Monday, January 23, 2012

Written into the Corner

One of the problems writers face is that terrible moment when they write their story into an impossible predicament. The story stops right on the edge of a cliff with nowhere to go. This happened to me over the weekend. I needed a conflict, a confrontation, and had no way to engineer it because I'd snowed my characters in. No way to escape, either. Hmmmm.

Disgusted and irritated, I backtracked to see where I was going to have to make changes, only to discover the solution was already there. A small, insignificant detail I'd tossed into the story several chapters earlier saved the day. In fact, it provided the vehicle for the confrontation and the possibility of escape.

I'm a pantster--a writer who sits down and writes without elaborate plotting ahead of time. I have a vague notion of the general outlines of the story, but no written notes. I keep a notepad next to the computer so I can jot down the odd detail for my story bible. You know--things like eye color, hair color, secondary character names, made-up words for animals/plants/stuff in my imaginary worlds.

In my Mystic Valley books, the men wear their long hair in many small braids tipped by special beads called chinkas. That was a detail set up in Dancer's Delight, book one. Where did the name come from? I have no idea. It was just there.

It wasn't until late in book two, Traveller's Refuge, that I found out why the beads were called chinkas. The scene flowed effortlessly as I wrote it:

The light breeze spread the scent of rain and quoltania bushes through the open window. Dancer enjoyed the light cinnamony scent and breathed in appreciatively before shifting to cuddle closer with Eppie. He spread his hand across her belly and rubbed their baby gently, careful not to wake Eppie. He froze when a tiny out-of-place sound wafted through the open window. A few seconds later, he caught the slight brush of fabric and silently he slipped from the bed, moving across the room to the window.
Peeking from behind the soft curtains, he saw a man stalking down the path to the back gate. Grabbing his sharda, he shinnied over the windowsill and soundlessly followed him as far as the river. Within a few feet, he knew he was trailing Merlyn but he was intensely curious about what could possibly bring his bond-father out in the rain in the middle of the night.
When Merlyn crossed the bridge and headed out into the open field past the training halls, Dancer waited until the buildings were between them and followed. He sank down in the deepest shadow in a dark corner and waited for a few moments, in case Merlyn returned. Just as he was satisfied that Merlyn wasn’t coming back his way, he heard a soft footstep on the bridge and barely made out the figure of Llyon coming his way.
Breathing shallowly, he squatted motionless in the dark while Llyon softly passed him in the rain. Slipping around the end of the building so that it was between him and the bridge, he crept to the corner until he could see the field clearly. The fine hairs along his spine tightened as he watched the small group of men in astonishment. There on the field he saw why the hair ornaments were called chinkas.
While all of the men stood in a semicircle watching intently, Llyon spun rapidly toward a practice dummy, his braids whipping out around him from the centrifugal force. When he came within reach of the dummy, the chinkas struck it with deadly force, making a very distinctive sound. Chinka, chinka, chinka. Dancer shuddered as he watched Llyon’s lethal dance shred the dummy.

That is an example of my subconscious working independently. If happens often when I'm writing. I could fill a book with examples of small details that take on a life of their own elsewhere in the story. The thing is, I can't plan this. I have tried. It would be so much more convenient, you know?

Instead, when I've painted myself into that clich├ęd corner, I know it's time to ponder the details, time to pinpoint that small bit that's going to fix my problem. How about you? Do you have a writing quirk that no one else seems to have?



  1. I've never been THAT trapped into a corner, but when I get in a fix, I start writing rants or fake journal entries from the character's point of view to better get to know him or her, and that generally helps me to work things out, because better knowing my character, helps me better figure out plans of action. I'm also known for, when I get in a fix, making tea, grabbing chocolate, lighting candles, and getting myself into a weird meditative, solely writing focused state until I can work it out. I've never heard the term pantster before, but I definitely think I'm one of those. ;-)

    <3 Gina Blechman

  2. Painted into a corner is not a pretty place to be, but it's where I'm at right now. Usually, I leave the story to marinate and then go back to it when my brain has had time to work on the story without me consciously fretting over it.

  3. @ Gina--Nice to hear from you again! Yes, I agree...chocolate would also help!

  4. @ Amarinda--Of course you do! That's a given.

  5. @J.L.--Oh, absolutely. But I'm always amazed at how many times I've already written in the solution. Odd...

  6. Don't you love it when it's just one little thing that makes all the difference? Nice!

  7. @ Julia--I'm a teeny, tiny detail person. Love finding such things when I'm reading, too.