Every so often in conversation, I’ll blather something to a non-writer about how I wanted a work-in-progress to progress a certain way, but my characters informed me otherwise. “But you’re the author,” comes the puzzled reply. “Don’t you control where the story goes?”
Well, yes. Of course.
But no, not really.
I used to be a seat-of-my-pants writer, plotting out nothing, simply diving into the story and lighting up the keyboard with whatever wanted to flare from my fingertips. Then, in 2004, I found myself splat in the middle of NaNoWriMo with zero clue as to what would happen in the rest of the scene, much less the rest of the book. The story stalled out at 12,000 words, and I haven’t touched it again in a decade-and-a-half.
It’s too bad, really. It was gonna be a rockin’ awesome story.
After that somewhat vomitous experience, I rethought a few things. Like my whole approach to writing. It took a few years, but eventually I learned the art of pre-writing: character descriptions, chapter summaries, long synopses, the works. And it’s been great. Especially those long synopses (the one for my current WIP is almost 60 pages long) have pulled me up out of the quicksand when I floundered. A quick glance at my store of pre-written information, and I’m happily typing away again, the sucking mire of “writer’s block” paved over with a f*ckton of cement. Outlines are cramazing.
In every story there comes at least one moment (but it’s usually a handful or so) when the writing slows down to a desiccated crawl through the Sahara with nary an oasis in sight. Stuff all outlines and chapter summaries! Sometimes they just don’t help, and for me, it’s invariably because the characters don’t want them to.
“Say whaaaa?” you say.
Yeah. It’s a thing, ya’ll. Lotsa times, the writing screeches to a dead halt because one character plants her feet, drops a hand to the hilt of her knife, braces herself, and says, “NO.”
What’s the Because?!?
The because, my friends, is that I’ve been trying to make my character do or say something that’s out-of-character for her to do.
And honestly, for a word-smith, I have an awful hard time hammering this concept into a shape that makes any sort of sense to other people.
But I’ll give it a shot.
Let’s say I’ve got a character — we’ll call her Nera — who knows what she wants and isn’t shy about going out and getting it. Maybe she’s even a little bit ruthless in carving out her place in the world. She likes being in control. She harbors a subconscious core fear of making genuine, vulnerable connections with other people. Nera’s M.O. is to connect in a superficial way that lets her call the shots. At the first hint of genuine intimacy, she lashes out to ensure that the other person rejects her.
And let’s say I plop Nera smack in the middle of the frilliest, most over-Pinterested baby shower you can possibly imagine.
Now, Nera’s in-character response will be to do everything she can to get the hell out of there as soon as possible. She might just get up and stalk out the door, insulting the mom-to-be and all the hostesses. She might, when a hostess innocently asks her to cut the trifle, unsheath a massive dagger and use it to slice the dessert to smithereens and *then* stomp out. She might grab the dimpled baby cake topper, which is made of porcelain, and smash it on the floor before flinging herself over the side of the balcony and landing cat-like in the alley below before dashing off to change her phone number and delete her Facebook.
I can do all of this with Nera, and it feels natural. It feels like something she would do. Spouting invective at the pregnant lady? Yup, that’s Nera all right. Running away from a social situation that makes her palms break out in a clammy sweat? Most def her standard operating procedure. If I do these things with Nera, her story will practically write itself — because she’s the one determining its direction.
But that’s not what we’re talking about, is it?
We’re talking about stuff that slams a four-foot-thick steel wall in front of your story, causing it to screech to a dead stop at best, smash headlong into the wall at worst. We’re talking about stuff that leaves you with a headache and a nosebleed. Quick, get your schnoz away from your keyboard.
What might I do with Nera that would dam(n) up her story?
I might try to make her act out-of-character at the effed-up-frilly baby shower.
If Nera sips her strawberry sherbet punch
if she nibbles delicately at a mini-quiche and pops grapes into her mouth one at a time while chatting amiably about the weather and everybody’s health
if she participates in the game that has shower guests identify what mushy foods are smeared into otherwise clean diapers
if she giggles and coos over every pastel onesie and ergonomic bottle nipple
if she enjoys herself thoroughly
if she doesn’t spend the entire time biting back sarcasm and obscenities
if she stays ’til the end of the party and leaves quietly without having challenged anyone to a fistfight
if she attends the shower without a single ulterior motive
…then I have asked her to do things utterly out-of-character. She’ll have nothing more to do in her own story. I’ll have altered her character beyond recognition, preventing the continuation of the story I started. If I make Nera continue in this vein, I’ll be writing a completely different story. I’ll have to abandon her original story and write this different one. And this one, honestly, is pretty boring, because there’s no conflict or even a hint of tension in that second baby shower scenario.
If I keep trying to write the original story, picking up with the ending of the second baby shower scenario I’ll abandon it because Nera and I have nowhere to go from there. Blah blah writer emergency blah.
Plots or Pants?
So. Do I plot stories? Or do I pants them?
The answer is yes.
Like I said earlier, I plot everything out before I story. Characters, plot points, story arcs, beginnings, middles, climaxes, denouements, settings, descriptions. Before I set proverbial pen to proverbial paper, I know who’s doing what and why and where. I knot my safety net. And *then* I edge out onto the highwire.
About a quarter of the way out, when it’s too late to go back, my characters usually let me know that one of my knots is frayed. It’s not tight enough. I tied it in the wrong spot. If I keep going, story and I are going to fall. The net is gonna break, and though I will survive (or will I?), story will end up splattered on the hardpacked ground of the circus ring.
What I have to do is let the characters take my hands, keep me steady, hand me a balancing pole. I have to let them fix the knots in our safety net. So that when we fall — and, inevitably, we will — that’s when the characters decide to go off-outline — we fall together, we hit the net (aka outline, long synopsis, etc), and we bounce right back up onto the highwire and finish up the story.
This is my circus, these are my monkeys, and it’s my job to let them do their thing. Even when their thing is poo-flinging and I don’t want them to.
Have I used enough metaphors yet?