I got into a short email discussion with a fellow novelist who also writes off into the dark.
The upshot was, he wondered whether maybe — when a character does something that’s unexpected and out of character — it’s all right or even necessary to create a history for that character that would explain the unexpected action, a kind of character sketch (my term, not his).
I decided to copy my response here as a topic.
Topic: Writing Into the Dark, Take 2
I did a post on Writing Off Into the Dark over on the Pro Writers blog here some time back. If you’re not familiar with the term, take a look.
What is in your (the writer’s) brain is split into knowledge (aka, facts based on experiences) and imagination (aka, would-be facts), which is also based on knowledge and experiences.
The things you believe to be true comprise knowledge. The things you believe might be true or that you wish were true, based on your knowledge, comprise imagination.
What we call knowledge is accumulated by the conscious mind. What we call imagination is accumulated by (or “seeps into”) the subconscious mind. The former is a result of cognitive thought and learning, direct functions of the conscious mind. The latter is a result of letting go and NOT thinking, not only a function of but the sole purpose behind the subconscious mind.
The conscious mind, when you’re accidentally about to touch the hot burner of a stove, causes you to jerk your hand away. It protects you. Left to its own devices, the subconscious mind would say “Go ahead. Might be a trip.” (grin)
Of course we write what we know or what we want to know or wish we knew. We write the way things are (knowledge) and the way we wish they were or imagine them to be (imagination).
When we write a story off into the dark, we don’t know the way. It’s like we’re making our way through a pitch-black house we’ve never been in before. (Hence, we’re going “into the dark.”) And even if we suspect there are signposts along the way, we can’t see them in advance. And we don’t want to. That’s why we don’t outline. When we write into the dark, those signposts appear, at the behest of the characters, as they are needed.
Likewise, our character, like every other living creature, has a history, a backstory. But, like all other human beings, he reveals only the part that’s necessary. More importantly, he reveals it only when doing so becomes necessary.
So we (the writers who practice writing into the dark) are suprised when the character suddenly pulls a knife. Gasp! He isn’t who we thought he was! (grin)
It isn’t that the knife or his ability to use it never existed. On the contrary, it’s that it did exist but we didn’t notice until he whipped it out.
So at that point, we know he pulled a knife, but we don’t know why. And we are faced with a choice.
The first choice is to stop writing, or become “stuck.” We succumb to our critical, conscious mind and become mired in wondering why he would do something that, to us, is out of character.
We might even sink farther into that trap and decide we need to create a history for that character that would explain why he could and would pull a knife so easily. If we create a character sketch, complete with traits, quirks, and history, including his uncle Jake whe went to prison for slashing a competitor for a love interest to death, the character certainly won’t surprise us like that again.
And when we’re finished, we can breathe easy. But we’re also a little bored and maybe a little annoyed with ourselves.
Because we’ve exerted external influence on the story. We’ve climbed up out of the trenches of the story, mounted our authorial ivory tower, and bent the character to our will.
Or we can take the second choice. We can trust the character that the reason for the knife and his ability to use it will eventually become clear. Then we cycle back, bow to the character’s will by inserting the knife at some appropriate earlier point, then move forward in the story again and write the next sentence (the one that occurs after he pulls the knife).
The next and ensuing sentences will show us why he pulled the knife and why he knows how to use one. And we’re a little glad he withheld the information until it was necessary because we’re still being surprised and entertained.
Maybe the character’s a good guy who’s using the knife as a threat to defend the honor of his fair Felicia.
Maybe he’s a good guy with a bad memory of something the other character did in the past and he’ll use the knife to seek retribution, either by holding the other character at knife point while he waits for the police to arrive or by exacting revenge by plunging it into the other character’s heart. (Or kidney. Kidneys are fun.) After all, even the kindest, nicest, most upright protagonist has a dark side.
But the point is, to advance the story in its true-to-life form, we have to simply trust the characters to tell the story.
Which means we have to set aside all conscious thought. Why? Because the conscious mind belongs solely to the human being who happens to be a writer. It belongs to his or her life, to his or her story, not the character’s story.
And that means our only option is to Write The Next Sentence. And the next. And the next.
And before we realize it, we’re happily “unstuck” and the story’s moving along fine again.
Best of all, we haven’t screwed up the character’s story by “forcing” something on it that maybe didn’t belong.
And that particular “maybe” is the most fun part of all. If something belongs in the story, the characters will reveal it when it’s necessary. If it doesn’t, they won’t.
Either way, the story will still be theirs, and you’ll be the richer for it.
I did a little cycling (mostly to get back into the story), then wrote one good session and took a break.
After my wife headed off to work, I wrote another session, then went across the street to let the neighbors’ dogs out. So if anyone sings that annoying question at you, you can tell them it was me. (grin)
Pretty good day today. Actually, I could easily have kept going, but I think I’m nearing the end with this one and I don’t want to finish too soon. (grin) I almost hope the characters throw me a curve or two to keep the story going.
Talk with you again soon.
Via Linda Maye Adams, see “Appealing to the Senses” at http://davidfarland.com/2018/03/appealing-to-the-senses-2/. (Or as DWS puts it, include the five physical senses in every major scene.)
See “Appealing to the Senses, Part 2” at http://davidfarland.com/2018/03/appealing-senses-part-2/.
You can actually sign up for David Farland’s writing tips (blog posts, I believe) at http://mystorydoctor.us11.list-manage1.com/subscribe. I just did.
See “A Pig’s Head for New Year’s Day: Burglary vs. Robbery” at https://www.leelofland.com/a-pigs-head-for-new-years-day-burglary-vs-robbery/.
See “Business Musings: The Current State of Disruption (Planning for 2019 Part 1)” at https://kriswrites.com/2018/12/26/business-musings-the-current-state-of-disruption-planning-for-2019-part-1/.
See “It’s Christmas, So Let’s Pull a Fat Guy Through a Car Window” at https://www.leelofland.com/its-christmas-so-lets-pull-a-fat-guy-through-a-car-window/.
Fiction Words: 4626
Nonfiction Words: 1180 (Journal)
So total words for the day: 5806
Writing of Blackwell Ops (novel)
Day 10… 2629 words. Total words to date…… 36453
Day 11… 1322 words. Total words to date…… 37775
Day 12… 2013 words. Total words to date…… 39788
Day 13… 4626 words. Total words to date…… 44414
Total fiction words for the month……… 68924
Total fiction words for the year………… 527607
Total nonfiction words for the month… 17590
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 189276
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 716633
Calendar Year 2018 Novels to Date………………………… 10
Calenday Year 2018 Novellas to Date…………………… 3
Calendar Year 2018 Short Stories to Date……… 11
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)………………………………………… 36
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)……………………………………… 7
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)……………………… 193
Short story collections…………………………………………………… 31