Anyone who's been writing for a while knows the pain of realizing that a plot point doesn't quite work. In this article, Scott Hale explores how these challenges can potentially be turned to the author's advantage.
There are countless posts out there about how to get out of the corner, how to avoid it altogether.
Makes sense, right? The corner is a spiderweb, catching well-intentioned characters and plot points like flies in their unseen strands.
Once you hit it, you’re stuck, and you panic, and you try to break free, making a concession here, retracing steps there; losing time, losing patience; losing heart as the tracks you’ve been laying have suddenly derailed what seemed to be such a well-oiled machine.
Sometimes, you have to get out of the corner, go back the way you’d come, because no matter how you price it, your readers aren’t going to buy the wild excuse you’ve come up with later that sleepless night.
But like any rule in writing, sometimes isn’t all the time.
A Story Stick-Up
When faced with a corner, our natural inclination is to turn around, go left where we’d gone right. But who's to say you can’t go over? Under? Who's to say you can’t go through?
Is it because there’s truly no way out? Or is it because the way out is messy, dirty; because it takes the plot to a place you hadn’t intended?
To an annex you never needed, for all your lofty intentions. To a garden you hadn’t realized you’d grown, to see flourish your cultivated cast? To a basement you never knew you had, for all that darkness that’d been creeping outside all that light?
If that is the case, is that really a bad thing?
Readers, especially those of the voracious variety, are clever. Sometimes, their blueprints of our stories are better than our own. They see corners coming and the sharp turns writers take to avoid them.
Of course, such and such were saved before the bomb went off. Of course, the money arrived before the big man with the brass knuckles got down to business. Of course, the star-crossed lovers went cross-eyed and belly-up.
Corners are missed opportunities. Dark intersections, traversable only by sheer will and a pinch of foolishness.
Let’s go back to the spiderweb imagery. What is every strand but a way out? A spider knows where to step to stop from getting stuck. Shouldn’t we?
And if we don’t, if we do get stuck, is that not a good time for a little self-reflection? To figure out an escape plan before the fangs of defeat sink in and send us wheeling down familiar paths?
Sure, we could go the way of the tried and true, but perhaps it’s better we didn’t. It’ll get us somewhere, that’s for sure, but it’s a tourist trap. Familiar, overpriced; unlike the genuine thing that’d come so long before it.
Again, authors are architects. Sure, the worlds we build exist along a spectrum on how willing we are to deviate from the blueprints, but at the end of the day, they are more or less within our control.
The characters, however? Not so much. We like to think we’re pulling the strings, but how many times have they surprised you? Said something you weren’t expecting? They take on a life of their own.
And the corners they sometimes get caught up in with the plot, like two foolish teenagers fooling around, parents just around the bend, those are opportunities for them to take charge, to grow dynamically; to really exist outside the constraints of our worlds.
You could say it’s a twist when the author doesn’t take that sharp turn to safety the readers are expecting, but instead, I’d say, “It’s about time.” And you know what? Your characters may thank you for it.
There’s nothing wrong with tropes or clichés. They are what they are for a reason, and when used effectively, they work. They’re familiar, comfortable.
But like any comfort food, they’re best consumed in small doses. Humans are complicated. In novels, they don’t always have to be, but you’d be doing them a disservice breaking them down to only a couple of tangible traits.
That’s where corners come in, and the changes that come with the pressure within them. They will present your characters with decisions they didn’t know they had to make. They will force them to endure things they may or may not be able to endure. They will show them a part of your world that you nor they were even aware of having existed.
Let’s take a broom to all this web imagery. At the end of the day, corners aren’t corners but windows and doorways. Not all of them are open, but your characters have been invited all the same.
Writing yourself into a corner, deliberately or not, sounds like a pain, doesn’t it? Being an author is hard enough already.
Think about all the people you’ve told you’re a writer. How many times did they shake their heads, all wide-eyed, and say something to the effect, “You wrote a whole book? While I never…!” This is a tough job, hobby, passion we’ve chosen.
At the end of the day, we want to do it right, which means sometimes, we have to do it wrong.
Challenge your characters. Pressure your plots.
There’s always a way out; and if your exit plan is truly terrible and detrimental to the story, then it’s time to clear the clouds from all that brainstorming and go back to those clearer skies. But if there’s a chance… if there’s a tantalizing sight just beyond that window at the corner’s crease, why not gander awhile? If you’ve seen it, then most likely your readers have as well.
Despite laborious hours of editing, a novel is a one-and-done kind of deal. Sure, some authors recycle their own plots, and some books are very similar to others, but all the same, in each one, is the opportunity to make it uniquely yours.
And you’re not going to do that if you stick to the straight and narrow the whole time. You got to wonder, and wander, and get caught in that corner. Because when you’re out of options, suddenly you realize how badly you need them.
And all those things you would’ve never considered, there they are. And sometimes, not always, but sometimes, that’s where the true story lies – a scribbled-in annotation at the bottom of the blueprints, visible only in the determined’s dreaming light.
Have you ever written yourself into a corner only to find it revealed interesting new options for your story? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Scott Hale is a social worker and writer living in Ohio. He is the author of The Bones of the Earth series and co-host of the horror movie podcast, Terrorcast. He has finished the sixth and final novel in The Bones of the Earth series, The Eight Apostates. It is due out early 2019.