Box your creations in, then let them escape on their own, and you'll feel like Houdini! ⤺ Tweet This!
In his famous 1950 essay “The Art of Murder,” a reflection on his own history and development as an aspiring author working in the pulps, Raymond Chandler offered a simple solution for this common dilemma.
His recommendation often came at the risk of “realism,” which was often an unavoidable casualty when given the pressure to make a story deadline:
This was inevitable because the demand was for constant action and if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to over-reach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.
He went on to qualify and clarify this “short-cut” by way of an interesting excuse, if not an enlightening explanation:
As I look back on my own stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published.
Now, you’re not Raymond Chandler. Neither am I. And the fast ‘n’ furious days of the pulps, which demanded a constant flow of often sub-par material, just to fill the pages of mass marketed literary entertainment, are long gone – replaced by disposable television shows, YouTube videos, etc., per the evolving (or at least changing) tastes of the average consumer seeking escapism.
But even if you’re not up against a deadline, other than the one you’re imposing on yourself, at a certain point you may need to resort to desperate measures in order to advance your story, or else sink into a swamp of debilitating self-doubt.
I always advise writers to just keep writing, even when they don’t know what they’re writing, exactly. The idea is to keep putting words down, any words, any words, as many as possible, so at least you’re not staring at an intimidating blank page, with a taunting cursor blinking at you.
Nowadays, with post-typewriter technology, it’s easier than ever to self-edit. But first you need something to cut down, and it’s always easier to delete sentences, paragraphs and entire pages than to produce them, at least to perfection, i.e. in harmonious accordance with your own lofty standards.
Editing can be hard if you’re attached to every word you just typed, but that’s a separate challenge and frankly, one I’d rather face than the opposite, when everything you write just sounds like garbage, at least to your weary mind. At that point, you may just need to take a break. But eventually, the work will beckon you back, and you’ll be banging your head against the same brick wall, which has not evaporated in your absence.
Box Your People In, Then Let Them Write Themselves Out
Since stories are driven by their protagonists and participants, who themselves are manipulated by an unseen narrator, sometimes it helps to just let them do whatever they want, even if it seems outlandish or foolish or incredible.
This strategy only works if you really know your own characters, though, so make sure that’s the case before you just cut them loose and let them take over your own story, which is actually their story, at least from the reader’s perspective. The trick is making it seem that way from the characters' perspective, too.
Of course, even in real life, we as human beings often feel stumped and frozen in place. But remember, this is fiction, and you’re “God.” Anything can happen in this universe you’ve created. Your own imagination is the limit. And since your characters are figments of that imagination – possibly with roots in the real world, which will flesh them out – their potential is likewise boundless.
Now, if your people are trapped in an underground cave that is rapidly flooding, and suddenly one of them develops previously unknown powers and carries everyone off by scooping them up and flying away, breaking through the rock barrier like Superman, that might be way too jarring and convenient a reaction to this particular situation, especially if you’re writing an adventure story grounded in reality.
Likewise if your female character is jilted by her latest suitor and decides to just kill her date on the spot, without any background of such homicidal behavior, that won’t cut it either – unless you’re writing a horror novel, not a romance novel. This will either come off as strategic sucker punch or an unimaginative ploy, depending on the material and how it’s been presented up to that point.
If you’re writing a hybrid, stuff like this will be easier to get away with. If not, you need to confine yourself to the perimeters of your chosen genre, or else take the chance of losing your reader just when you need to grab ‘em. Not that you should strive to be conventional or predictable. Quite the contrary. But abruptly pulling rabbits out of hats, in a world where people don’t even wear hats, in a story that is not meant to be magical, is a trick that is almost impossible to pull off.
But then again, sometimes rabbits sometimes lead the reader down some interesting holes. To paraphrase the Jefferson Airplane song, Go ask Alice.
Go There - Then Come Back
My point is, no matter how outrageous it may seem, if a rabbit popping up is all you can think of at the moment, then just write it down. Because once it’s there in front of you, in all of its absurdity, you will know just what shouldn’t happen next. This process of elimination will eventually lead to the natural progression of the piece.
Of course, if your creations are truly alive in your own mind, then they won’t be inclined to surprise you or alienate the reader with uncharacteristic magic acts. They’re inside your head already, so you can easily get inside their heads, too. All you need to do is set up the predicament, one that makes sense within the context you’ve already created, and then your characters will respond as they should and would if they were flesh and blood.
And if they seem realistic in your mind, then that will translate smoothly to the mind of the reader, so none of their actions seem unrealistic, even if they are stupid or self-destructive.
Because hey, we’re all just human after all. Unless you're a rabbit.
PHOTO: LIZ WEST