Tuesday, January 19, 2010


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!


  1. I've only written myself into a corner once. I was so disheartened I put the work away on a shelf and left it there. I worked on something else for awhile and then BLAM, the solution for the corner/cliff problem manifested, (it was so simple I could have killed myself for not thinking of it sooner) and I was able to finish what I started and am now querying that book.

  2. I write myself into corners quite often, and I think it's because I don't outline. For me, pushing through usually leads to deeper corners until I just hate everything. I think I should start rewriting things. Oh, and outlining. At least planning *something.*

    I sometimes ask my husband for help, but he wants to take the story in crazy/bizarre directions, and I feel like he doesn't "get" it. But, maybe he's more creative than I am, and I should do what he says.

  3. *Cheering Mighty Reader* I was thinking that very solution. I haven't had much getting cornered yet, but I have had to go back and start scenes over to get them right. I'm beginning to wonder if I will ever get my first paragraph right. Alas. I'm beginning to think I have a mental block against it.

  4. I write myself into corners constantly. Much of the time it involves going back and reworking certain scenes to preserve later material that makes more sense.

    And yes, it tends to be either a flash of inspiration or discussing it with a neutral observer that makes it possible for me to see the way out.

  5. When I wrote my very first (unpublishably bad) novel, I had no idea there was such a thing as writing myself into a corner. When I couldn't figure out how to get from where I was to where I needed to be, I'd just skip ahead in the narrative, a trail of plot holes in my wake. Oh, youth.

    Now I'm one of those writers who can't skip ahead in a narrative, and I've also learned to recognize plot holes and other narrative discontinuity, and so I have to just sit where I am until I can find a way forward. Sometimes writing is walking in the dark with your hands out in front of you, feeling for doors and walls and hoping you don't step off a cliff.

  6. I don't write myself into corners as often as I write a path from A to C, and then someone will ask about B. For the most part, B was something I had a general idea of but for some reason glossed over, and working it back in is more a matter of adding than revising.

    Like Scott, I tend to keep pushing forward. What happened happened, deal with it.

    My wife is my best sounding board. She'll reign in my crazy / bizarre directions*, and when she doesn't like something she's usually right.

    *Annie and I are not related. It's just a very similar set of circumstances.

  7. Regarding sounding boards: Some of the coolest scenes in my last book were things that Mighty Reader assumed were jokes when I first told her about them ("What do you mean you're having A,B and C get drunk together?" "What do you mean D is coming back as a ghost?" "What do you mean E is only going to look dead?") but were actually scenes I'd written. So there's a fine line to be trod when ruling out the bizarre. My current book will include a hurricane (Why? Because my book is set in 1749 and in that year there was a hurricane.) and I've never written a natural disaster before, or anything on such a grand scale. I have no real idea how I'm going to handle it.

  8. Yes, I've spent much time in the corner! Oh, wait, my characters . . .

    Every now and then, well, probably more often than I am willing to admit, my writing comes to a screeching halt because I've written myself into a corner. Normally, I stop writing, put everything away, and then bang my head furiously on the desk for a few minutes. Seriously, I put distance between myself and my writing, consider what I've done, and then the next day I go back and try to back myself out of the corner. Most times I'm successful, though normally with some rewriting. I've even been known to chuck the entire chapter, and the one before that, and begin the process all over again. Hey, it works for me.

  9. I like writing myself into a corner. Why wouldn't I? It may take a take to come up with a solution, or it may take months.
    I'm stuck on a WIP right now where everyone's in jail. Now what?
    In that case I'm going to throw most of it out. But even in the rewrite, they may get there again, and I need some kind of plan for them.
    My real problem is that they're in the wrong jail and I need to rework the story a bit.

  10. I'm calling my next book "In the Wrong Jail" 'cause that's just too cool to pass up!

  11. I have no idea why, but all my great ideas and plot solutions, including escapes for my characters getting written into a corner, come while I'm taking a shower. Maybe because that's the ONLY time I'm fully relaxed and not over-thinking things. I've started bringing a notepad and pencil into the bathroom with me so I don't have to run out of the shower naked to write down these lightning bolts of "duh."

  12. My writing often becomes a huge labyrinth, and all of a sudden, i'm stuck with multiple choices, and the corners just keep adding up. At that point, I go back to where the clotting all started, rewrite different versions of how I could let it continue, and then pick whichever one leads me to the best options for future chapters/paragraphs.
    But yes
    Corners are nasty things.

    Thanks for the great post again. (:



  13. For a long time I worked really hard to avoid corners like this. But, lately, about the last year or so, I've really enjoyed getting into these pinches. Just as you mentioned with your character having to function on four hours of sleep, I think these corners often force us into writing about more complicated scenes, more bizarre ones, and I always get excited when I stumble onto things like that.

  14. Let your imagination find a way out. Characters have points that are fixed but they should all be allowed to go off the rails from time to time. The problem is having flexibiliity within your idea! That can be the difficult thing to resolve!

    Steph Fey x

  15. Scott--I love that you say there is a fine line in ruling out the bizarre. Makes me feel better about my fortune telling aardvark.

  16. Amy, does your aardvark use tarot, a crystal ball, or palmistry? Because an aardvark using a crystal ball is just sick and wrong. There is a fine line, and friends don't let friends cross it. Just saying.

    Now, a penguin with a crystal ball is a different thing altogether. Drunken penguin with crystal ball = Pultizer!

  17. I've been in a few corners. Thank goodness I have a great critique group that when this happens there are a couple of them that brainstorm with me through the spot. I've always found a way to go forward without having to go back and rewrite, thank goodness.

  18. Haha, Rick! Maybe there is something crazy/bizarre in Columbus that has us on the same wavelength.

  19. Yes, yes. It sucks rocks.

    And, SUPER excited to see the Genre Wars winners...fun!

  20. I wrote myself into a corner before, and now I'm editing my way out of it. I allowed my MC to follow a bunch of people off the pre-planned route, and then they decided to have a chapter long picnic over in The Field of Uninteresting Filler. I'm skipping over that detour in the second draft to keep MC on route to Places Where Things Are Interesting and Things Happen.

  21. Scott, my own Mighty Reader aka Adam helps me with corners all the problem. He's very good at helping me solve things. It starts like this:

    "Honey, I have a problem with my novel."

    "Oh. Again?"

    "Yeah, wanna hear it?"

    "Not really."

    "Well, I'm going to tell you anyway and you're going to fix it for me."

    "Okay, dear, but I never fix the problem, I just repeat to you what you say to me and add some embellishments."


    And it works. Every time. His embellishments are a stroke of genius, and I must say that I would have no novels without him.

    Corners. Oftentimes they are what get me to take directions I never would have otherwise. Sometimes I even look forward to them. Imagine that!


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