Why I like to write myself into a corner

Most writers say your first idea is cliché, your second idea is mediocre, so you should always go with your third or fourth. For this reason, I like to write myself into a corner, or at least plan myself into one. But that’s bad, you say? I don’t think so. At least, not always.

The reason I think it’s a good idea is the same reason I think most of us, at least me, get ourselves stuck in the first place. We’re going along with our story saying to ourselves, “Well, if this happened, this character would do this, then this would happen…” You get the idea. But we reach a point and go, “Uh-oh, then everyone dies, or then this plot-point won’t work, or then we can’t end up over here.” The corner. But, this is where we can force our mind to come up with a better story, and NOT by saying, “well, if so-and-so does this then it’ll work.” The whole reason we ended up in the corner is because so-and-so wouldn’t do that. We have to come up with a better twist that will allow our characters to be true to who they are, while still moving the story forward. An example:

A few days ago, my family and I were driving in our van listening to a book on CD. I wont’ name it, but some of you will figure it out based on this example. Please know that this author is heads and more heads above me in every area, but this one scene….

We have a quick-thinking girl who has the ability to light anything that’s not alive on fire. Her and her friends are being chased by worm-filled, worm-controlled zombies. Listening to this, my kids immediately said, “Zombies means dead. Light them on fire!”

It took forever for the character to finally figure it out, then it took forever for her to figure out she could save energy by just setting their heads (their control-center not full of worms) on fire.

The comment was made, “Well, how could the author do anything different? If she figured it out immediately then the zombies are no longer a danger.” (The corner)

So we played around with the truth that this character would immediately, or at least very soon, come upon the solution herself. So how could one keep the story going?

“Wouldn’t it be cool if she lights them on fire, but the body explodes and worms fly everywhere and the heroine and her group are nearly contaminated.”

Now that’s chilling, it ratchets up the suspense, and it makes the obvious solution a surprising added danger.

“But then they have no defense and they’ll all die.” (Corner)

No, then it makes sense for her to wait before lighting their hair on fire, or for her to just ignite the tops of their heads as a last resort, and since the brain is left mostly intact by the little wormies, it makes sense that their fat bodies won’t be close enough to the fire to puff up like popcorn and explode. But of course, it’s easy to be critical of someone else’s work. Like I said, this writer is brilliant, but I used this small scene as an example because my family had fun playing with the plot.

A couple of months ago, I found myself in a corner with a book I was working on. I struggled and struggled with how to move the plot forward. I won’t bore you with the details, (mostly because it was complicated and spanned several scenes) but I worked out the semantics and turned a mediocre middle into a hair-raising rise in tension that went much better than originally intended.

So, if your characters are pushing your story into an unsolvable dilemma, maybe instead of trying to steer them clear of the danger, let them take you to the cliff’s edge. Like them, on the brink of utter destruction, you might find an unexpected twist that will catapult you to a higher ledge with a better view. Just make sure it’s not a convenient fix. I’ll talk about those in my next post.

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