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When Things Don’t Go as Planned

by Karin Rita Gastreich,

author of Eolyn

Many of us begin writing a story with an outline of what we expect to happen and how.  Some authors write down their outlines; others have it worked out in their heads. But even if we have a very detailed outline, once in a while our ideas are derailed.  We find ourselves midway through writing our short story or novel, and things just aren’t turning out as we planned.

Does this mean we’ve messed up our story?  Should we throw our efforts away and start all over from scratch?

Friends from my local writer’s group are discussing this issue right now. We’ve found that everyone seems to have a unique approach to the dilemma.

Some people occasionally write themselves into a corner that will never get them to the ending they want.  They respond by setting the whole idea aside and starting another project.

Others say this never happens to them, because when they sit down to write a story, they know everything that’s going to happen and why, and it always turns out the way they intended.

But there’s a third group who often find themselves simply ‘going with the flow’ if their story starts down a road they didn’t plan.  This is the group I belong to.

That’s not to say I don’t bother with outlines — I always have a map of where I’m going in mind when I sit down and start writing. But as I get to know the characters and their motivations, the course of events sometimes changes. Usually in subtle ways that don’t affect the overall plot, but sometimes in major ways that transform the climax and ending.

Running into this situation is kind of scary, because sometimes you really don’t know where everything is going to lead.  But I’ve found it’s really important to let my characters make the decisions, and to maintain some flexibility in terms of how the plot develops. The moment I try to force my characters down the road I intended — when it’s apparent that’s not where they “want” to go — my stories start to lose authenticity.

My first novel EOLYN was a good example of this. My characters kept leading me toward an ending that was very different from what I first envisioned. I struggled with this a lot, because I really liked my idea and wanted to see it happen. I think I scrapped 4 or 5 endings trying to get the manuscript “right” — “right” being close to my original idea. But given everything I had come to know about the characters, it became apparent that I had to write the ending according to their choices, not mine.  Once I allowed myself to do that, the ending came together like a charm.  Now I can’t imagine the story having finished in any other way.

Here’s the sticking point:  To get away with this approach to writing, you have to know your characters extremely well. Think carefully about how they will respond to any given situation, and be ready to accept the realistic outcomes of their decisions, even if those outcomes go against what you want to happen.  If you succeed in doing this, often times your stories will surprise even you – and that can be a lot of fun!

Check out Karin’s website, where you can read the first three chapters of her novel!

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