I'm writing a novel (hey, who isn't?), and this weekend I discovered that, deep in the heart of the Second Act, I had written myself into a corner. For those of you who have never done that or don't know what I mean, writing yourself into a corner is when you have made it impossible, for whatever reason or reasons, for your story to move forward. Your characters are separated from the next plot point by a chasm of circumstance you yourself have created, and you can't figure out a way to get them to it and continue the story. In my case, I had three main characters (MC1, MC2 and MC3) and a secondary character (SC). MC1 was having breakfast (it's morning). MC2 was asleep, because he was awake all night worrying. MC3 and SC were off having a picnic. Now, because MC2's sleep schedule was messed up and MC3 was off with SC, I had no way of getting them together to interact, which is what's called for next. So, huh. It looked dire, and it looked like I was going to have to go back and rewrite huge chunks of this already-long chapter.
And that's the thing with being cornered like this; you really only have two options: to keep writing forward and hope you find a way to get the story back on course, or go back and change whatever it was that pushed the story off the rails.
I am hesitant to ever take that second way, because even though I write from an outline, I also allow myself to improvise and be inspired (as I like to call it when nobody's looking) and my first draft especially is sort of a series of open doors through which I invite all sorts of unconscious images and influences to enter the story. Which means that if I have a sudden idea that's different from what I have in my outline and the idea feels right, I go with it and damn the consequences. Which is what I'd done to get myself into that corner.
The weird little plot and character twists that came into the story and mucked up my plans are things that I really like. They add depth to the characters and they add tension to the story and one of my little arbitrary rules for first drafts is that if an idea won't go away, it's probably the right idea and I should use it and find a different idea for whatever I had planned that no longer fits.
Also, and possibly more importantly, I may be starting to think that these corners into which we write are not so impossible to get out of as we might think, and that may be the real lesson here. I told Mighty Reader about the trouble I was having moving forward in the story, and she just looked at me like I was an idiot and asked, "Well, why don't you just have the guy wake up?" Well, huh. Why don't I? That is of course what I did, and the fact that he'd only had about four hours of sleep played brilliantly in the following scenes. This is something Mighty Reader and I do too often: I'll tell her about a problem I have with the story and she'll propose a simple solution and I'll reject it out of hand as wrong wrong wrong it just can't work that way what are you trying to do drive me insane and then, a few hours later, I'll announce that I have solved my story problem by using a simple solution that came to me out of the blue and color me genius, darling. Mighty Reader will then point out that I've used the solution she proposed. Well, huh. That's why I'm dedicating all my books to her. And that's why I suggest you might discuss your story with a neutral observer whenever you get cornered, because the odds are you're just too wrapped up in the plot to see that your character is trapped between a cliff you've created and, you know, that big door marked "exit" right beside her that you're just too distracted to have noticed.
And you, then? Ever found that you've written yourself into one of these hated narrative corners? Do you have a system for getting out of them? Do you have some long-suffering listener who'll tell you that you're being an idiot and making it much harder than it has to be?
Also: We'll begin posting the winning stories from the Genre Wars contest beginning tomorrow! Stay tuned!
Also: I have not proof read this post! There are probably typos and grammatical errors!