Boredom is a common reason why a reader DNFs a book. Genre is irrelevant. If the reader isn’t engaged with the storyline, they will set aside your book for another that will draw them in.
A but means a complication, an obstacle the main character(s) must overcome. If the main character achieves their goals too easily, you’ll rob the reader of anticipation. The journey dies before it begins. Anticipation holds the reader in suspense, forcing them to flip pages late into the night.
Complications and obstacles draw readers in and give them a reason to root for the hero. One way to accomplish this is with but. Real life is filled with obstacles. Let’s look at a few examples.
“Buts” in the Natural World
A giraffe’s long neck helps them reach leaves at the top of trees, but that same neck causes them to have the highest blood pressure of any animal.
A rhino’s horn is their greatest asset in a fight, but that same horn makes them targets for poachers.
Boreal Owls are usually monogamous, but when prey numbers peak, males cheat with up to three females and female boreal owls often have at least one boyfriend on the side. So much for monogamy, right?
Gray whales can submerge for fifteen minutes at a time, but a mother’s calf can only hold their breath for five minutes. When under attack by Orca, the mother flips on her back to create a platform for her baby, but Momma can’t breathe upside down.
The Rhythm of “Buts”
In the following example, I’ve tried not to infuse emotion, characterization, and visceral elements to keep the focus on but. Obviously, we need more than but to write a gripping scene. Okie doke. Here we go…
Sarah’s car peters out of gas on a lonely back road with little, if any, traffic. She does have AAA but forgot her phone at home. So, she begins the long trek to the gas station. About a half-mile away from her car, an approaching vehicle’s headlights spiral through her legs. Hope soars like eagle wings but is quickly dashed by the recent news reports of missing women.
Should she accept the ride? If she does, she risks her life, but if she doesn’t, she’ll need to hike another four miles in the dark.
Sarah plays it safe, but lightning cracks open the sky thirty seconds after the good Samaritan leaves. Her father taught her a shortcut, but the trail slices through the dark forest. If she chooses that path, she’ll be alone—isolated—with predators stalking the shadows.
Sarah weighs the pros and cons, but she’s tired and hungry. The shortcut shaves off two miles. Every minute matters. Long delays might tempt Bella to pee on her new rug. Wouldn’t be the first time, but the fibers could only absorb so much puppy urine and cleanser before the color fades.
In the woods, tree canopies umbrella the rain, but they also block the last few trickles of moonlight. Regardless, she continues, but hiking through rough terrain in sandals isn’t easy. Soon, a growl stops her cold, but the rain muffles soundwaves. Animal voices pinball through the trees, but she can’t pinpoint their origin. She quickens her pace, but the toe of her sandal catches on an exposed root, and she falls. She crawls back to her feet, but pain spreads through her ankle.
Now, if we leave all the but words, the narrative will become monotonous fast. It’s fine to keep them while learning the rhythm of cause and effect. Just be sure to rewrite during edits without sacrificing the complications and obstacles. By doing so, it’ll force you to vary sentence structure as well, which also improves the manuscript.
How To Rewrite “But” Construction
Let’s use the same example.
On a lonely back road with little, if any, traffic, Sarah’s car peters out of gas. If she grabbed her phone off her kitchen table before she left, she could call AAA. The costly membership won’t benefit her now.
About a half-mile into the long trek to the gas station, an approaching vehicle’s headlights spiral through her legs. Hope soars like eagle wings, then crashes. The recent news reports of missing women squash the idea of climbing into a car with a stranger.
Should she accept the ride? If she does, she risks her life. If she doesn’t, she’ll need to hike another four miles in the dark.
Playing it safe, Sarah declines the offer. Not thirty seconds after the good Samaritan leaves, lightning cracks open the sky. Her father taught her a shortcut, but the trail slices through the dark forest. If she chooses that path, she’ll be alone—isolated—with predators stalking the shadows.
When she weighs the pros and cons, hunger and exhaustion win. Dad’s shortcut shaves off two miles. Every minute matters. Long delays might tempt Bella to pee on her new rug. Again. The fibers could only absorb so much puppy urine and cleanser before the color fades.
In the woods, tree canopies umbrella the rain, but they also block the last few trickles of moonlight. Regardless, she continues. Hiking through rough terrain in sandals isn’t easy. This shortcut better work.
Soon, a growl stops her cold. With the rain muffling soundwaves, could she trust her ears? Multiple animal voices pinball through the trees, but she can’t pinpoint their origin. She quickens her pace. Three hard-earned strides later, the toe of her sandal catches on an expose root, and she sails through the air, landing face-down in mud and muck.
When she crawls back to her feet, pain spreads through her ankle.
Uh-oh. Now what?
The first example has thirteen buts. The rewrite has three while still maintaining the cause-and-effect rhythm aka motivation-reaction units or MRUs. The power of but forces us to create complications and obstacles. So, the next time you struggle with a boring scene, add a few buts. You may be surprised by how much your scene improves.
Do you keep but in mind while writing?
Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer’s Digest “101 Best Websites for Writers”). Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3), Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue’s appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Find out more about our RWC team here and connect with Sue below or at www.suecoletta.com.