Are you ready to face the repercussions of the major turning point in your story? It may not only take your characters and story world for a ride, as the writer, you need to buckle up, too.
Chiseling away at my current novel-in-progress has become a nightly pandemic ritual — and as I described in my National Endowment for the Arts article, “Creativity in Quarantine,” every word transplanted from imagination to paper feels like a miniature triumph.
Last week, I hit a major turning point. When I began conceptualizing my plot years ago, I knew that right about now in the storyline, one of my key characters would experience a major rotation in life experience. I was surprised to find that, when it came time to work on the chapter that finally revealed this seismic shift, I couldn’t type a thing.
The core of my paralysis was that, without consciously realizing it until that moment, I had developed serious doubts as to whether such a major change was the right thing for my character, my story, and my writing process. Would this earthquake enhance my story or degrade it? Would my readers experience my choice as realistic and organic, or would it pull them out of my imagined world and destroy my storytelling’s flow? Most importantly, could I pull off my original plan in a way that would make me proud?
As I write this blog post, I’ve reached a conclusion that feels correct and I’ve started to doggedly write my chosen path into existence — but it took some mental jiu jitsu to get there. Here are some strategies that helped me wrestle with my plot twist questions. I hope they can help you make the right choices when roads diverge in your own storytelling.
Re-read for context and momentum
Whenever I run into creative concrete, my first step is to back up by a sentence, paragraph, chapter, or more. Then I re-read, not as the writer, but as a reader coming to the work for the first time. And I hit my trouble spot with the story’s full momentum.
The hope is that arriving at my turning point in this fashion will spark fresh insight as to what the characters would realistically do next, or what circumstances my imagined world would feasibly rain upon them.
A key aspect of this is getting a taste for how your story flows up to your turning point. Will Option A continue and enhance whatever mood and momentum you have in place? Will Option B essentially run it into a ditch? This is important to keep in mind as you make your choice.
Similarly, context is key. As a writer who writes a lot, I know how easy it can be for words to exit your memory as soon as you hit “Save” or “Send.” When you reread your work, truly rediscover it. Pay attention to the textures, details, hints, and clues you may have written previously, possibly without realizing it. There may be more guiding information there than you expect. Keep all of this detective work in mind as you figure out which choice makes the most sense for your characters and story as a whole.
Write something different
At this point in my process, I’m moving more or less chronologically through my novel. As I work from first to final chapter, I mildly rewrite some sections, drastically reinvent others, and create new text when needed to stitch previously-completed chunks together.
When I arrived at the big turning point and found I couldn’t do more without a clear concept of my character’s fate, not writing wasn’t an option. So I pivoted and wrote something else.
First, I put together a one-page prologue that had been simmering in a corner of my imagination for months. Then I fast-forwarded to sections close to the climax of my novel and spent time revising and editing those, so when I arrive there chronologically, the material will be easier to polish to completion.
The result? When I returned to my Big Important Question, I had fresh confidence and no longer felt like I was kicking a cinder block up a hill. Also, as per the above, working on other sections gave me fresh context — and reminded me of important clues — that helped me choose the plot path that most organically fit within my novel.
This is the least sexy point to consider, but a key one nonetheless. My story is already over 100,000 words and will likely swell by another 20,000 before I’m done. If I choose the more inflammatory option for my character, realistically speaking, there may be more chapters that scream to be written than I have the time, patience, and word count for.
Granted, there’s no external limit on my novel’s size, and I plan to write it to completion, whatever that means in the end. But having worked on this book for four years now, I’m eager to get it done.
What it comes down to is examining the range of options surrounding your turning point and looking, with brutal honesty, at whether you can tolerate the path you’re considering. If one direction will simply render the process too time-consuming for you to handle — requiring you to write loads of new text that will stretch your sanity or drastically rework massive chunks of your story that you had previously put to bed and do not wish to reawaken — this is important to keep in mind.
Know you can always go back
In my novel-writing process, I’ve found that risk nearly always brings rewards and inflammation transmutes into creative fuel. Therefore, I plan to embrace my original plan, turn my imagined world moderately on its head, and see what happens. After all, I have copious backup files in hand — and (I hope) the patience to see this experiment through to the end — so it’s worth a try.
In your own work, remember that the beauty of creative writing lies largely in the writer’s complete control over characters, storyline, and the imagined world. The right choices are the ones that you believe in — so if a major plot turn ends up working, keep it. If not? Keep re-navigating until it does.
How do you approach major turning points in your work? Tell us in the comments below.
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