Say that you’ve created a main character or two that you love and then start to follow their story. That story leads you to new characters you love every bit as much, and you delight in watching them start to interact with the main characters. Then the story takes an unexpected turn that you can’t resist, leading into new settings and new drama that absolutely excite you.
And then you realize you haven’t written anything about your main character for sixty pages, and your story is now focused on a character your readers didn’t meet until 100 pages in. So you try to pull it all together into a single storyline, and the only way to do that is through some serious deus ex machina manipulation. Then you realize that following your story has led you right off into the middle of the woods.
If you look around and find yourself lost, how do you find the breadcrumbs to lead you back out?
The first step is understanding how you got there. Every writer approaches their novel differently, and there’s no such thing as a wrong approach. But if you are the kind of writer who prefers to launch into a story with no idea how it will end, then getting lost in the woods is an occupational hazard. I know because I’ve had several clients come to me to help them find their way home.
The answer is simple but not easy. The first step in finding your way home is to go back to the beginning of the novel, before you got led astray. Look closely at the first character who engaged your imagination. What was it about them that made you love them? Then ask yourself the classic plot questions. What does this character need? What do they want? Why can’t they get it? How will getting it change them? You might even have to force yourself out of your comfort zone and answer these questions in an outline before you start rewriting.
Because the next step would be rewriting. Once you’ve got these questions and that character firmly in mind, start from scratch. Save your old draft somewhere – you may want to strip it for parts later. But with your character and his or her needs firmly in front of you, start writing fresh from the beginning. If, as you write, new characters or situations try to intrude, go back to the main plot questions and focus. How does this new character help or prevent your main character from getting what they want? If you don’t have an answer, then resist the temptation to follow the new character. It’s hard, but it’s necessary.
There’s another reason why you might find your plot leading you off into the wilderness – you love your characters too much. Creating these people and the world they live in can be almost addictive, and after investing so much of your own heart and soul into these people, you may be unwilling to say goodbye to them. If you bring their story to an end, you can’t spend time with them any more. It’s literary empty-nest syndrome.
Once again, the only answer is simple and painful – you have to let go. But you can console yourself that you can meet these characters again in a sequel – revisiting beloved characters is one of the draws of writing a series. And if you have situations or settings that you love, well, writers are notorious recyclers. Look how John Irving managed to pull the better elements of his first novel, the rambling, disjointed Setting Free the Bears, into The World According to Garp.
In both cases, you need to learn to turn your creativity loose in order to enjoy the rush of writing. But you can’t let that urge run amok. When jazz musicians go into brilliant, spontaneous riffs, they still have the basic tonal structure and rhythm of the underlying piece in mind. Their creative instincts are leading the way, but they’ve still got a light hand on the reins.
You need to learn to hit the same balance – enough freedom to let your story surprise you from time to time or to follow an intriguing thread somewhere interesting, but not so much freedom that your story is buried under an excess of riches.
Years ago, I worked with a client who had exactly the problem I opened with, right down to the shift to a new cast of characters and the ridiculous deus ex machina ending. We worked together on that novel, her first, for months, but in the end she had to abandon it. Her second novel published. So has her third. She was able to get control of her creativity so that she was the one running the show.
The idea for this article came from suggestions WU members made on the WU Facebook page. So what would you like to see featured here? What writing problems are bothering you? If you’d like to keep your concerns private, or to ask a specific question about your WIP, you can contact me at the email address on my website.
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