Friday, September 07, 2012

Put Baby in the Corner: Write Yourself Into a Corner

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I'm about to suggest something that many folks will point to and say, "No! Bad advice, don't listen to her!"

Write yourself into a corner.

I do this a lot, because I like to get my characters into as much trouble as possible without always knowing how they'll get out of it. For me, this makes the story more unpredictable, because if I don't know how they're going to get out of it going in, how can the reader figure it out?

It keeps me in the moment and close to the protagonist's head. I get to decide what to do based on the information at hand (as opposed to knowing how it will unfold), and I'm not unconsciously (or consciously) nudging them toward the solution the entire time. 

I've found that when I know exactly how my protagonist is going to get out of trouble when I start a scene, I let my bad guys slack off and only do what's needed to fit the plot. 

The tension drops off because the bad guys aren't really trying.

(More on making bad guys try harder here)

When I don't know exactly how things will turn out, this wonderful back and forth occurs. My protagonist does X, so my bad guys have to counter with Y. Then my protagonist has to do A, which gets thwarted by B. Both sides keep trying to stop or evade the other, and they're doing everything they can to achieve that goal. My bad guys really are trying to stop them, not just going through the motions. And the story is much more compelling because of it.

This technique does have its drawbacks, however. 

I've written scenes where it took me several days (or longer) to figure out how to get my protagonist out of the mess I'd created. Sometimes that comes from studying the scene, but other times I've had to go back and add a few details to help out my protagonist. If you're the kind of writer who gets frustrated by being stuck for days at a time, this might not be a good technique to try.

(More on getting past hard to write scenes here)

I've also run into scenes where there was no way I could figure out how to get the protagonist out of that jam and I've had to scrap the whole scene at start over. If you get frustrated trashing large chunks of your novel, this is not a technique for you.

But if you like a challenge of getting yourself into situations just as tough as your characters, and you can plot from both the good guy's and the bad guy's perspective (important so you can make things get tougher and tougher), and you don't mind if some scenes take a long time to work themselves out, you might be successful writing yourself into a corner.

If you're not sure which side you fall on: 

Try it and see how it works for you. If you start getting annoyed, stop and do it your way. While I'm all for trying new things, you should never feel forced to do something that makes you want to pull your hair out. There are a million ways to write and they all work just fine for lots of writers. Don't be afraid to try new things, but also don't be afraid to say, "nah, not for me."

Have you ever written yourself into a corner? Was it on purpose or accident? 


  1. Huh. I think I like this advice, and I think I already do something like it.

    I'll have to think on that to figure out what it is, exactly, that I do.


  2. I love when you say "The tension drops off because the bad guys aren't really trying." because you couldn't be more correct, it's a great way to get full use of your character and I've never thought about it from that angle! Maybe I'll try it one day!

  3. I've used both methods. It really depends on the story for me. I find it helps if you've done your research/world-building in advance of writing yourself into a corner, whereas it's not so critical for planned areas.

  4. This is the one of the best advices on your blog, Janice. You are correct - we should write ourselves into a corner. It makes things more realistic when our protags figure out ways to get themselves out of trouble. That's what I'm doing at the moment. Man, I love the challenge.

  5. It'll work for some, not so much for others, and then more will take pieces and make it their own. Which is exactly how it should be :)

  6. I've done this to myself by accident a couple of times, but it's not my favorite technique...mainly because I hate looking at a story and seeing that not only have I written nothing new, but neither can I think of anything new.

    From bad guys' POV...that I need to try.

  7. I see this technique in your books. Many times during the Healing Wars series I found myself asking, "Now how's she going to get out of this one?" Page turners. And the answer was always something unique and unexpected. Thanks for sharing your secrets. ;)

  8. I love this advice. Thank you. I do it all the time since I started writing fiction 7 months ago and keep reading that's not the way to do it. A short story I started and used this method has now become a novelette and I'm not done yet.

  9. I think the entire premise of my story has been writing someone into a corner! Not the most expedient way to write but it certainly tests me.

  10. I love using this technique, especially because I am an intuitive writer - my characters lead the way - and I'm always fascinated by how they reveal themselves, and the story theme, when I write them into a corner. Almost always they come up with solutions that amaze me.

  11. I prefer to work with a planned scene, but in most of my novels I write a scene involving throwing the heroine off a cliff or something similar, and I always figure out a new way to save her. I doubt anyone has ever noticed this, but it amuses me.

    I once wrote myself into a corner unintentionally. Part of the story involved Edgar Allen Poe literary scholarship, and one of my resources had the wrong date of publication for his "City in the Sea" so my entire plot ground to a halt when I realized this. There was no way another real poet from the same time period could have plagiarized it.

    After some serious howling, banging my head against the wall, and a top to bottom cleaning of my frig, I figured my way out of that disaster which improved the book.

    Never underestimate the power of house cleaning to solve plot problems.

  12. You know, I have written myself into a corner, and saw it as a bad thing. I love how you've turned that thought on it's head and made it a positive.

  13. I'd say if you reach a point where your protagonist is in a corner and you don't know how to get her out, that's a good thing--because readers will have the same reaction and keep turning pages to find out. I was just telling students in my novel writing class that there's conflict, and then there are complications--too often we create conflict and back away from it. This is a good technique to walk towards it.

  14. Janice,

    Not only have I written myself into a corner but how true is this in life? I think it is an apt description of life sometimes! Excellent article! I find all of your posts so helpful you are on my daily to do lists. In fact I would like to nominate you for The Lovely Blog Award. Check out my blog for the details and thanks so much for all you do for us newbies!

  15. I did this two or three times in my novel - though not particularly on purpose. And although I sometimes went to bed not having the faintest idea what my poor old MC was going to do next, I did manage to extricate him. Although the ending (it's the first part of a serial trilogy) is currently almost as much of a cliffhanger for me as for anyone else!

    My most memorable incidence of getting into a corner is an a story I made up but didn't actually intend to write. I abandoned it when it became clear that the only, and I have racked my brains for hours about this and I do mean only, possibility was the collapse of the civilisation I was writing about!

    I don't do this on purpose, mainly because I am a dyed-in-the-wool pantzer and very few of my scenes are on purpose, but I do find it makes for exciting drama.

  16. Rachel, the bag guy trick works well, even if all you do is think about it before you write the scene. Makes you think more about what can happen that what's supposed to happen.

    Cat, most welcome. I asked myself that same question many a time, lol. Glad to see those hard scenes were worth it.

    Bob, there is no right way to write, there's just the way that works for you. It sounds cheesy, but it's true. It's good to try new things (you never know what will click for you) but don't let anyone talk you into a process that feels wrong to you and stifles your creativity.

    Eva, and it's fun!

    Sarah, it's such a cool feeling when that answer just hits you.

    Marilynn, oo that's a rough corner to be in. Great solution though. I'm a shower girl when I get stuck, but house cleaning has the same idea. And you get more done! Grats on figuring your way out of it.

    Julie, for some it's a great technique, for others a nightmare. If you can make it work for you, that's one one tool for your writer's toolbox.

    Charlotte, exactly. Or complicate things just to toss in obstacles. Real problems with hard solutions make better stories that literary hurdles.

    Shelia, thank you so much! How sweet :)

    Carrie, it really does. I have to know--did you collapse civilization or did you find a way out?

  17. I do this regularly, but not usually on purpose. Your post makes me rethink that. I have worked my way out of the scene before and at other times had to scrap it. One of my favorite stories was re-written 5 times before I made sense of the corner I put the character in. Great post.

  18. I do this quite regularly. I'm very much a pantser and I often get to a point where I'm like "Crap, now what am I going to do?" But after a bit of percolating, it always works itself out, usually for the better.

  19. Suzanne, very nice, maybe this will work for you then :) Sounds like you're not afraid of the corner.

    Samantha, I imagine this happens to pantsers more often. Nice to see another corner lover :)

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  21. I do this all the time. I've lost count of how many times I've revised a chapter so that I can let my pov get herself out of a mess. Sometimes though she needs some help as there isn't any way for her to get out of a scrape with out doing a lame 'God from up high' save (I can never remember how to spell that.)

    So the whole chapter and usually the following chapters have to be revised hard until everything flows back into the story line and plot. Meep!

    Sparky pears suck.

    I had a plot coupon (or what I thought was one) but ended up miss using it and boy it blew up in my face. It was a left over from the first few drafts and just wasn't working. The pear was given to her by a merchant, she didn't want it so I made her take it. (Mistake #1) With the merchant telling her it would give her much energy. (And her snarky reply) (My not listening to my pov again.)

    And, two chapters later she has a traveling companion and gives it to him to eat. The pear wasn't the kind of energy you'd think it was. Let's just say those chapters stunk. Hard. Thank goodness for honest critics. The next corner, I've got to write out of is 5-6 chapters before the middle of the book where the main pov dies to stop the evil god/parasite from sacrificing her friends. So the following chapters are a mess of a wacky resurrection. I'm not touching them yet until the other mess is fixed.

    @-@ I know writing is hard, but it's crazy how hard it is sometimes. It's fun though, such a satisfaction when a chapter has been revised and this time you know it's working as it was fun to read. (Lol)

    (Deleted to edit typos, and spellchecker induced typos.)

  22. Oo sounds like a rough draft (no pun intended), and I hope you work you way through it. That satisfaction when it finally does work is so worth it :) Best feeling ever.

  23. Believe it or not I've been working on this for two years now. It was much worse. A quote from my mother (she was a teacher) "I didn't want to edit back then as every line would've been lined with red pen." Ouch. The Grammer was the biggest problem back then. I kink of miss that it's much easter to fix.

    Yes, it must be true if you're having fun reading it then it's got to have gotten better. Lol.

  24. Kink? Ment to say kind of.

  25. I love this blog, Janice. As a newbie writer, I got gutsy spontaneous & challenged myself. When one of my characters was questioned about a risky idea he had, he casually responded "how bad can it be?" That got me thinking "oh. Well let's see..." Of course I painted myself in a corner, but the end result was a whole lot better.

  26. Love this post. It makes a lot of sense to let your characters lead you places that you hadn't intended and figure a way to get them out of jams.

  27. I've done this. I did this a lot in "The King's Ransom," and again in "The Redoubt." I'd get King Bewilliam into predicaments with no clue as to how to get him out.

  28. "I'm not unconsciously (or consciously) nudging them toward the solution the entire time." Dear Janice. I totally agree with this sentence in your excellent post. Nudging characters around instead of giving them leave to progress at will can result in some very wooden writing. I used to be a devotee of the synopsis and working outline, even wrote an article on the former for Writers Digest Magazine and handed it out all over the place. These days, I neither outline nor synopsize for the same reason I follow the advice you so wisely present here. I have come to find more spontaneous storytelling to be an adventure and, therefore, a lot more fun than the pre-planned kind. I hope fun isn't too frivolous a motivation for an otherwise serious writer because I'm enjoying myself too much to quit. Note: I do have one piece of a pre-plan. I think I know the ending before I begin writing. But then, the story generally finds its own ending, a better one than my original. Go figure. Alice -

    1. I've also found knowing the ending first makes a huge difference in how easy it is to write the novel. The more I know there, the faster the first draft goes.

      Plenty of writers "pants" their novels (writing by the seat of their pants) so you're not alone. Nothing frivolous about being a pantser :) If that works for you, embrace it.

  29. Good advice. But you should proofread your article more carefully. I found at least three (3) typos, and I'm fairly certain others may find more.

    1. Thanks, that does happen, especially with the older articles. I try, but I'm a terrible proofreader. I appreciate you letting me know, and hopefully I've fixed them now.