I’m writing on the same day that Don posted his wonderful piece on journeying cross-country with his family. (What Makes a Journey .) He described how much of the trip was enhanced by the people they met—something that can’t be predicted by AAA, Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, Fodor’s, or any other supplier of travel guides.
I’d venture to add that what makes a journey truly memorable is defined largely if not entirely by what happens that wasn’t or couldn’t be planned.
Example: On a recent cross-country drive, my wife and I stopped in Taos, NM, to visit with a college friend of mine. While there, we learned that Victoria Willcox, author of a trilogy of historical novels based on the life of Doc Holliday, was giving a talk the following night in Glen Springs, CO, just west of Denver. (Glen Springs is where the infamous gambler and gunman died.)
I was working on my own project involving Doc Holliday at the time (The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday), and so this seemed like the luckiest of happenstances. We made it to Glen Springs in time for the talk and I got to meet Victoria (who is simply lovely), describe my project, and get her blessing.
But that wasn’t even the real coup. The next day, as we were heading west toward Utah, our GPS took us on “the most direct route,” which turned out to be an unpaved lumber road. It was pretty lovely, but slow, and so once we hit pavement again I naturally wanted to make up for lost time.
Guess who sat about a mile down the road waiting for idiots just like us?
As the very polite state trooper was writing out our ticket, my wife asked where the nearest rest stop might be. He said it was only a few miles off in a little town called Dinosaur.
My wife’s eyes almost popped out of her head: “Are there dinosaurs there?”
Well, the trooper-turned-tour-guide directed us to Dinosaur National Monument, just east of the Utah-Colorado state line, where you can actually touch fossilized dinosaur bones. (This accounts for the singularly amazed expression on Mette’s face in the selfie at the top of this post—you can’t see her hand, but it’s touching an honest-to-God prehistoric relic.)
But that’s not actually why I gathered you all here today. I actually wanted to talk about how all of this relates to—oh, you’re way ahead of me.
One of my students in an online class I just concluded through Litreactor very generously gave her time to a fellow student struggling with how to plot her story, which was a tale of romantic fantasy involving a rakehell prince and a recently widowed dancer.
I had posted a discussion thread titled “The Unique Structure of the Love Story,” pointing out how love stories, lacking the kind of adversarial combat we normally associate with protagonists and antagonists, structure their conflict in a unique way—more in terms of connection and disconnection than battle. The author of the romantic fantasy felt this had led to a breakthrough, and she posted her new plot outline on the discussion thread and asked for comments.
This is when the other student, “Max from Berlin,” chimed in, and offered some of the sagest advice I can imagine.
“I firmly believe that formulas like this story structure, or The Hero With a Thousand Faces or (oh woe!) Save the Cat are great for analyzing where your story might be lacking, but are terrible to plan with, because they tend to lead to very predictable plots.”
If Max hadn’t been sitting over 5600 miles away, I would have hugged her. (I forgot to mention—Max from Berlin is a she. Not that I wouldn’t hug her if she were a he. But I digress.)
Steven James brings this up in his excellent Story Trumps Structure, and it’s been my bone to pick (or one of several bones) with the Campbell school of heroic journey since I first learned about it.
The problem with three-act structure or any kind of prefabricated plot structure is that it tends to invite forcing your characters into predesignated plot points—i.e., turning them into plot puppets—rather than allowing them to create the story themselves.
Now that requires creating characters with the richness, depth, and complexity that can permit them to generate a truly compelling story.
Even so, allowing your characters to lead the way can often feel like wandering off into the dark. It’s scary. There’s no telling where you’re going—like taking a trip without a map or a guidebook. And yet that’s exactly how a truly memorable journey happens—when you allow yourself to explore the unexpected. When you lean into the darkness.
Yes, this take more time. Yes, it can lead to false starts and wrong turns. Yes, it can force you to tears up pages, backtrack, even start over. But you you are far more likely to discover something surprising taking this risk than you will safely adhering to a pre-arranged plot map.
Will you possibly waste time? That depends on what you mean by “waste.” As Joshua Mohr has wisely remarked: “Learn to respect the pages the reader will never see.”
As for the importance of surprise in making a memorable story, let me once again invoke Steven James and recite what he calls the Reader’s Paradox:
Readers want to be able to predict where the story is going. And they always want to be wrong.
That can’t happen if you go exactly where your pre-arranged plot plan tells you to go.
“Learn to respect the pages the reader will never see.”–Joshua Mohr
This isn’t an argument for pantsing over plotting. It’s a recognition that to surprise the reader, you’re going to have to surprise yourself. Or, to extend our journey metaphor: To go somewhere interesting, you have to risk getting lost.
Once you’ve done that, yes, you can go back and shore up the wanderings, cut the meandering digressions and tighten things up. But if you start from a tidy plan of where to go and how to get there, good luck coming up with something original.
I’m not saying it’s impossible—screenwriting is by and large structure-driven, and not all screenplays are formulaic. But you need to leave yourself open for breaking the formula to allow your characters to surprise you, and lead you someplace new, someplace interesting, someplace off the map.
That’s not wasting time. That’s writing the pages the reader will never see, which are worthy of respect.
When in your writing has getting lost led to a breakthrough? When has it led to a feeling of being simply more lost? How did you resolve the problem—how did it work out in the end?
Have you ever written a story based purely on three-act structure or the hero’s journey and come up with something new and original? How did you make that happen?