Some creators speak of storytelling as if it’s just something that unfolds naturally in their heads.
‘My characters decide where the story goes,’ they say airily. ‘I have no idea what will happen next until they have to make a choice.’
I’m not one of them.
In fact, I tend to be deeply suspicious of these people as creators. The more I get to know them, the more I discover they’re usually two of three things: bad at writing, genuinely insane, or lying through their teeth.
Every decision you make in telling your story, from major plot points to the phrasing of a single utterance, has consequences that affect the reader’s experience.
Happy accidents aren’t uncommon. In writing the last chapter of Anomalies, it struck me quite suddenly that Rik and Phaedra, in a quiet moment alone, could hold hands instead of just standing around. But they didn’t do it on their own. They’re imaginary, after all. Once I’d thought of it, I chose to put it in because it emphasised how they’d been affectionate and supportive to one another throughout the scene. It seemed like a good way to indicate how comfortable they were with one another after their adventures, in contrast to their apprehension about one another’s alien-ness when they first met. And on top of that, it seemed like the perfect way to taunt the reader about whether their friendship would become something more.
The point is, the idea came suddenly, but the decision to include it was calculated. In crafting a good story well-told, you should make conscious decisions. So far, every sentence in this post has been rewritten at least six times, including this one.
When it comes to plotting, I am a list-maker. Sometimes, the next outcome will be obvious from what came previously, and I won’t have to make a list. For example, if a character raised to be afraid of germs is offered a meal by people whose entire kitchen is made from garbage, she’s going to refuse. That decision will have flow-on effects for the rest of the scene – her hosts might be offended, which could make one of them deflect anger by teasing her, which would make her feel uneasy, which could make her retort in self-defense, and so on.
Other times, what should happen next – particularly a major plot point – isn’t obvious at all. At the moment, I’m struggling with the climax of my fantasy novel, The Celestial Kris. If I can’t decide what to do, or I’m not happy with my plan, I make a list of everything that could happen, like I mentioned in my anti-NaNoWriMo post.
Once I have my big list, I usually highlight the ideas I like best, sometimes without knowing why I like them. There are about five options here that I think are equally feasible. After that, I weigh pros and cons of each, considering how it will affect things like the tone, the character development and the aftermath, and whether all loose ends are properly tied.
It can be messy, but it works for me. I highly recommend it if you’re stuck. Sometimes it’s just good for revealing what wouldn’t happen.