The best thing about writing is when you’re sitting on the blank page, cursor blinking, not sure where you’re going or what you’re doing, words coming out one by one in neat little rows, pressing enter for a new little paragraph, when suddenly, BAM, your characters poke you on the shoulder and say with a sly little laugh, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore…”
And, suddenly, just like that, you’re really not. Something changes. Somebody walks in, someone you never knew, and takes over the scene and they’re wild and fresh and new and bold, and they come with all kinds of convictions and beliefs and abilities. So fast that you don’t even have time to question: “Who are you and where did you come from?”
These moments happen a lot when I am writing. I have very vague outlines and they are usually based on emotional moments and beats that need to happen in a story. My outlines very often look like this:
M and E talk. E is upset.
Literally. That’s it.
M is Mom by the way. E is my protaganist.
Personally, I firmly believe in this approach. It doesn’t work for everyone but it’s best for me. Because, in the back of my mind, I know the topic they are going to talk about. But, in real life, people don’t usually set out to talk about a specific topic. A question may be burning inside of someone, but that person very rarely sits down for coffee and automatically asks: Why don’t you love me anymore? If they do, well, I hope I’m not sitting at the other end of the table ’cause they mean business. (Although, that might make a very good scene. Reminds me of an Edward Albee play, Scene 1, Line 1: “Hi honey. I’ve decided I’m leaving you'” But I digress…)
So when I sit down to write about M and E, I have absolutely no clue what they are going to talk about. They could talk about anything. Anything at all. So when I press enter and start a new paragraph, what comes out of their mouths is always a surprise. I like working this way. I am fascinated by it. If it surprises me, it means it will surprise my readers.
The thing is, these surprises very often leave me completely baffled. My inner dialogue often goes a little something like this:
What the… what? You’re a pitching a tent?
Crap. I have no idea how to pitch a tent.
What’s that you say? You work at a brewery? You want to talk about what it’s like to work at a brewery?
Ok…well…er…if that’s what you want. Note to self…figure out how to make beer.
You want to get out of the car and swim? In Missouri?
All right, but uh, can you wait a few minutes? [Frantically googles ‘swimming in Missouri’]
I once tweeted with a writer who was a little concerned that she suddenly had a blacksmith in her story. Oh boy, can’t help you there. Better go out and get an apprenticeship or something. Eeks.
The reason I am fascinated by this whole element of surprise is because, in actuality, I am surprising myself. As much as I often feel that my characters are running off with the story, taking me places I’ve never been, forcing me to learn how to pitch tents and make beers, it’s really…well…me. I am making the decisions. Even if it seems they are completely out of my control.
The 3 examples above are true stories. And I am proud to say I now know how to pitch a tent, I can BS my way through a conversation about beermaking (I never knew the hops were flowers. Or about worts! And that’s a fun word. Say it 3 times), and I know where you can find a swimming gorge in Southeast Missouri.
So how do you surprise yourself when you’re writing? What things have your characters done that have left you a little shocked and dismayed?
Photo credit: ADoseofShipBoy