I have finally managed to get my shit together and pick apart Ember‘s plot snarl. You may wonder why I call it a Snarl.
I think the problem of plot snarls is a lot like knitting: you’re continuing merrily along, sometimes with a pattern, sometimes just making a big ol’ scarf, and you get to the end of a line and realize you’re missing a stitch. Or two. Or you have too many stitches. But something is wrong. You look backwards and find that (several; too many) rows ago you made a mistake. Do you continue on? Do you undo all those rows and knit them over? Or is it possible to just go back, fix that mistake, and work it up the rows?
Such as it was with The Snarl. For a week, all my characters sat around being mopey, the fight gone out of them, and I couldn’t figure out why (they are the dropped stitches in this metaphor, for those of you playing the home game). I thought it was my fault somehow, that I had (gasp) Writer’s Block, or the extra-long Weepies, or that I was a plain-ol’ hack, etc., etc., and I kept trying to move the characters forward but it was like dragging a crying toddler somewhere they didn’t want to go.
So I chatted for a bit with Marc (he was very helpful, in the sense that he let me ramble at him for a longish amount of time while asking questions that made me think about different angles of approach). And the Snarl got a bit looser.
But it wasn’t until the following morning on the subway, listening to music on my headphones, that I realized what the problem was: my characters were drooping around exhausted because they had had the fight drained out of them. I’d passed over a couple of novel-days a few scenes back; I figured a day or two of nothing interesting that could be inferred in the following scenes. But in doing so I dropped a stitch: there was something that should have happened in that skipped bit of time. I worked it out on the subway. Came home. Worked my way up through the scarf of manuscript. Wrote the “missing” scenes.
Lo and behold, the droopiness made sense. It worked. The stitch count was back to where it was supposed to be, and I was off and running again, with the story-scarf once again proceeding at a satisfying pace.
I’m a big believer in letting characters dictate the shape of the story. The stories I like to read best are the ones that like histories, that don’t wear their structure on their sleeve. They wander, they have loose ends, they have unsatisfactory fates, because history happens like that. (I know many people who read fiction for escapism, and so they want something that will end up tidied away at the end. And that’s fine. But I write for readers like me.)
Being the consummate pantser that I am, I don’t know if I could write to an existing structure even if I wanted to, and for me, the enjoyment in writing is finding out what the characters want and need as I go. And just like people, sometimes they don’t know what they want until it’s too late. But unlike real life, I can go back and fill in the missing bits.