Writing processes are interesting things, not least because there are so many different kinds. Mine is particularly odd, in that I am neither a sit-down-and-wing-it writer, nor am I a plan-in-advance-and-stick-to-the-plan writer. I’m smack in the middle of the range, a plan-in-advance-and-then-periodically-throw-away-the-plan writer.
The reason why I periodically have to throw away the plan has to do with my characters at least 80% of the time. I’ll get to a scene that should be perfectly straightforward, one that I have a fairly clear idea about what happens, and in the middle of writing down the detailed version, one or more of my characters will refuse to follow the script in some way that throws the entire plan completely off the rails.
The best example comes from The Raven Ring. The original plot outline needed Eleret (my main character) and Daner (a young nobleman) to hook up with another character, a thief, just prior to their leaving the city at the end of Chapter 7. The part of the submission outline that describes the scene reads: “Next morning, Daner and Eleret start to leave the city. On their way to the gate, a thief named Karvonen tries to swipe Daner’s purse and is caught in the act by Eleret. Karvonen is chagrinned to realize that he has tried to rob a Cilhar, and offers to make amends. While they are still discussing it, a group of Syaski attack them. Karvonen helps fight them off and guides Eleret and Daner through some back streets to safety. The three leave the city together…”
The scene worked just fine, right up to the end of the Syaski attack, when Karvonen said “This way…” and pointed down an alley. At that point, Daner refused to follow him. He wanted to question the one attacker who’d survived the fight, and he didn’t like or trust Karvonen one little bit. The argument lasted just long enough for the city cops to show up and start demanding answers.
So Karvonen ran off alone, and I spent two chapters on Daner and Eleret dealing with the city cops instead of leaving town. By the time they had finished, they’d figured out a whole bunch of stuff they weren’t supposed to know yet, and run across a minor villain’s machination that they would have completely missed if they’d gone straight to the city gates.
Once they were finally free to leave, Eleret refused to go, on the very sensible grounds that it was silly to leave town with an unknown enemy after her, when if she stayed in town, she had the city guard and several other important and useful folks at hand for backup. So the entire rest of the plot outline was toast, because it depended on everybody leaving the city, and nobody did. Furthermore, since they stayed in the city, a whole lot of new characters cropped up, and the interactions with them changed everything again. Several times.
But it all stemmed from the way Daner reacted to Karvonen and to the fight and having a prisoner, and the resulting delay that kept them on the scene just a little longer. And I did not realize until I actually went to write the scene that he would react that way; it was only when I got all the way down into the details of who-said-what that it became obvious that he wasn’t going to behave the way I’d planned.
In one sense, yes, I could have forced the scene to work out according to the outline…but I promise you that if I’d done that, I’d have stalled dead three chapters later and not been able to progress any further. Because that scene would have been wrong.
And the reason it would have been wrong was because it would have contradicted and been inconsistent with a whole lot of background and personality stuff that I already knew about the place and the characters. Some of that stuff was already in the story (I’d already written seven chapters), and some of it was in my head, but what it boiled down to was that in order for Daner not to argue, he would have had to be a different person; in order for the cops not to show up, they would have had to be less competent than they were supposed to be; and so on.
Sticking to the plan would have required rewriting the entire previous seven chapters to make the characters into different people. And doing that would have thrown off the plan as well, just in a different direction, so it wouldn’t really have gained me anything. Either way, I would have had to re-envision the rest of the book. So I chose the way that meant I didn’t have to rip up seven chapters.
This is the reason why I rarely, if ever, write scenes out of order, even when I’m so positive something is going to happen that I can practically hear the dialog and smell the wood smoke as they chat around the campfire. Because nine times out of ten, if I write that scene, some earlier scene will change things so much that the “future” scene won’t happen at all.
Once in a great while, a scene does play out exactly as I’d hoped – the housebreaking scene in Mairelon the Magician was one I’d been thinking about for months, and when I got to it, it just rolled on wheels. But I’ve learned not to depend on that happening, not at all.
I’ve thought about this for a long time, and what I finally decided is that for some writers “what would really happen” is the plot – the specific series of events that bring the characters to whatever the final confrontation scene is. For me, “what would really happen” is whatever these particular characters would do, based on the background and personalities I’ve written for them so far.
This is particularly interesting because I’ve always thought of myself as a plot-centered writer. But it’s not the exact sequence of events that I want to hang on to – it’s the fundamental problem that is going to follow the characters around until they solve it. So it doesn’t really matter whether the characters follow the exact path I initially envisioned (though it is frustrating when they don’t). They still have to find a way to deal with the problem, and the story will still end up being a book.
Also, it will probably be a much better book, because if I didn’t realize the characters were going to do X until they did it, my readers are probably not going to complain about my plot being too predictable, either. Though I’m still a little jealous of writers who can stick to a plot outline…it looks so much easier than what I do (greener grass, I know).