Writing Off Into the Dark, Take 2

Hi Folks,

I did a post on Writing Off Into the Dark here some time back. Then recently (as I write this) I got into an 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 thought I’d turn my response to him into a post for you. (grin)

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.”) 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 into the story 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 really 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.

‘Til next time, happy writing!


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2 thoughts on “Writing Off Into the Dark, Take 2”

  1. This is a timely post, and by timely, I mean it applies to my writing TODAY. Yesterday, I was writing along, a little bored but writing anyway, when an event happened in my story, and all of a sudden my adrenaline was pumping, my fingers were flying and I was having fun.

    When I finished, the old critical mind surfaced and said, “that would never happen” and I almost went back and changed things to happen the way they SHOULD have happened to make the story more logical. Then I said, “screw that” and left it like it was and now it’s my favorite scene in the book so far.

    In my writing life, I live for those surprise scenes and I kinda think the readers do too.

    • Absolutely. And somewhere later in the book, the scene will make sense as written because of something you haven’t foreseen yet. More fun! (grin)

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