Do you ever get the feeling that a scene you’re writing, just isn’t going to work? That no one would ever act this way? That no one would ever believe this outcome?
Do you ever leave the questionable scene in any way because you need this event to happen for plot reasons? Do you jump through mental hoops to convince yourself, well, maybe this is believable?
Maybe no one will notice.
Let’s consider a hypothetical scene:
A man goes into a forest. For plot reasons, the man needs to die in the scene. The writer takes an easy way out and makes a tree fall on our young man, crushing him to death.
I know I’m not giving you much detail, but I suspect you are finding this a bit far-fetched already. What are the chances that, of all the trees in a forest, the tree right in front of our poor guy would be the exact tree that falls, precisely when the man walks by? And that he wouldn’t hear it and get out of the way? It’s a bit convenient. And incredibly unlikely.
It isn’t as if our character walked onto a logging site where someone was actively cutting down trees. There wasn’t a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake tearing through this forest. It wasn’t even windy. The tree just fell on him. Boom. Our guy is dead.
We can try to convince ourselves the scene is logical. Maybe we go back into the manuscript and lay down some foreshadowing about another tree that fell. We could note in an earlier chapter that a tree in that same forest looked unstable. But none of these poorly disguised breadcrumbs can mask the fact that this scenario just wouldn’t happen.
You are probably thinking that this is a ridiculous example. Who would write such a scene? Who would think they could get away with something so obviously implausible.
Ummmm, it was me.
I wrote a scene in a draft of my book where a man runs into a forest and a tree falls on him. (I’m turning red with shame as I write this.)
Every time someone read the manuscript, I held my breath, waiting for them to tell me the scene was terrible. I did all sorts of mental gymnastics convincing myself that under certain circumstances this might happen. Right? I needed him to die and that conveniently falling tree got the job done.
No one said anything.
All the while, my stomach was twisting in knots because I knew it wasn’t working. But I refused to listen to my gut.
Luckily, my editor called me out on my ridiculousness.
“I don’t buy it,” she told me after reading the tree-falling scene.
I finally cracked.
“I’ve always hated this scene,” I admitted to my editor. “It never felt right. I was hoping no one would notice.”
She laughed and said, “If you are hoping no one will notice something, they will definitely notice. Listen to that little voice.”
Gut feelings are real. We get these sensations that put us on high alert for a reason. They are chemical reactions to stimuli based on available information and past experiences. They can be warnings that our body is sending to our brain based on learned behavior we aren’t even conscious of. It is our body’s way of telling us to pause and reconsider our choices, look at our reasoning, and examine the possible outcomes.
This falling tree incident is not the first time I’ve tried to force a scene into a book even though I knew it was a bad idea. (Remind me to tell you about the bear and the minivan scene someday.)
So why do I ignore my gut feelings?
I spoke with my friend Tim Weed, a novelist and writing instructor at GrubStreet and the Newport MFA program, hoping that he might have some advice for me.
Tim says many writers feel unnecessarily bound by rules of writing that stifle their creativity. “Don’t start with a character waking up. Don’t start with a dream. Rules are a way for writers to get away from trusting their gut. They just follow the rules.”
Tim suggests writers need to do more than just listen to their gut. They need to retrain their instincts.
“You have to let the wild rose bush grow before you can cut it back,” Tim said, quoting a bit of writing wisdom from a fellow writer. “Many people I work with start cutting way too early.”
This made a lot of sense to me. When I get a plot destination in my head, I’ll do anything to get there. Maybe if I’d taken more time to question my own motives about why I was rushing my poor character toward his death, or if I’d given him time to explore in the woods, things would have worked out differently. I wouldn’t have spent some much time stewing over a scene I hoped no one would notice.
If I’ve learned nothing else, it’s this: Someone will always notice.
“It takes time to gain that confidence,” Tim says. “Every writer is different.”
Most fiction writers lump themselves into one of two camps: plotters or pantsers. The plotters outline, graph, and map out their stories. They know how it’s going to end and how they will get there (for the most part.) Pantsters write by the seats of their pants, never knowing what’s coming around the next corner. Pantsters let their characters lead them wherever the story takes them.
And, of course, there are the plansters (plotsters?) who are somewhere in between.
I think I’m a plantster. I’ve been known to make enormous, colorful graphs of my plot. But other times I wing it. I think I’m a more effective storyteller when I plot out where I’m going. I like considering how I build suspense. I love detailed plot and character arcs. I get a rush out of putting my character and plot arcs on one overlapping graph. Is there anything more exciting than a brand new box of sharp colored pencils and a giant piece of paper to graph a novel on?
But Tim is right. Adhering too strictly to conventions and rules gets me in trouble. I need to let go of conventions occasionally, put aside the rules and my carefully crafted three-act structure chart. If I know a character must get from point A to point B, I will twist myself into knots to make it happen. Even if it is a little awkward. Or implausible. Or downright unbelievable.
From now on, if I need a character dead, and they happen to be in a forest, I vow not to drop a tree on them and hope no one will notice. I’m also going to take my editor’s words to heart: “If you are hoping no one will notice something, they will definitely notice.”
In other words, I’m going to give myself some freedom and resist the urge to always rush from point A to Point B. I’m going to let the wild rose bush grow a little wilder. Then I’m going to try to listen to my gut. If my characters need to go off-trail in the woods, I’ll let them wander for a while. It might just save them from having a tree fall on them.
If you are having trouble working your way out a plot corner please reach out to me. I have lots of incredibly plausible ideas I’m not using, such as a bolt of lightning, a bear attack, or a tarantula bite. Feel free to use them. Maybe no one will notice.
Have you ever backed yourself into a plot corner? Do you listen to that little voice telling you something isn’t working? Do you trust your instincts? Has ignoring your gut ever gotten you into trouble?
About Julie Carrick Dalton
Julie Carrick Dalton is a writer who farms. Or maybe she is a farmer who writes. It depends on which day you catch her. Her debut novel FOUR DEGREES, a literary climate thriller, is forthcoming from Forge (Macmillan) in early 2021, with her second novel, THE LAST BEEKEEPER, following a year later. FOUR DEGREES won the William Faulkner Literary Competition, The Writers’ League of Texas Award, and was a finalist for the Caledonia Novel Award. Julie is passionate about literature that engages climate science and is a frequent speaker on the topic of Climate Fiction. Originally from Annapolis, MD, (and a military base in Germany,) Julie is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, a year-long, MFA-level novel intensive. She also holds a Master’s in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard University Extension School. Her short fiction has appeared in The Charles River Review, The MacGuffin, and several online publications. As a journalist, she has published more than a thousand articles in The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, Inc. Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. She is represented by Stacy Testa at Writers House and Addison Duffy at United Talent Agency (for film rights.) Julie also owns and operates a 100-acre farm in rural New Hampshire. When she isn’t writing, you can usually find her skiing, kayaking, trying to keep up with her four kids and two dogs, cooking vegetarian food, or digging in the dirt.
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Author: Julie Carrick Dalton