Fighting (Out Of) Your Corner.
One of the pitfalls of writing without a plan, and going where the story leads you, is that sometimes you write yourself into a corner.
Nothing feels worse, fifty-thousand words into a novel, to find that a decision that seemed like a brilliant plot twist twenty-thousand words earlier, has rendered the fantastic idea you've been building towards unworkable.
The gut-churning feeling that your awesome story might need to be completely re-tooled or even scrapped, and the feeling that finally, this will be the book where your wing-and-a-prayer method might finally let you down, can lead to sleepless nights and a crippling attack of imposter syndrome.
Yet it happens to the best of us, and although it may feel like the end-of-the-world, it usually isn't.
Sure there are plenty of horror stories of people scrapping their work in progress. Of writers filled with professional shame as they email their agent or publisher to break the news that the manuscript they'd confidently promised three months ago will not be delivered on time. Of publishers having to push back publication dates.
But what you don't hear about is those writers that overcome the hurdle. Who have a sudden flash of inspiration that fixes everything and leads to the best book of their career. We tend not to talk about it. Perhaps we should? Perhaps we shouldn't be embarrassed to brag about it?
In fact, I would go as far to say that writing yourself into a corner can be a good thing!
Yes, you read that correctly! Because we writers are fighters. When our backs are against the wall, we come out swinging. Solving that insurmountable problem forces us to be more creative.
So how can we solve the unsolvable, and salvage months of work? Here are a couple of suggestions. Think of them more as a basic principle, rather than a concrete suggestion.
There is a quote, widely attributed to Raymond Chandler, "When stumped, have a man come through a door with a gun."
There are questions over whether this was advice, or just a description of how he used to work when writing pulp fiction.
But, it can solve a problem. If you are heading down an alley with a dead-end, then shake things up. Add a big twist, like a man with a gun. Coincidences are frowned upon in crime fiction - yet sometimes they do happen. So why not acknowledge that your investigator has been chasing a spurious lead and give them another victim or a clue that makes them realise they were on the wrong track? A need to reset and start again. Do it right and your error becomes a twist that your readers never saw coming, because you had no idea it was going to happen either!
Change The Culprit.
Even pantsers who start with little in the way of a plan often know who did it. But with no clear route plotted, it's all too easy to end up in that corner, with thousands of words that no longer lead anywhere. It's rather like setting out on a road trip knowing roughly which direction your final destination is in, but missing the correct exit on the motorway and having to either double-back or take a tortuous route cross-country on poorly-lit, narrow backroads.
So ask yourself, how wedded are you to that culprit? Again, done correctly, your misstep becomes a fantastic twist that takes everyone by surprise.
Bring In A New Character.
Sometimes the problem is a result of having eliminated too many suspects too early on. In which case changing the culprit (as above) can change the game. Alternately, perhaps invent a new character. Introduce them early in the story as a potential suspect and shift some of the spade work you've done eliminating another character onto their shoulders.
For example, imagine you have two brothers, both suspects (but ultimately innocent), one of whom you want to be in the running until the last couple of chapters. You've been busy setting up the reasons why they will ultimately be eliminated, and suddenly, with a hundred pages to go, neither of them are viable suspects anymore, meaning that the real culprit is now too obvious! You could go back and remove all that deduction. Or they could have a third brother. Then two brothers are eliminated, but the third one is still a plausible suspect.
The caveat. One of the informal rules in crime writing is that the culprit should be introduced early in the book. To give your readers a fighting chance, this new character must at least be mentioned in the first few chapters. Suddenly introduce them after the half-way point, and the chances are your readers will feel cheated.
It Was All A Dream.
Just kidding, that's a really bad idea.
How do you write yourself back out of that corner?
As always, feel free to comment here or on social media.
Until next time,
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Paul Gitsham is the writer of the DCI Warren Jones series.
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