In my post on honesty in storytelling, a reader commented on the feeling of the story taking over the writer. I think many writers, especially those who don’t outline, have experienced this, where the plot goes off in an unexpected direction, a major character turns out to have an interesting backstory, or a minor character suddenly shoves his or her way to centre stage (characters are damn troublesome sometimes), and so on.
I’ll give you an example from my work last year, that I mentioned in my reply to the comment on that post – a character (Hal) turned out to be gay. This was entirely unplanned and it happened like this: early on, Simon makes a comment along the lines that Hal has a crush on him. I thought, huh, is Hal gay, or is Simon just being his usual obnoxious self?
(Non-writers will find this weird, I’m sure, because they’re thinking, hang on, you wrote Simon’s dialogue, didn’t you know what he intended? But there it is – actually, I didn’t know, and it’s what makes writing so damn good when it’s working well.)
Pretty shortly afterwards, Simon out and out specifies that Hal prefers men (with rather more explicit language than that…), and I thought, oh, OK, so I wonder if Hal really does have a crush on him then, and it put a whole different spin on their relationship, promoted Hal into a major character, and incidentally made it much easier to justify why Augusta, who isn’t crazy, falls for thug Simon rather than sweetheart Hal.
Now, some writers love this kind of thing. I do, because for me, when unexpected things start happening, it means the story – which I make up as I go along since outlines bore me to tears – is working for me at some fundamental level. Other writers don’t, and these are often the professional writers who outline and whose deadlines are thrown off by sudden urgent messages from the subconscious.
The question is, should the unexpected development be allowed? The answer depends on the type of writer you are. Strict outlines and tight deadlines mean that you might be able to accept minor variations that work within your existing structure, but big creativity outpours might be better off put aside and saved for another book – you can always use characters and scenes in other books.
On the other hand, writers like me, who use a first draft instead of an outline, unexpected turns can be a boon. As I said above, Hal being gay added complexity and solved a problem. It would have been a different book without that little twist from my subconscious.
And now we need that third hand again. Because the danger of not outlining and following your instincis the risk of getting sidetracked, adding confusion rather than complexity, and muddying your themes.
So how do you know when you should leave in, and follow up, an unexpected line of dialogue, an unanticipated turn of action, an unforeseen development?
Well, here’s another example, from someone doing the NaNoWriMo back in 2003. Their paraphrased comment about their WIP was: there was a bit of unexpected incestuous overtone between my brother and sister leads, it didn’t go anywhere, but I’ll just leave it in because publishers love that sort of thing.
Can you maybe see when it’s best not to leave an unexpected development in?
Right. Leave it in if 1) it solves a problem or fleshes out a character, 2) you have the time and inclination to follow up on it, or 3) it has purpose and hangs logically (or can be made to hang logically) with the rest of the story. Take it out if 1) you don’t know why it’s in there, 2) you leave it dangling and do nothing with it, or 3) it contradicts or otherwise messes with the message of your book.
The other time you might not want to use an unexpected story direction is when it happens really late in the piece, and has such implications that it means you’ll have to re-write a lot of the story to get it to work. That may be achievable on a first draft, or where it’s more tweaking (eg altering the number of siblings a character has or similar) than re-writing, but you have to carefully consider your goals and deadlines where it means you’ll have to scrap substantial portions. Perhaps the new story idea will work for a new story or even a sequel.
One last note: even if you already recognise that a new character or plot development won’t fit into your current story, it’s often worth letting it run and seeing where it goes anyway, to see if it gives you other ideas for the current WIP or for a later one, to exercise your creative muscle and get a fresh perspective, to develop backstory or worldbuilding that won’t necessarily make it into the story itself, and so on. These non-essential words might feel like a waste of time and energy, but it gives your subconscious a chance to play.