Okay, let’s face it: if you’ve been writing for any substantial amount of time, unless you’re a godlike writer who prepares for any and all eventualities, you’ve written yourself into a corner. This specifically comes into play for character-driven stories, and has started to occur to me as something that I’m planning in the new book could easily follow two courses of logic. If one views the scene from one perspective, this thing that is supposed to be coincidence and a red herring could be a very easy catch. By that I mean it serves two purposes: one, it hints at what’s really going on, and two, it throws the reader off the trail of what’s really going on. My concern is that the savvy reader could discern the sleight of hand at work, as the entire premise of it being a red herring lies in a flawed interpretation of the character in question that I’m feeding to the reader. Therein lies the potential for a dead end, a corner. I could possibly lose a reader or two there because something is glaringly obvious to the reader, but not to the protagonist, who is supposed to be a fairly intelligent fellow.
This made me wonder…what are the options for when you write yourself into a corner? I’m fairly early into the plotting process, having only just gotten to know the characters. I’m not far enough into it that coming up with a new concept would be a problem. However, as I’ve said before, I have written entire novels and had this kind of thing collapse in on itself at the last moment, requiring multiple rewrites.
I think if you’re fortunate enough to realize that you’ve written yourself into a corner right away, the best bet is to go back and separate out the plot strands that lead to the point where you’ve painted yourself into a corner. Ask yourself what decisions you made that got to this point. Unfortunately, this can be a problem because the acts of a character can paint you into a corner. Trying to act against that character will break the story in your mind. For instance, in Corridors of the Dead, I had a great set of plans for a character. He’s a damned interesting character, too. Unfortunately, one of the supporting cast, acting on “their” own, decided to kill the character. So what I had plotted was now completely ruined, coming right up against the butt-end of the character-driven paradigm.
As I’ve stated, I’m trying to let the characters drive things now. So what to do? In this particular instance, I was fortunate in that the character who was killed isn’t human, so I had a few different outs for him to either return to the story or something to take his place. I do have to admit, though, that when it happened I sat there staring at the page thinking “well…now what?” I think that part of the story sags some now, actually, and will have to be tightened up in the rewrite because I was struggling to figure out what to do. Soon enough, though, I was able to relax and the characters reasserted themselves. Everything came together.
I’ve spoken before about how Lost painted itself into multiple corners and due to the nature of episodic television storytelling had no option but to try to pull some cheap tricks out and, in the end, either flat-out deny that some things happened or insist that they had different interpretations. I could go on for awhile about the writers’ attitude toward this, the fans, and just the truth of what occurred, but it wasn’t handled well.
The key to all this is in realizing that you or your characters have gotten into this problem. Then comes the hard part of trying to “think around the corner”. This is where your imagination has to come into play. Obviously, the entire thing is an exercise in imagination, but this is where you really have to dig deep and stretch it. It may be tempting to bring in the Deus Ex Machina when your protagonist is surrounded by enemies. It may be the only option, in fact. But I think it’s important to go to the well of other ideas before you fall back on that option.
Or, another option, if you do have to go to that option, make sure that the option seems natural within the confines of the story’s universe. Corridors of the Dead has such a thing. The protagonist, Matty, ends up trapped in a faceoff with the antagonist of the novel, who is superpowered and could easily steamroll her in a one-on-one fight. Matty is quite literally trapped in a corner and not sure what to do when the character who was “killed”, mentioned before, joins her. He has enough knowledge of the situation to outsmart the woman without overpowering her. I stressed over this idea because I didn’t want it to seem cheap, so I went back and took a look at what I had written involving the resurrected character and the antagonist, realizing that there was a way to point the reader toward this happening. Hell, I could make it feel inevitable that it had to happen this way.
Obviously, I’m still using a trope, but I don’t think they’re bad in and of themselves. Only when they’re used to excuse laziness. I had to think the whole thing through and not just drop it in – it was the opposite of lazy. I think this might be the best piece of advice for when you end up in this situation. If you do end up having to fall back on something that seems like a cliche, make sure you’ve built in enough information into the story that it seems like an original twist.
Oh, I found out a few weeks about a little plot tool called Diablos Ex Machina, too. I’ll talk about that soon.