Decide vs. Discover: Let Your Characters Tell You What Happens Next
I used to think I had to know what was going to happen before I could write. During my first semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), Diane Lefer, my advisor, wrote to me:
I would suggest thinking less ABOUT your characters and instead just trying to put yourself in their shoes and see where they take you.I copied this sentence on an index card and taped it above my desk. These twenty-four words worked like scissors, cutting me loose. I thought I had to know. I thought I had to decide, but instead I could discover. I could just place the characters in a scene and see what happened.
I learned to wait.
Granted, it’s a subtle difference: decide versus discover. I mean, we are the writers. But here’s an example: in the novel I’m working on now, there are three trailers off to the side of the road. They appeared because one of my characters needed a place to live. Who was living in the other two? Well, a son appeared; he could have one. So who was living in trailer #3? I didn’t know. I kept writing. I wrote “Who is living in trailer #3?” on a card and taped it next to the other card. Weeks went by. What I discovered by waiting and not deciding was that no one was living in trailer #3.
And, as Robert Frost wrote, that has made all the difference.
Cynthia Newberry Martin lives in Columbus, Georgia, the home of Carson McCullers. Her fiction, essays, and book reviews have appeared, or will appear, in Gargoyle, Contrary, Storyglossia, and Numéro Cinq. She is the Review Editor for Contrary and currently in her third semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts working toward her MFA in Writing. You can find her at Catching Days.
* * *Thank you, Cynthia, for sharing this approach to plotting. I especially like your advisor's advice to put yourself in your characters' shoes and "see where they take you." One way I've done this is to keep a journal written in first person, from my character's point of view. In a blog post last summer, I talked about the journal I kept while writing Rosa, Sola. Below is a variation of the Writing Workout I included with that post.
Every writer has a different method for figuring out the next turn in his or her story. Tune in Friday 6/15, when Sion Dayson, another Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) colleague, will show us another technique for inching forward in the dark.
Create a journal where your characters can tell you what happens next.
- I prefer using a paper journal that I write in with a pen. Something about physically pushing the pen across the page allows me to connect with my characters in a different way than typing on a keyboard.
- The journal doesn't have to be expensive. It can be a simple spiral notebook or composition book. (These are usually on sale in August for back-to-school.)
- I also like personalizing the journal's cover. I typically paste a photograph that represents something important to the character, or that is an image of the character herself.
- Once I have my journal, I use it to ask my character questions. I write the question at the top of the page. Some examples: What are your likes/dislikes? What is your biggest problem or fear? What do you REALLY want? How did you feel when . . . .
- My character "responds" to the questions in the journal. (Of course, I am the one writing the response, but I write in first person as though the character is speaking through me.)
- I've used this technique for both main characters and important secondary characters. The process has yielded interesting and unexpected results, often helping me figure out "what happens next."