Oh-Oh! Trapped! Or Not!   15 comments

Have you ever let a story write you into a surprise corner? Do you backtrack or shift gears?

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According to several articles I read as research for this article, writing yourself into a corner is kind of the novelist equivalent of discovering the serial killer is behind you in the dead teenager movie.

The Horror!

I think every discovery writer has been there at least once. You’re going along innocently tapping away on the keys, writing some of your best stuff, when the story and set-up stall. It just closes in on itself and becomes trapped like a fly in a spider web and you have no idea how to get out of the cul de sac. There’s just no natural way to get the character to where he or she ought to be in the next scene or by the end of the book. He’s tied up with a rope around his neck and he’s already been dropped over the bridge railing.

Oh-oh! Now what!

If you’ve read Transformation Project, you might remember how A Threatening Fragility ended. I really had no idea how Shane was going to survive being hung when I finished the draft. I typed the last words, sat back, and thought “This series is over if he’s dead.” Of course, I could do something miraculous — a Deux ex machine of someone pulling a truck up under the overpass or…or…or…. I tried to write those scenes, but they read extremely inauthentic. I’d just killed my main character. Where was the exit to this Hall of Horrors?

I’m a discovery writer. My characters have a tendency to quit talking to me if I try to force them in directions they don’t want to go. Shane kept laughing at me. He was going over the bridge railing. Don’t panic. He had this. I started into the editing process certain that final scene was staying in the book (although I really wanted to delete it) and equally certain Shane would take a powder if I removed it. Of course, I’ve figured out how the next novel in the series begins (and sometimes ends) by the time I’m halfway through the first edit, so when Shane told me the “rest of the story” I wiped the flop sweat off my brow and continued editing. He really did “have it”.

He survived and I managed to avoid any tired tropes. I’d already foreshadowed his salvation quite by accident and so it wasn’t really that bad of a corner. No gods in the machine needed. Shane didn’t develop telekinesis and his survival made total sense given his physical abilities and by-the-skin-of-his-teeth persona.

I didn’t change my plot trap because it was cool and intense exactly as Shane told it to me. Something dire was occurring and Shane didn’t know he’d survive as he dropped over the railing. That meant readers wouldn’t be sure of his survival either.

The cul de sac acted as a prelude to an intense brainstorming session that found a dozen unbelievable rescues and a singular believable way for Shane to live through the predicament he found himself in. It couldn’t be improbable. It had to feel real. And fortunately for me, a friend who is a mountain climber gave me the solution about 30 years before Shane dropped over the railing. I’m not telling the details. Buy the book if you need to know.

Scared Witless

The box canyon of writing is terrifying, but it’s also potentially the best place to write an amazing story from. Yes, once you’ve hit it, you’re stuck and panic sets in. You want to concede here, walk your character back to where the plot turned inevitable, try to figure out a well-trod path through the brier patch.

And it does happen sometimes that you need to backtrack and find a way to avoid the implausible, but like so many other “rules” in writing, there are times when you can bend things in the direction you want to go. You are the creator of this story, after all, and imagination is limitless if we don’t accept the limits we put on ourselves.

The character of Shane has a tendency to take the plot in messy directions, places I would never intend to go. In my soon-to-be-released Winter’s Reckoning, he took me into another corner filled with darkness and death and required I find our way out to the light. He didn’t “have it” this time. Thank God for an ensemble cast of characters because when Shane was at his lowest, others stepped in to help. I wrote a few disposable scenes before Shane agreed to take the survival option offered. I’ve been working with this character long enough now that I know he has a good sense of what readers want.

Voracious readers are clever.

You see, readers see corners coming and anticipate the sharp turns writers take to avoid them.

Remember Agatha Christie’s near-career-ending crisis corner where she realized her fans were starting to guess the ending early in the book? She needed a window to a surprise ending and she discovered it.

Don’t miss the opportunity to surprise your readers by leading them into a dark intersection traversable only by a character’s sheer willfulness and maybe a bit of Irish good luck. Sometimes the bottom of the pit is a good place for some self-reflection, not just for the character, but for me as the writer. There are familiar ruts I’d like to chug along in, but maybe going off the beaten track will discover plots I didn’t even consider.

I built the worlds they inhabit, but my characters are not marionettes that I can manipulate. Often, almost always, they take on lives of their own. And it’s in the corners where they sometimes grab the plot and run with it, using their own crisis points to grow and change and face down their personal demons.

Is that a plot twist or a welcome relief from a path that needed to be altered. There’s nothing wrong with using tropes and cliches to comfortably move some parts of the plot along in familiar tracks, but humans are complicated. I’d be doing my characters a disservice if I didn’t explore that complexity. And sometimes, complexity comes with shattered glass and dark demons that present my characters with decisions they never intended to make or force them to endure immense tragedy or unspeakable horrors. If you don’t want bad things to happen to you, don’t volunteer to be a character in one of my novels.

At the end of the day, a corner may well hold a window into an unexplored land. Yes, it’s a pain, but if we want to be better writers — writers worth reading – it pays to be a little spontaneous and open to the unexpected. Corners are opportunities to challenge characters and pressure the plot.

There’s always a way out. Sometimes it’s as simple as hitting the back key a thousand times, but before you do that — before I do that — I spend some time looking through that corner window at the tantalizing sight just beyond. What is outside of the safe and comfortable is where the true story lies, where interesting new options exist that might utterly rock your character’s world and give readers the literary ride of their lives.

Although, occasionally, you might want to make liberal use of that back-space key.

15 responses to “Oh-Oh! Trapped! Or Not!

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  1. This is so interesting, Lela. I love reading about your writing process. My writing is nothing like this at all and I always have the ending before I have anything else. I am not a panster.

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  2. I usually have the ending in mind too when I start a story. However, sometimes I get lost in the middle, so I walk away and leave it. Sooner or later I’ll have an idea about how to carry on with it.

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    • Yeah, sometimes I run out of gas on my primary project, which is why I have secondary projects and WIPs to distract myself for a few days. Then I can go back to my primary project and usually things start flowing again.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I normally have a beginning and know what I want the ending to be, but everything in the middle is a blank until I get there.

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  4. My characters have a tendency to quit talking to me if I try to force them in directions they don’t want to go.

    That needs to be a billboard. Okay, let’s go off over here. No? Hello? Helllll-ooooo? Yeah. It’s their story and they will remind you of that with dry well syndrome, so I go with it.

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  5. I love the phrase “discovery writer”! And hitting the backspace key a thousand times. I think we’ve all been there.

    Like

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