I think that sometimes the writing craft can start to take itself too seriously. We can get so wrapped up in scene structure and character complexity and viewpoint rules that it’s possible to lose our nerve, our verve, and our sense of fun.
After all, the imagination is like a child. Nurture it and set it free, and it will laugh, skip, and play. Hem it in and restrict it with too many rules, and it will sulk.
That isn’t to say that we should set aside what we know about structure and craft. But we should never let those elements chain us down until writing is a dreary, tedious chore.
When the storyline is bogging down … when my creativity seems stilted and static … I know it’s time for a plot twist, the less predictable the better.
In such emergencies, I can’t worry about what’s already been laboriously set up to happen in the story. I need to bring something in from left field. My writing teacher Jack Bickham called this tactic an “alligator” because it would be dangerous to the hero, arrive unexpectedly in the story, and be capable of doing anything.
Last week, I read a zany fantasy novel by Jim C. Hines called LIBRIOMANCER. Halfway through the book, the protagonist Isaac suddenly finds himself on the moon where he proceeds to fight robotic automatons in conditions of zero gravity and kicked-up moon dust.
In a million years, I wouldn’t have expected a fantasy novel to suddenly land me on the moon. (In the words of that Dish satellite commercial: “How’re we breathin’?”)
Hines doesn’t care how his protagonist is breathing. I’m still not entirely sure how Isaac even got up there or how he got back, except that magic was used.
Going to the moon was an alligator. It was unexpected. It woke me up. The protagonist was so jazzed to find himself on the moon that he made me happy to be there, too. The event didn’t make a lot of logical sense and it could have been cut without affecting the story. However, I’m so glad no dour editorial instinct slashed it to the trash bin. It’s charming.
Long ago, when I was writing the first novel that I would actually sell to a publisher, I got stuck about halfway through. I was befuddled and tired. I couldn’t think of what should happen next. I knew I wasn’t ready to push the characters into the climax. What to do?
That’s when I learned to cut loose with the “what if” game.
The only requirement for the “what if” game is that you should go for the most outrageous, crazy, wild thing you can think of.
Never mind how it will work or connect. Let yourself go with anything that strikes a chord with you.
In effect, give yourself permission to throw a pie in the protagonist’s kisser.
Hines let his protagonist walk on the moon. Then he found a way to make it fit.
In my first novel, A LOVE SO WILD, I put a dead rat in the heroine’s picnic basket. Why? Where did that come from? Dunno! But it made her scream, livened up a blah scene, and gave her a reason to fling herself, weeping, into the hero’s manly arms.
Even better, by bringing in an alligator, I found my flagging interest in the story revived. My energy level improved. My imagination went back to work. Yes, it was a challenge to plant a plausible explanation for the rat, but that’s what revision is for. Meanwhile, I wrote onward with renewed zest.
So when you’re stuck, try reaching for a moon alligator. Don’t censor yourself. Just have the courage to play.
You’ll write all the better for it.