Friday, April 08, 2016

Unpredictable...That's What You Are: Keeping Plots Fresh

plot twists
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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 at 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 down the 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?

If you're looking to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My 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, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

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, and The Truman Award in 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, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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  1. I recently had a bad case of unpredictability. My story outline (which exists solely in my head, since I can never write those things down without ruining them) called for Character A to bring Character B to an important location. That's all I was going to write: lots of walking, a smattering of exposition, and nothing else. Of course, that would have been boring as hell, so I tweaked it slightly (Character B finds his way there on his own) and suddenly ended up altering the entire plot in a fairly major way.

    The story will ultimately be better for it, but it meant cutting nearly 5,000 words and taking a short break while I restructure things in my head. Let's hope that doesn't happen too often from here on out!

  2. It never ceases to amaze me how little groundwork needs "fixing" to support a major change later on. I once solved a major plot problem by changing the attribution in some dialogue. "OH! If THIS person says such-and-such, instead of THAT person, everything makes sense as far as character motivation" Slaps forehead :-)

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  4. I'm in the process of rewriting an entire volume of my book (10 chapters in total) and adding an additional 10 more because of something like this. Lol it sure is going to be long summer.

  5. This exact thing happened to me when I was writing my first book! Halfway through the first draft a new character walked in that I hadn't included in my outline. I ended up scrapping so much of the beginning to work him in, but he was so vital I don't know how I could have plotted the story without him!

    (BTW, Janice- I've been lurking here for awhile, this is such a helpful blog! I'm living in Korea right now and it's hard to get books, but I'm planning on picking up The Shifter as soon as I get back to the U.S.!)

  6. Thanks Michelle!

    Katrina, I know what you mean. My best friend Juliette has the most amazing ability to take exactly the same scene, change a few words and have it mean something totally different.

  7. You are so right! And I love seeing where the story goes with these "scenic routes". Sometimes we end up in Serendipity and other times we find ourself on a cliffside with nowhere else to go. :)

  8. Thanks for the affirmation! I love when the characters decide to run a little bit with the reigns - sometimes they shout out with a stronger personality than I'm willing to give. Love the unpredictable!

  9. I love your idea of playing with it to see where it may lead. No harm done in that!

    I'm re-reading through a draft right now, and since it's been a while since I've gone through it, I'm surprised by some of the turns!

  10. Amelia, it can be fun and frustrating. More fun on a first draft., more frustrating on revisions when deadline loom, hehe.

    Wendy, same here. Sometimes you gotta let the muse have her way.

    Julie, going through a draft after a break can be such fun. That's great that it's surprising you! Must be a winner :)

  11. Whenever my subconscious leads me somewhere else, it's usually a character dying. >:D

    Also, do you think your friend Juliette can write a post on that? Seems amazing. :)

  12. Julianna, as in "they find a dying person" or "I'm going to kill them off?"

    We can ask her. She's living it up in France right now, but I bet she'll be looking for post ideas when she gets back.

  13. As in something happens and the character gets killed off. :P

    And woot, yeah, that would be awesome. Lucky she's in France, though. Amazing scenery. :D

  14. Very fun! (only writers can say that and not get into trouble)

  15. My lovely characters like to do whatever they want... then I get to go back and fix stuff...

    1. Hopefully they're giving you better stories as they do that :) Mine like to run off like that as well.

  16. Great post, as usual! I love it when the characters take the reins in the story. The readers will most likely get hooked, especially if the characters don't go for the 'scenic route.' Looking forward to more helpful posts!

  17. I never outline. Every story I tell is the one my characters take me through. The real question is how publishable such a story will be. I think they end up being more original, but too far outside the rather limited bounds that traditional publishers set for the books they'll accept.

    1. I don't know, as long as the story is well written and well paced, how you wrote it shouldn't matter at all. It's the final book that matters. If it's a great story readers want to read, it should be fine. Pantsers sell books all the time, same as outliners.

      And both are affected by the fickleness of publishing :)

  18. The whole book is like that, during the last revision at least three chapters got chopped, or whittled down to tooth picks and murged with the next one. Arrg.