A couple of days ago, Natalie Whipple posted about how so often the particular paths our lives take can be influenced or directly affected by a single event. It can be interesting to take a moment to ponder what your life had been like had something worked out differently. (I think the word Natalie was looking for was feeling ‘introspective’.) For instance, I had planned to go to grad school; I tried really hard to go to grad school, applying to a number of programs, meeting with professors, trying to work out an alternative approach when the traditional ones didn’t work out. Needless to say, I didn’t go to grad school. And in some ways, I think it’s the best thing that could have happened. Because if I had gone to grad school and got a Ph.D. like planned, I:
- wouldn’t have become a field ornithologist, and as a result:
- wouldn’t have met Dan
- wouldn’t have moved to eastern Ontario
- wouldn’t have published the Peterson guide to moths, and maybe even
- wouldn’t have tried writing novels
- would have more money. This seems particularly relevant when the bills come due. Two sides to every coin I guess, eh?
Everything about where I am in my life is directly linked to that failure to find a grad placement. It reminds me a bit of the movie Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s an interesting examination of how even the smallest actions can have reaching consequences. In this case, Paltrow’s character makes a train she was trying to catch… or doesn’t. And her life spirals out in two very different directions.
Natalie’s post was essentially commenting on this potential for life/story to play out many ways. We hold our characters’ lives in our hands; we get to play the three Fates as we decide which path they should take. It can be a little overwhelming: there are infinite options for what happens. How to know which is the right one to write?
I of course can’t speak to anyone else’s process, but I find that often when I’m considering the path of the story, there’s one that feels right-er than the others. As a pantser, I don’t know where the story is going next. It’s much like life that way. I know where the story’s been, and I know where it is now, and I probably have destinations in mind. But how to get there? When I go out walking with the dogs in the afternoon, I brainstorm the next scene. I don’t worry about too far down the road, I just need to know what comes next.
I try out different options. I’ve got several different threads going, so I consider: does the next scene involve her best friend? her love interest? her parents? someone completely new? In the next scene with friend/LI/parents/stranger, do we learn some information? discover some new aspect of character? have some action that triggers a plot-turning point? What I usually find is that frequently there will be one that feels more right. And then sometimes I’ll think a particular scene comes next, but can’t bring myself to write it; my gut is telling me I’m missing a scene. And it takes me a while to figure out what should be in that gap. [I’m a linear writer. I have a really hard time jumping ahead and writing out of order.]
I trust my gut a lot, in writing. I do it frequently in real life, too. The main differences is that if your gut turns out to be wrong in your writing, you can always go back and delete that scene, or insert something before it, but in life you’re stuck with your choices. You can even change whole plot paths in your writing. The original ending of Magestone was quite different from what it is now. I basically rewrote the whole final 10,000 words; the main conflict was the same, but how it played out and who was involved changed dramatically.
And while we’re speaking about different story arcs and endings… Remember those Choose-your-own-adventure books? Coliloquy has started producing something similar in ebook form, so you can decide how the story plays out. Even video games are getting in on the idea – the popular RPG Mass Effect has set up both instalments 2 and 3 of the trilogy so that the amount of effort and time you’ve spent playing by the point you trigger the endgame will affect the final outcome.
Of course, it’s a lot of work to go back and change a plot path so I try to avoid having to do it if I can, making sure I’m on the right track to begin with as I’m writing. Last thing I want is to discover the protagonist should have turned left instead of right way back at the inciting incident. But it’s sort of liberating to know that if it’s not working, it’s always possible to back up a scene or two and try taking a different path.