Off the Beaten Path: When Your Story Takes a Detour

When writing a novel, there frequently comes a point in the process, always somewhere in the middle, where you scratch your head and wonder when, exactly, your characters hijacked your story. You knew where you were going, you had a goal, an end point in sight, complete with fabulous climax and a stirring resolution, but somewhere between Once upon a time and happily ever after you appear to have taken a wrong turn. A fabulous sounding tangent crept up on you during a particularly weak or frustrated moment, or a new character appeared from nowhere and wanted in on the action, and you went with it because, hey, writing is all about discovering the story as you go, right? The willingness to go with the flow is what makes magic possible.

Yes, and no.

The reality is that you’re telling a story, and stories ultimately have a certain structure. I’m not saying there is only one structure out there — far from it — but at the end of the day your story should have a beginning, middle, and end (though not always in that order), and your protagonist should have undergone some sort of change, be it physical, mental, or something in between. It’s perfectly possibly to achieve this in any number of ways, including by taking short-cuts through the woods or hopping in that mysterious boat you hadn’t planned to leave on the shoreline or by kissing that girl who shows up in the office out of thin air. Your character can do these things because what he or she does is what creates that character, what makes them who they are. Choices, actions, reactions; you show the reader details about the protagonist through the road they follow over the course of the narrative. So by all means, let the story influence you and allow for twists and turns that occur as you write.

However. You are still the one writing this book. While it might sometimes feel as if your characters are taking charge and telling you what to do, the reality is that they are your creations and have no say in their fate. No matter how much you are swept up by the magic of your storytelling, you need to keep your feet planted firmly under your desk and to realize that if you write yourself into a corner, only you can write yourself back out of it. And sometimes those mysterious characters or those weird tangents that call to you are nothing more than your subconscious jumping the shark. Not every diversion is going to be a good idea, no more than every story idea you ever have will make a workable, interesting novel. You still need to exercise your own right to choose, and to be the master of the universe you’ve created, and decide whether or not to allow the twist in your tale.

So what do you do if you’ve written yourself into that corner? If you took a turn from your original plan and, say 15,000 words down the road, realize that it’s taking you nowhere near your destination?

You have a couple of choices. If you’re currently writing for Nanowrimo and your only goal is to get your word count by the end of the month, just keep going. Put some sort of marker at the place where you took the wrong turn, and another at the point where you realized your mistake, leave the words there, and start writing from that original turning point. Eventually you’ll go back and cut the part that wasn’t working, or prune it and move it around until it works with your story as you’d intended. Just because it doesn’t serve the narrative where it is, doesn’t mean it’s a complete loss. Recycling in writing is just as valuable as in real life.

If you’re writing with a complete novel as your goal, one that you hope to eventually publish, and you aren’t concerned about hitting 50,000 words by November 30th, then I recommend removing that unwanted section immediately. Reread the section that’s not working and be sure that there’s no way you can salvage it. Then cut and paste it into a separate document and save it to your writing folder. Rework the main document as you’d planned to write it originally and continue on from there, but be sure to check periodically to see if any of the section you removed will be useful to the story as you progress.

Sometimes those twists in your plot are going to be brilliant. Sometimes they will just create more work. For those writers who plan ahead and have a good idea of what their story will be, it is often easier to determine if a tangent will succeed, since they can see not only the start of the detour, but where it might possibly meet up with the main path again later in the story. For non-planners, or “pantsers”, there’s a greater danger of finding a twist or turn that takes you too far from the road you need to follow. For this reason, I maintain that all writers should consider starting with at least a few notes regarding where their story is going, and how it’s going to end. Even a briefly sketched road map can save hours (or days) wandering lost through the woods.