Six impossible things

Characters, Plot, and Process

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).

  1. I learnt the ‘dont’ write out of order’ lesson when I wrote 93K of fragments that turned out not to have a plot. And when I started to fit them together, I realised that I’d have to dump most of the stuff I’d written. Never Again.

    I’ve come to terms with making it up as I go along – because an outline is always written from a position of not knowing the characters yet. This means I *cannot* create an outline in advance. So I don’t try. (If I do think I know what will happen, one of two things happen: either the story turns very flat and clicheed, or I get stuck and my characters patiently sit around, saying ‘what you wrote didn’t happen’ and wait for me to catch up. And the other thing I learnt is that if my characters insist that a certain scene needs to be in the book – however irrelevant it appears – then it’s usually important. (Right now, Valendon insists on describing, at length, encounters in a harbour tavern, whereas I just want him to go to the next bit of plot. I’m getting better at reading how these things are plot hooks for further away, so I’m getting more relaxed about keeping them in my first drafts.

  2. Heh. I just finished rereading The Raven Ring last night. I’d seen you explain (back on rasf-c) how several of your other plots had not turned out as you’d expected; but never this one before.

    And up till this morning, I’d been thinking of The Raven Ring as an excellent example of how to make a plot workl that is, give the protagonist a clear idea of what she wants to do, and then throw one obstacle after another in her path. And now I find you didn’t do it that way at all. 🙂

  3. I’m lucky. I manage to coax the characters into letting me know who they are during the outline. This does mean that the outline sometimes has to be chucked, or large portions of it, and that I have learned to write it to a specific level of detail, or otherwise trouble will occur because I was handwaving something I hadn’t determined, but if I keep those in mind, I can get the story to follow the outline.

  4. I love those pre-written scenes. They are so exciting, they have that flair of inspiration that rekindles my interest in the story when my daily outlook lags. Too bad they won’t always fit the resulting story, and it is a real pain to have to shelve it.

    This usually leaves me with several sparkling scenes that could spark an entirely different ‘next novel’. I could write a book with them…. No, wait. I just did.

  5. I don’t write an outline until I’ve done enough written brainstorming about characters and setting. (When I’ve started with an outline, the whole story dies on me. So I bar initial outlines.)

    I noodle about people and places until the plot gels enough for outlining. But it’s a very skeletal outline. And then I start.

    Like you, I wouldn’t dare write scenes out of order, because I know none of the details until I’m writing a scene. And the details of one scene change those of the next.

    So far, the sequence and content of the second through penultimate scenes often writhes like the Mississippi in flood, but always arrives at the delta of my planned final scene. Although the details always look a little different than I’d initially imagined.

  6. My characters do the same thing, which is also why I never write things out of order. Though, occasionally I’ll write snippets of things that stick in my head, like a witty phrase that would be perfect if the situation plays out the way I’m expecting. At least then I can use them somewhere else if my scene takes a turn.

  7. When a future scene grabs hold of my brain and won’t let go, I find it helpful to write it but stick it in a separate file. (I call it an outline file, though in fact it’s nothing of the sort.) As long as it’s not in the “real” story, I feel free to use it or not, or mine it for good bits, or whatever works when I get to that point. Most of the time I do end up using those scenes, but often they end up meaning something different in the final version than when I first jotted them down.

  8. I’ve learned that I *have* to write scenes out of order and then backfill; I can write in order if it’s a very short story, but for anything longer than a few thousand words, I stall out fast.

    Which doesn’t mean that the out-of-order scene’s going into the story as-is; invariably it needs rewriting — maybe just some rewording or extra details; maybe a major change in setting or characters present or results. Still, it seems to be a necessary part of my process; my brain needs to know the major stops on the route in order to move the story forward.

  9. *ponder*

    Some of my characters/settings/plots, I can write scenes out of order and stitch in the bridges later.

    Others… No way.

    And thus far, outlines have been… dangerous.

    Yay, always good to think of it as “if the characters surprise me, it should make the readers pleasantly surprised too.”

    (Sorry about being slightly incoherent. Distractions.)

  10. I came across this when I was looking for an email address or twitter or something. I wanted to let you know that I have loved your books since Dealing with Dragons came out, and I was around nine years old. Now, I’m nineteen, living on my own, with a good job and financially independent from my parents. And yet, today, while cleaning my apartment and listening to an audiobook version of Talking to Dragons, the Quozzel still scares the heck out of me.

  11. I have Found My People!

    Seriously though, I love this article and comments because after several novel-length attempts over the years, I’m finally getting a handle on how the/my process works. Reading the comments here make me feel less lonely and strange.

    I also write character get-to-know you scenes, which usually end up as AU except for the emotional arcs. I’ve finally shed the misconception of outlines having to look like the ones I was taught in school for essay writing.

    And I’ve also learned I do need to know where the characters are going, plot wise and emotionally. Seat of the pants is fine, but NaNoWriMo taught me I have to love the characters and their world and story first. How I *get* there is a ton of fun.

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