Are You In Control?

I wouldn’t call myself a control freak, but I like to know what’s going to happen next: I plan ahead. keep lists, write appointments and events on a calendar that I check often, and I would rather “do it myself” than delegate jobs. Whenever I hear or read advice on how to plot a novel, I decide that’s exactly what I need to do, and I give it a try. In fact, back in the ‘80s my agent was able to get me contracts with just a synopsis and three chapters, so I obviously can think a story through from beginning to end before actually writing it. However…

Even back in the ‘80s, editors soon learned what was in my initial synopsis wasn’t exactly what they were going to receive when I sent in the finished book. Oh, the characters had the same characteristics and motivation, the beginning was usually as I’d described, and the story reached the same (or close to the same) conclusion, but along the way, what actually happened always differed from that first synopsis. Why? Because my characters took over. What was said or done (action) wasn’t what I’d thought would occur, and this new action demanded a different response (reaction).

Over time I’ve learned I’m not in control, and my stories will be better if I don’t try to plan out everything that will happen. I’ve learned that if I do a good job developing my characters’ goals and motivation and set up a strong conflict (the villain in my mysteries and suspense novels), it’s okay to let my characters take over. At least occasionally.

There are times when I have to rein them in and force the story back on track, but usually the new direction is how the story should go, not how I thought it would go.

What I’ve learned is structuring a plot is a left brain activity. It’s necessary otherwise our stories would ramble on and on in a continuous “What if?” game. (What if this happened? What if that happened?) However, to be creative, so not all stories are the same, we need to embrace some of those “what if” ideas. Give them a try. See where the stories goes if you do veer off the track.

Writers have different ways of describing what’s going on when an unexpected story idea suddenly pops into their heads. Some call it intuitive writing. Others credit a Muse. Maybe it’s your subconscious taking over. I don’t know. I do know it happens to me quite often. I think I know how a scene is going to go when suddenly I realize, No a car needs to show up, seemingly out of nowhere, and run him off the road. Or, Oh my gosh, she’s going to find an envelope in her locker.

I have a choice at that point. I can tell myself to stick to the outline I created, or I can go with the new idea. Most of the time I go with the idea because as much as I like to be in control, I’ve learned these unexpected twists are usually what the story needed.

So, my advice to all writers is: Even if you have a wonderful outline, think you know exactly where the story is going, if one of these unexpected—sometimes crazy—ideas pops into your head, don’t be afraid to go with it. As a writer, you do have control. You can always delete those scenes if they really do take you off course…or you can edit them so they meld into the original outline.

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