What do fiction and chocolates have in common with life in general? How does creative writing relate to a sweet tooth? That’s the topic of today’s post.
Forrest Gump’s mother, played by Sally Field, once told her son, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna git.”
Well, writing a novel can be a lot like life, at least when you’re a “pantser” like me and don’t use an outline.
Maybe that’s why we write. Maybe the discoveries, the uncertainties, and the twists and turns involved in writing a novel help us deal with the uncertainties of life.
I’ve written before about a time I went to the grocery store just to pick up a couple of items I needed. I had a plan for dinner, or I thought I did. Then I ran into a friend, who got to talking about meat, and all of a sudden, my plans changed.
I was going to cook chili. I was going to buy the ingredients for chili and make a big pot of it, and have leftovers all week. And that’s exactly what I did.
I related that experience to characterization: to how an author should be open to their characters changing plans and deciding to make chili. This is a common occurrence while drafting a novel. In fact, it’s more common than I ever would have thought before I wrote my first book.
The joys and frustrations of your characters surprising you that way provide just one example of how creative writing is like life, and like that box of chocolates.
Sometimes you don’t get what you want
Sometimes you really want that caramel-filled chocolate, but you pick the almond one. Sometimes you want dark, and all that’s available is light.
Writing’s the same way: as is life. You can’t always get what you want, because some things are simply outside our control, such as the thoughts, actions, motives, and desires of other people. Of our characters.
On occasion, the discoveries our character lead us to, as if by chance, are so superior to anything else we’d considered, that there’s no problem. I only thought I wanted a caramel. When I saw that piece of chocolate that’s clearly coated in coconut that I didn’t know was in there, I changed my mind.
On other days, I don’t want the coconut. All that’s in the box is coconut, though. I had my heart set on a truffle, and it looks like I’ll have to settle for coconut.
Sometimes, when this occurs, all the author can do is give in. Is accept that even though our idea for that awesome scene was inspiring and exciting, the scene doesn’t fit the novel that we’re writing. There’s no space for it in the chocolate box.
We might be able to use parts of it in the novel, or use it in a different novel. But it’s never a good idea to throw in a scene just because you want to write it, or because you like the idea of it.
Other times, though, there are strategies you can use to maybe make the scene fit after all. Here are some suggestions about how to determine if the scene you want is possible.
- Alter, if you can, a character’s situation. Or knowledge base. Your problem is that you want your character Joslyn to choose option A, but her instinct would be to choose B. Well, consider this: In what circumstance would she conceivably choose A? If she had more, or maybe less, information, would that impact her choice? Is it possible to alter your story a bit, so that the character logically would possess either more or less information? If some event would have to happen to change how she thinks or feels about the situation, would such an event make sense, or even improve your story as it now stands?
- Are you missing a character? Do you have one too many? Could you fuse two characters into one? Sometimes, adding to or otherwise altering your cast of characters can be a great solution to this problem. Why? Changing your players changes the game and how the game unfolds, because character drives fiction.
Changing who your characters are (to some extent) or altering the situation in which they find themselves can set you up for the scene you want to write. Remember, though, your characters need to be consistent in their personality and their thought processes. If you realize that a character isn’t who you originally thought, that “new” character needs to run throughout the whole work.
While major characters can and should change somewhat through the course of a novel, that change is the result of a natural development that must be plausible in the eyes of the reader.
When the chocolate you want just isn’t there
What happens, though, when the truffle you really wanted doesn’t fit in the box of chocolates you started out with? And you can’t make it fit?
Don’t force it in. And don’t fret. You can always use that idea later on. You can write a sequel, or you can take your plot point and apply it to entirely new characters in an entirely new situation. Who knows? You might end up liking that even better than you would have liked your original idea.
Of course, you can always write the scene you wanted to write, the way you wanted to write it, just for you. To make you happy. Nothing wrong with that at all. Who said everything you wrote had to be with the express purpose of publication? That you can’t ever write a scene for the heck of it and not attach it to a larger work?
No one, that’s who.