Six impossible things

Changing on the fly

I’m in what I hope is the downhill stretch of The Far West at last. I have finally gotten my characters out of town and moving, and yesterday I got to what was supposed to be a throwaway bit at their first stop, just a little bit of business to establish how their expedition operates before they get out into dangerous territory. Two paragraphs of summary, tops.

It came out six and a half pages long.

What I had initially thought was going to be a brief reminder of several bits of backstory with maybe a tiny bit of foreshadowing that could be useful in the future, all in tight summary form, became six pages of action and conversation involving nine named characters (old and new) and several unnamed spear-carriers. The dialog is, I hope, colored by the different attitudes the various characters have toward each other, the varying positions of authority they occupy, the differing sorts of magic they have, and a couple of things that are going on so far off stage that I’m not sure they’ll even end up getting into the book.

I like the scene very much, but it’s certainly not what I had planned when I sat down to write.

This is why I have to keep revising my plot outlines, even when I’m supposed to be three-quarters done with something. It’s also why I can never use the sort of plot-planning worksheets and programs that seem to be beloved by so many, not even to work things out that are only a chapter away. Because I can’t actually predict which of my events and plot-points are going to be scenes or chapters and which are going to end up being a two-paragraph summary.

This is also why I can’t “write ahead,” the way some writers do. There are some upcoming scenes that are going to be affected by the fallout from this particular incident, if only because several of the characters who had not previously encountered each other have now met and formed opinions of each other. A now worries that B is going to undercut his authority, while C was favorably impressed by B and D, and E is having to suppress his jealousy a lot earlier than I’d expected.

As far as plot goes, at least two future incidents that I’d been considering are no longer possible at all unless sabotage is involved…hmm…. (What? Oh, sorry, distracted for a minute there.) And I’m not going to need the scenes I’d planned for later that establish all the various things I talked about in the last paragraph, because now they’ve already been established in this scene. They’ll need development, but that will happen differently from the way I’d planned, too, and therefore it will require different scenes. And so on.

If I’d gone ahead and written the scene at the river that’s coming up about three weeks in my character’s future (and that is supposed to go in the next chapter somewhere, though I’m beginning to doubt that I’ll get there that fast), I’d have to, at best, tear it apart to make all the relationships and reactions consistent with what just happened. At worst, I’d have to bin the whole thing and start over. If I’d written the heart-to-heart talk between D and E, I’d have had to pitch the whole scene, period – after this, it’s just not going to happen. And there are a couple of new possibilities for A and C and G that I hadn’t even thought about until I got to the end of this scene and saw how they were interacting.

My backbrain is a lot smarter than I am. Sometimes, this is depressing to contemplate, but at least it does interesting things to my books.

9 Comments
  1. My characters do things like that all the time. Knowing this, I still write ahead sometimes–and yes, it means that I sometimes have to ditch a scene or alter it or completely rewrite it. But for me, it also helps me get to know my characters better or consider things I might not have otherwise.

    Thank you for sharing! It’s always great to see how others write. And good luck with the rest of the book!

    • independent clause – Confidence is where you find it, and that’s as good a reason as any!

      Kellie – It’s a range – some folks really can plan and stick to the plan; others are more like us, unable to figure out how long any given bit is actually going to end up being, and lots of folks are in the middle. So there’s company for everyone – it’s just a matter of finding the other folks who are like you, and who can comiserate about the same problems.

      Alex – I can plan ahead, just not in detail. It’s like plotting a road trip with just a paper map – you don’t know where the highway construction is going to make you detour.

      Mary – Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I still have an extremely vivid mental image of a bar fight that never happened in Mairelon the Magician…possibly one of the characters had an exceptionally vivid dream? It never got in the story, and it doesn’t belong in the story.

      Louise – Lots of writers do “extra” scenes for exactly your reason. Roger Zelazny used to always write up at least one incident in his main character’s life that he KNEW was never going to be in his novel (at least one of them became a short story). And yeah, chapters veering off track IS a good sign…it’s just really frustrating sometimes!

  2. I’ve just recently started writing scenes ahead of time – like Laura said, even though I often have to ditch them later, it helps give me a sense of my characters and a feel for the overall style of the story. I actually really love it when a scene or a chapter veers off in a different direction than I anticipated. It’s one way that I know that the story is coming to life!

  3. I can usually persuade my characters to disgorge their secrets in the course of the outline. But boy, the things they come up with in the outline. . . what’s really fun is when they insist that a future event I had thought of before is still going to happen, whatever path they just took.

  4. I’ve discovered more and more that I work like you do. I can only plan a chapter ahead more or less. I have a rough idea of where I want to get to in the end, but how I get there comes up moment by moment.

  5. On a first note, you don’t know how excited it makes me to read about the Frontier Magic series! I loved it, and I glad to read that progess it being made. I’m counting down until Across the Great Barrier.

    And on a second note, the exact same thing happens with my characters. What I think will end up being 3 or 4 pages left in a chapter, or 2 or 3 chapters left turns out to be 10 pages or even 6 more chapters! I’m one of the authors who likes to write ahead, so when new and unexpected things happen in the middle of writing I constantly have to go back and revise those future exerpts.
    I have to say though, one of my favorite parts of writing are the spur of the moment scenes. I feel like they are the ones with the most emotion and impact, especially if the content of the scene itself is spontaneous.
    It’s nice to know that another author out there has to deal with the unexpected changes of a story too.

  6. Maybe this is a fledgling novelist thing, but when my backbrain seems to have more input into my novel project than my front brain, it gives me confidence that the work has its own energy and may someday see the light of day.

  7. First, I just want to say how amazing it is that a very important author from my childhood has a blog. Please don’t take offense to that. I picked “Dealing With Dragons” from a Battle of the Books list in elementary school (yes, I was a dork and on my school’s team) and that story has stuck with me for nearly two decades as THE fantasy story I judge all others by. And most others do not measure up.

    Now writing my first novel after writing non-fiction part-time for fun money, I 100% relate to your 2 paragraphs growing into 6 pages! My scenes haven’t gone that out of control, but simple exchanges have suddenly turned into major plot points for me. I do have a table of scenes in a digital format, so it makes it easy for me to modify. So far, nothing major has changed. But I do write ahead, and yes I will probably lose some of the words, but the future scenes have helped me be inspired to write what came before.

    Thanks so much for your books. You are an amazing author and an honest inspiration to many generations. I can’t wait to share Dealing with Dragons with my daughter when she’s old enough. I also can’t wait to read the rest of the advice on your blog.

  8. i love your work and so does my daughter and she wants to hear from you about the elements you use in your writing. please reply soon.

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