiest way to practice this, is to force yourself to do this chapter by chapter.

  • One chapter for “setup -> goal/obstacle -> event” => action-packed, big reveal, just something new happens
  • Next chapter for “resolution -> reflect -> setup” => the calmer fallout of that new thing, which is interesting.

This, however, is quite rigid and also rarely suits me. It’s also, in my opinion, the wrong way to go about it. It’s treating symptoms. You’ve chosen an event that was cool on its own, but didn’t consider what came after, so now you’re stuck forcing some reflection and talking about consequences on your characters!

The real solution is to actually choose your plot points based on how interesting the consequences are. When deciding where to go next, pick the option with the follow-up that is most natural and flows the best. The event itself can be somewhat cliché, mediocre, whatever—focus on the follow-up.

Once I started doing this, writing just became a lot easier and the stories a lot stronger. Because I picked the scene to write now that would almost hand me the scene for tomorrow for free. I picked the event that is slightly less “cool”, to ensure we have a much cooler climax later.

Making big events and twists interesting is somewhat easy. Making the rest of the book interesting is the hard part, so I guess I suggest focusing on that instead.

I recently found some other authors apply this to low-level prose and call it MRUs: Motivation-Reaction Units.

The idea is to write one paragraph showing new information (the motivation to react), then the next paragraph showing the consequences of this (the reaction itself). Repeat this cycle from start to finish and you have a story that flows well and is easy to follow.

The whole “event -> consequence” thing I describe here is basically the same idea, but applied at a high level to chapters and entire story structure.

Be rude to your big events

And yes, I’ve noticed you can be quite rude here. Your “big event” can literally be done away with in a few paragraphs and summary descriptions of what happened. As long as it’s clear, this is actually fine. I’ve read many great, beloved books that do this.

The king dies in ten short paragraphs. The fallout of that death constitutes the remaining twenty chapters.

The affair between two people happens in a single paragraph with metaphorical description. The fallout of this affair is the rest of the story.

Or, take my Saga of Life. I write 10 short stories for it every year, which means we’re now up to 30 of them. After that many stories, I grew weary of writing my big events or action sequences. I naturally gravitated towards more summarized description. Towards focusing less on the battle or realization, more on the aftermath. Only one or two sentences of specific action, while the rest of the scene was filled in more creatively to setup better consequences.

This made writing much more fun and the quality of the plots and prose much better. Because you don’t feel like you’re repeating the same ideas that sound cool all the time—you are actually doing what’s needed to keep the story interesting and moving forwards.

And if you’ve chosen your plot points based on interesting consequences, I’ve noticed your stories grow more varied and diverse naturally. There are only so many things that can happen. The entire chain of consequences from such an event has way more wiggle room.

A practical example

Let’s return to my example of the hero who is thrust into a dangerous fight, but just shrugs it off and goes to the next fight (with an overpowered monster or some similar large threat). Rinse and repeat.

Sure, a seasoned hero might do this, or someone who just doesn’t care anymore. You can get away with that as it’s “somewhat plausible”.

But our goal is not to write “that’s okay, somewhat plausible” stories, is it? It’s to write unique, interesting plots that engage from start to finish.

So you could write “sequels” in-between the action chapters. Calm chapters in which the hero walks to the next village (or whatever), as he reflects on what just happened and what he learned. Maybe some banter about it. Maybe some thoughts about how they should be “more careful” next time.

Is that more interesting? Barely. At least it gives the reader a breather and “recognizes” the events that just happened, but that’s it.

Instead, choose to write different events that naturally create your consequences. I’ll give the first approach that popped into my head.

  • The hero is the opposite of seasoned. They yearn to be the king’s personal guard, but they’re young and inexperienced.
  • As such, when their first real fight breaks out, it scares the hell out of them.
  • They survive with minor physical wounds, but major mental ones. Are they strong enough to do this? Do they want to do this?
  • The fight has consequences: they behave differently. They train harder. They subtly try to push for more peaceful approaches on missions.
  • And then maybe they get into the next fight, mere days before their final initiation as official King’s Guard. This one is even worse. They barely get out alive and their increased training didn’t help.
  • This fight has consequences: they see no other way out than to run away. They escape the castle with tears in their eyes, lie to their friends, as they leave behind the thing they’ve worked for the past 15 years.

The fights themselves can be relatively short. Sure, give us some specifics, some creative use of weapons/spells/tactics. Interesting environment, swings in the battle, perhaps a revelation mid-battle that puts everyone on edge.

But they don’t need to be pages and pages of who punches who, who slashes a sword how, and where they’re chasing each other now. Keep it short, only the interesting bit, and quickly lead to the most interesting bit: how it ends and what that means now.

To me, the quick idea I just outlined is way more powerful than even the most action-packed story with great action and twists and big events at every step of the way.

As I know now, just doing something cool and then dropping it is unsatisfying and makes even streamlined stories feel very messy and overwhelming.

This is a major way in which I’ve simplified my stories without actually simplifying my plots. By hesitating to introduce an event or piece of information if it cannot be developed (in an interesting way) afterwards. No matter how juicy that event might feel in the moment.


Hopefully this explains the general problem and how to go about fixing it. As with all writing advice, sometimes you want to break this “rule”. And as with everything in life, you’ll only really learn it by just doing it a lot.

In the next 5 stories you write, just try to actively force yourself into this structure. Make something happen, then deal with consequences, no exceptions. Pick your plots and characters that have the most potential for dramatic consequences. It might not work for that specific story, but at least you’re adding another tool to your arsenal and getting a feel for it.

And you might just notice that you’re also in the habit of introducing cool stuff without having a follow-up ;) Fixing that will go a long way to improving all your stories going forward.