Wrangling Runaway Stories

J. Leigh would like to officially apologize for not blogging in ages.  J. Leigh has been very busy.

J. Leigh will now stop referring to herself in the third person.

Funny how so often my ideas for blog posts are spawned by the various and sundry issues I face while trying to write.  So right now, I’m struggling with what I imagine is a common predicament for writers — stories that just won’t behave.

As I embarked on the sequel to Down a Lost Road, I decided to be a responsible writer and start with a plot outline.  Then I got carried away and actually started a chapter outline.  So there I was, doing a fairly reasonable job following my outlines, when all of a sudden my characters went and got themselves into trouble.  Seriously, I don’t know how they did it.  One minute, they were traipsing along the outlined path, and then, just like that, everything went wrong.

It totally wasn’t my fault, but I wrote them into a corner.  Literally.

So now what?

Let me make up a fictitious example of a runaway story, so I don’t go giving away exciting spoilers about Subverter.

Let’s say you have a character, Bob.  Bob is a rather ordinary soul who is summoned to undertake an extraordinary adventure to SAVE THE WORLD (might as well be cliche, right?).  So Bob goes on a QUEST.  On his way he meets two MIGHTY WARRIORS named Bill and Ted (heh. O.o).  They have a nice chat about SAVING THE WORLD, then Bob goes on his way.  Two cities later, he runs into the SUPREME EVIL BADDY‘s henchman, Vator and Soron.  In your plot outlining, this was the point where Bob secretly spies on Vator and Soron, discovering the true extent of their EVIL SCHEMES, then escaping unnoticed to warn the Impressive Duke of Aussom of the threat.

But unfortunately, as your fingers move over the keyboard, strange new words start flowing onto the screen.  Bob falls from his perch above Vator and Soron, landing right in the midst of their EVIL SCHEMING.  After a moment of shock, when Bob might have gotten away, Vator wields MIGHTY MAGICKS and delivers a devastating wound on poor Bob, while Soron LAUGHS MANIACALLY from the background.  Vator is weakened by his mighty spell, and Soron is laughing so hard his evil eyes are blinded by tears, so Bob seizes the opportunity to claw his way into a DINGY CELLAR.  There he locks himself in as he quavers on the edge of unconsciousness.

Okay.  Now what?

Way to go, Bob.  You successfully just sentenced yourself to apparent doom.  In the mighty land of Ablaganemensuraseia, there are no cell phones.  You are entirely alone.  No one in the city of Aussom knows you are here.  You’re slowing bleeding to death from 20,000 papercuts (10,000 won’t do it).  You haven’t the strength to get to a doctor.  And Vator and Soron are searching relentlessly for you on the streets above.

Bob is obviously in a bad place.  So what do you, irresponsible author that you are, do to salvage this situation?

I imagine you have several options, of various degrees of badness.  Let me say first that what you do in this moment will have astounding repercussions among your readers.  Provide the wrong outcome, and your readers will feel cheated, betrayed, disgusted.  They might cast the book aside.  Maybe they would host a public burning.  Considering the horror of your crime, that’s more than you deserve.  But if you provide the right outcome, your readers will be delighted, possibly traumatized (in a healthy way), or simply left gaping in astonishment at your prowess with a pen.  Or keyboard.  Whatever.

So what’s the right outcome?  Oh Lord, I don’t know.  I said I was facing this issue.  Not that I’d figured it out.  You people with your expectations.  <rolleyes>

Seriously, though…while I might not know which precisely would be the most powerful, most extraordinary, most unexpected resolution for any particular predicament…I can think of a few that would be disappointing.  So here are a few of my thoughts of what you could do — in general order of least desirable to what I think might be the best outcome.

1. Bob suddenly discovers he is the most awesome of all of the mighty clan of WIZARDS.  Though we have never even had an inkling that he might have special magical powers, all of a sudden he does.  Bob, bleeding on a dirty cellar floor, suddenly feels MAGIC in him, and immediately knows what to do with it.  He heals himself, blasts himself out of his cellar, runs down Soron and Vator and dispatches them with MIGHTY MAGICKS, all the while LAUGHING MANIACALLY.  Yeah, no.  Cheater.

2. Bob wavers, sinking closer and closer to DEATH.  He knows the end is near.  He can hear Soron and Vator in the house up above, and knows that if he doesn’t die first, they will soon blast open the cellar door and come to finish the job.  Suddenly, an ANGRY CAT leaps out in front of the henchmen.  Vator is scared to death of cats, and runs away screaming.  Soron LAUGHS MANIACALLY and reaches out for the cat…..but it has MAGICAL RABIES and bites him in the ankle, killing him instantly!!!  Yeah, no.  Lame.

3. Bob wavers, sinking closer and closer to DEATH.  He knows the end is near…etc, etc…Vator and Soron descend the steps to the cellar door.  Suddenly, Bob hears a loud WARRIOR BELLOW and the swishing and zinging of MIGHTY SWORDS.  Just as Bob resigns himself to his fate, the door smashes open.  Vator and Soron’s bodies tumble in, WHITE and CORPSIFIED.  Behind them appear Bill and Ted, who have been tracking Bob from city to city so they can lend their MIGHTY WARRIOR SKILLS to his amazing QUEST.  Well….that might be justifiable.  Maybe not satisfactory, but perhaps forgivable.  Done carefully, with proper foreshadowing and tactfulness, a reader might be willing to accept this outcome.

4. You could delete the offending passage and rewrite it.  However, I suggest caution with this approach.  Often, when stories run away, it’s because they have an intuitive and instinctive understanding of the direction the story needs to take.  Trying to force it to fit in your initial, purely speculative conjurings could seriously undermine the story’s power.  Of course, sometimes stories are just naughty.  If, upon mature deliberation, you discover that the current direction is not in your story’s best interest, by all means hack-n-whack.  It’s your prerogative, after all.

5.  You could think carefully about Bob’s predicament.  Take this opportunity to analyze what you are trying to show about Bob, his mission, the people around him, and his enemies.  What outcome would most advance the story, or show the most insight into any of those things?  Sometimes the best outcome is the unexpected resolution.  The revelation.  The twist.  The thing that doesn’t solve the current situation, but makes it worse.  Raises the stakes even higher.

For example, take solution #3 all the way up to the point where Bill and Ted appear.  Instead of relief, Bob suddenly panics.  Bill and Ted circle toward him, wielding their MIGHTY SWORDS threateningly.  Bill LAUGHS MANIACALLY.  “How easily you were fooled!” he chortles.  “Vator and Soron couldn’t scheme their way out of a sack!  Their sole purpose in life was to weaken you, to drive you into a corner so that we could capture you in the name of our mighty Emperor of Blackest Darkness!  He will want you alive, so that he can torture you at leisure!  Mwahahahaha!!!”  And they bind up his wounds so he doesn’t die on the way, then bind up his hands so he can’t get away….and drag him out to the streets above.

And now you have a new awesome predicament to try to write your way out of….but this one is exciting!  And you haven’t resorted to deus ex machina.  Maybe you’d cleverly inserted a few ambiguous lines of questionable honesty into Bill and Ted’s earlier conversations that now become so much clearer!  (Or maybe you didn’t, but now wisely go back and insert said lines of questionable honesty into the dialogue…that’s okay, too.)  And there is great rejoicing among your readers.

So, that’s the current state of my reflections on this topic.  There are any number of ways to write your characters out of the corner you’ve just let them get written them into.  But only the right outcome will please your readers.  In general, I’d say you should use these opportunities to explore new directions for your plot, or new twists to characters or motives.  Stories usually only run away for a reason.  Pay attention and your story will be the better for it.  Ignore the reason, or choose a poor outcome to force the story back on “track”, and you risk losing plausibility…and your audience.

Not the wisest move for an author.

About J. Leigh

Author, photographer, awesome ninja. I only kill people in stories. View all posts by J. Leigh

2 responses to “Wrangling Runaway Stories

  • laurastanfill

    Great post! I especially like #3, because you’re reminding us to use caution but also allowing we can slash-and-burn or keep trudging forward, because as writers, we’re in charge.

    I haven’t exactly written my mild-mannered protagonist into a corner, but I did write him into a 19th century brothel. And I’ve had tough-decision moments throughout all these scenes, trying to figure out his reactions to certain developments. The current predicament sent me backwards to reread what I have so far (almost 200 pages) and that’s been really helpful. It’s almost like I’m picking up the strand of his character again wherever it has dropped, and by tugging on that line, hopefully I’ll figure out where he’s going next.

  • Invention « SisterMuses

    […] story’s outset.  It needs to make sense.  J. Leigh alluded to this in her marvelous post on Wrangling Runaway Stories.  To use her example, you can’t have Bob, heretofore an ordinary soul, suddenly have the […]

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