A number of writers who are at approximately the same stage of their development as I am have made an occasional comment (mostly in tones of bewilderment or disorientation) about how their intended story ends up taking an entirely different turn from what they originally plotted. Having experienced this more than once myself, I claim with a laugh that my characters took over the story and did whatever they wanted, relegating me to merely sit back and chronicle their actions.
I’ll confess I felt my own level of bewildered and disoriented when this first started happening to me, but I realized—and especially decided—early on that many of these unexpected ideas were more entertaining and more adrenaline-charged than what I first came up with…although, I wasn’t exactly happy with my inability to explain this condition better than simply accusing my characters of a coup d’état.
Just recently, I happened across this piece of writing insight from E.L. Doctorow. Since a couple of his books have found a home on my shelf, I decided to pay attention:
“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
|– E. L. Doctorow
I immediately recalled an incident where I was driving through a rural area outside of Ponca City, Oklahoma, in the absolute darkness of a missing moon sky and an unfamiliar absence of man-made lights. I had no idea where I was going. The rental car’s high beams helped some, but I was guessing at which of the dusty side roads to turn onto because I couldn’t see beyond the turn itself. I picked one at random, and kept driving until I could see a cluster of lights in the distance. Once I made it to that small town (which I probably could not find on a map again even if it would win me money), I discovered an eatery that served me the best meal I ate during my entire stay in Oklahoma. It didn’t take long for me to realize: had I been driving during the day, I would have seen the road leading back to my motel, meaning I would not have had to navigate by random guessing, which also meant I would never have discovered that excellent meal.
For too long, the only way I knew how to write a story was by plotting ahead of time exactly where it was leading and where it would end up. Except, E.L. Doctorow’s advice, and my adventure in Oklahoma, helped me to realize that impromptu / unexpected scenarios can show us story arcs and character developments we might never think of on our own…and, more times than not, those impromptu / unexpected ideas are pretty damn good.
So, with that realization and acceptance, I now know that my characters aren’t hijacking my car, but are riding with me; they tell me things all the time, but they, just like it is with me, are able to see only as far as the headlights shine. Yeah, we make a lot of random guesses, but it makes for a much fuller experience that way.