Writing is fun, isn’t it? I mean, usually. Sure, there are long slogs through the swamps of “I have no idea where this is going” and jump-scares from characters who just won’t behave, but really? Bringing a story to life is a pretty amazing experience.
I don’t do a lot of “how to” type posts on writing, because who the heck am I to tell anyone what to do? I have one measly book out. I can’t even call it one and a half, even though Torn is now as good as I can make it, and is waiting to go to my editor. But as I was working through this round of edits, I had several opportunities to use the best piece of advice he gave me last time, and I enjoyed it so much that I thought I’d share it with you guys.
If you’re not so much interested in the nuts-and-bolts of the writing process, I won’t be offended if you want to go grab a coffee or something. We’ll be back with Bound Trilogy-related shenanigans soon.
It’s something that I knew before, but never realized just how useful it can be.
Guys… when you’re a writer, you’re allowed to travel through time. You get to go back and change the past, altering the course of history to reach a more desirable outcome.
You write the story. Stuff happens. Maybe you’ve planned it out in advance, as I like to do. Maybe you’re a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser. You just set your characters up, throw an inciting incident at them, and see what happens. Unless you’re literally planning every detail out in advance, you’re going to have problems to solve along the way. Your hero will be backed into a corner, and she won’t have any way out. What are you gonna do, HOT SHOT?
Well, on your first draft you can always rely on deus ex machina*. Give her a knife she didn’t have before. Let him suddenly develop a magical skill that you’d never even considered. Have a friend drop by unexpectedly for tea… a friend who JUST HAPPENS TO BE A NINJA but who you’ve never mentioned before.
That’s cool in a first draft. But if you don’t want readers to feel ripped off, you need to be a little smoother. And you can. Easily.
So you go back in time and change the past. It’s an amazing ability! You show her using that knife to pick her fingernails clean that morning, her roommate telling her how gross that is, and her laying the knife on the bookcase where it will be waiting for the villain’s unexpected arrival. You get to have the magical master… guy… thing… show your hero a new magic spell that by golly gee he remembers at just the right moment (or however your magic system works). You can nave that NINJA FRIEND introduced earlier in the story, perhaps at the grocery store where she works as a NINJA FRUIT-STACKER.
Okay, it’s best if you can work this in unobtrusively. You don’t want it to be obvious that you’re only setting it up to be used later. That fingernail picking scene should also be building character (she’s such a slob!) and saying something about this person’s relationship with her roommate, which is another obstacle/subplot. The spell should be part of another experience or lesson (see Harry Potter for a thousand examples). The NINJA FRUIT-STACKER should be… I don’t know, something to do with really important cantaloupes that your hero needed in order to solve another problem.
The point is, it doesn’t seem like deus ex machina if you’ve already mentioned this item/skill/friend and made it a natural part of the story. It’s sort of Chekhov’s gun, but backwards. If you’re going to fire a rifle in the final act, it had better be there in the first.
This works for ideas, too. Instead of interrupting your climax for an info-dump to bring the audience up to speed on some important concept, you can go back to some logical place earlier in the story and plant the information. If that logical place doesn’t exist, create it.
See also: logical inconsistencies. Instead of explaining them away later, you can make them make sense earlier on.
Even better, if you’re writing a series, you can draft later books and go back and plant seeds in earlier ones, assuming you’re not publishing before you’ve drafted the next book.
You get to travel through time. Change the past so the future makes sense. GUYS, YOU GET TO BE BILL AND TED.
…Except less ridiculous, and you probably don’t look like Keanu. Sorry.
I’d give you an example from my own work, but I hate to expose the gears and wires to the light.
Okay, fine. Just this once, I’ll admit to something that I screwed up and my editor told me to improve. Minor spoilers ahead if you haven’t read Bound, and COMPLETE DISILLUSIONMENT if you like to believe that stories spring whole and perfect from an author’s mind, never to be altered.
Still with me?
There’s a scene in Bound where Aren and Rowan need a place to hide, and she locates a hidden closet. In early drafts, it was explained that she knew about this sort of closet because the house she grew up in had them, and she’d once got stuck in there while playing hide-and-seek. Simple enough explanation, right? Logical, considering what we already knew about her character and her past.
Two problems: One, those few sentences of explanation took away from the forward momentum of the scene. It’s a tense moment, and here she is explaining some old memory to the reader? Not optimal. Secondly, it felt like the author had just gone, “Crap, I need a hiding spot… DING DING DING closet!” The explanation was far better than her just happening to find it in the nick of time, but it could have been better.
So I zipped back in time to when she was actually at the house she grew up in. One of these hidden closets popped open at an inconvenient time, she used it for something completely unrelated to hiding, and we moved on. Unobtrusive, and it seemed necessary at the time–she got something she needed from the hidden closet, so it wasn’t like, READER, REMEMBER THIS FOR LATER BECAUSE IT’S TOTALLY A THING. It was a detail that could easily not have come up again, as it had played its part in the story.
At least, that’s the idea.
Ideally, the story flows organically. The reader experiences it as it unfolds, without seeing events as something the author planted for later. This is part of our job. We don’t always nail it, but we do try.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to back myself into a whole bunch of corners on a fresh first draft.
PS– don’t steal the knife thing. I’m totally using that. But feel free to use the ninja fruit-stacker in your own story. I’m feeling generous. Also, “Really Important Cantaloupes” is definitely going to be a working title for something, some day.
*Deus ex machina: a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object. (Wikipedia)