I've talked about being unpredictable for the reader before, but sometimes the story can be unpredictable for the writer too. Even though I outline heavily, my writing process lends itself to a certain amount of spontaneity, which makes it easy for my characters to surprise me. I follow my story outline, but I also give my characters enough freedom to do what they have to do when they have to do it. This often leads to events I never expected. Usually good things, though not always. (Then the delete key comes in real handy)
Sometimes when a character goes off track, we yank them back to the outline and force them to do what the plot says. But this might be a missed opportunity to discover a cool twist or intriguing development, since we don't know where that character might have taken us. We may have been creating reasons for them to step off the path without realizing it, and forcing them to stick with the original plan no longer works for the plot.
(More on crafting outlines that work for you here)
When characters start to go off the path, consider:
Are they following their goal in a logical way for the character?
If so, try letting them run and see where they take you. Your subconscious might be putting together plot threads for you that have been brewing for a while. Some of the best "Aha!" moments are the result of a character taking control.
Is that goal solid with high stakes?
If so, odds are the story is advancing and keeping the reader hooked, even if it's not what you planned. It might be worth seeing where it goes and how that affects he plot (and story).
Will this path lead back to the core conflict or inner character journey?
If so, odds are you're still within your story parameters. It might be a side trek, but you're not adding something that doesn't fit your plot at all.
If not, you might be straying too far from your core plot. Taking the path might still be a good idea, but proceed with caution or do a quick outline summary to see where this might go. Sometimes characters do lead us astray, especially if we're stating to get tired of a story or have been revising or working on it a long time. We start adding "new" because the rest of the story no longer feels fresh to us.
Are things snowballing out of control?
If so, you might be putting obstacles in the path because you feel you have to (that's just good plotting, right?). If those obstacles aren't advancing the story or developing the character in some way, odds are it's just a delaying tactic for the plot. Nothing is truly going on, there's just "stuff" in the way of the real goal. It might be better to reel the characters in.
Is this path going in the opposite direction of what you want?
If so, perhaps stop and take a second look and where this path takes you. Either you're going off track, or you've just uncovered a flaw or hole in the story and your subconscious has caught it. (This has happened to me several times.) You might need to look downstream in the plot to get a better idea of how this new path affects the overall story before determining if it's a good path to take.
(More on character goals here)
It's no fun when a character runs off on their own and they waste everyone's time, but even if it doesn't work for the book in the end, you probably learned something by doing it. I've come up with new unexpected storylines I never would have discovered had I not gone off track and tried something new.
The trick is to allow these things to happen without letting them take over the story. Give your characters the freedom to be themselves, but don't be afraid to chuck it all if it's not right when it's done. Just because you wrote the words doesn't mean you have to keep the words.
Sometimes our instincts lead us downtime right path, sometimes they send us on a wild goose chase. We might not know which is which until we've written enough to see how it fits into our larger story, and it's up to us to make that final (and often tough) call. Forge ahead or take the road less travelled.
What surprises have you learned by letting your characters veer off track? Has it ever helped you? Hurt you?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and the upcoming Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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