Wednesday, June 1, 2011

When the story tells itself

I'm kind of a planner. I don't go so far as to outline (usually), but I like to know my story roadmap along the way. I imagine scenes, make notes of upcoming scenes, and plan out the order of events to know when and where to reveal key details that will be needed later. This usually sets me in good stead for developing the story arc of an entire piece, but every once in a while a story element sneaks up on me.

I've got two pivotal scenes remaining in my current WIP, and while "planning" out (read: daydreaming in my car on the way to work) who would be in the first of those two remaining scenes, an idea popped up. An idea to plant a character in that scene that had previously been referenced but had yet to make an appearance. And of course, my first thought was:


Why is this character here? What happens if this character is here?

And then it all unfurled like a great majestic cloak to finish out my story. Because as soon as I placed that character in the scene, I knew why they were there and, more importantly, what their presence would do to the rest of the story. It gave my villain motive, it set up future story ideas, and it closed out the story in a way that I never saw coming. As a planner, I was floored.

My story just told me what to do.

I've seen other writers reference the whole concept of letting your characters tell you where the story is going, but I'd honestly never put a lot of stock in it. To me, if I just let my characters roam across the page without any direction I'd end up with a few thousand words of witty banter, random descriptions, and not a whole lot of plot movement. My approach has always been to make things happen to my characters and see how they react. This is the first time I've ever really had a character tell me what they were going to do, and why. It was an amazing, bizarre experience that I hope to encounter again very soon.

How do you plot? Do you let the characters tell you what's going to happen, or do you make things happen and wait to see how they react? Do you grow your stories organically or are you a plotter? Have you experienced this moment yourself?


Laurel Garver said...

I love when that happens! It's your subconscious mind doing its mystical work, growing great ideas from the seeds your planning has planted.

I find that when I try to plan my stories too much, the characters tend to rebel. They stop talking to me or their dialogue becomes really stilted. Or worse, they come down with a bad case of melodrama and overreact to everything. That's when I know I've forced them to act out of character.

It's always fair to ask a secondary character "what are you doing here?" It's enlightening to hear the answer!

L. said...

I do plot. Extensively, even. But now and then a character will still drop a bomb on me and yeah, those moments are amazing.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

If I plot too much ahead of time, I end up with a stilted, one-dimensional, dull story. I did try to outline my current WIP, but I abandoned the outline around chapter 3.

When writing a first draft I often see visions of scenes I want to happen, without any idea how to get there. But if I let my characters show me the way, sometimes it all works out.

Funny you mention driving in the car. I went shopping (by myself) this weekend, and during the 40 minute drive each way, I suddenly realized a scene I'd been imagining for a long time needed to take place much earlier than I'd planned -- and if I moved this scene forward, a lot of my other plot problems were going to disappear.

Hurray for stories that want to write themselves!

Lydia K said...

I outline, but allow the individual scenes to work themselves out. A bit of the best of both worlds, I think.