What do you do when you are working on a story and your characters start going off on a tangent? When they leave the outline behind and insist on going down the rabbit hole that you never even saw?
There are some writers who will tell you to back up to where they started going off script and get them back on. You are the writer after all, and they are just the characters.
I’m not that kind of writer. I believe that the subconscious has been listening to stories for many years longer than your conscious mind has been thinking about them. That would make the subconscious the better expert in telling a good story. So do you want a story told by your subconscious or your conscious? Well they need to work together because your subconscious isn’t so great at the spelling and grammar bits and you do need some logic which is where your conscious mind is the better part. But for plot and good story I’m going to go with the expert.
What’s happening when your characters are running off on their own is that they are playing in the subconscious part of your mind. After all they are your characters. It’s just that they aren’t really comfortable living in your conscious mind (that’s the part that came up with that outline). The world inside your subconscious mind is a much better place for something like a character to live and play. They have so much more freedom to be real people there.
When my characters take off on their own, I just follow along with a note pad. There will be plenty of time in the editing process to bring back the logic and believability. In the meantime, I take it as the note that it is: “Your outline wasn’t true to the characters – they just wouldn’t do that. Besides this is more interesting”. OK, I get it. My logical brain isn’t so good at predicting the action of real people either, so I shouldn’t be too surprised when it fails at predicting the made up people that I have in my head.
Yeah, that sounds rather strange. What I mean is that since I let my subconscious develop the characters, they are more like real people than my conscious mind can handle. So I don’t handle it. I go with it.
When my characters take off – I go with it.
When the story decides to get weird – I go with it.
When the MCs and minor characters switch places – I go with it.
I just go with it. I let the creative process run it’s course for the rough draft and see what I get. Most of the time I get workable stories that can be edited into something I’m willing to put my name to. Those few time that it goes just too far off I put it aside and call it “practice”. Every once in a while my conscious mind can talk my subconscious mind back to the realm of believable. Mostly those stories were just fun to write and they served to work out something that I needed to get out. Much in the way that dreams do.
It’s not always easy to just go with it. It can be scary if you are writing to a deadline and you don’t know where your characters are going. Do you know if they are going to reach an acceptable “the end” in time to edit it and get it sent off? Well that’s where your time management skills come in. If they are taking a longer route to the end, you will just have to amp up your output for the story. And really if you are working that close to the deadline you might want to consider working in more time to your deadlines. Just sayin’.
There is also the worry that you don’t know if the end your characters are running for is the same one that you have planned. Probably not, but that’s OK. Just because you planned one ending, doesn’t mean you can’t get something equally satisfying just a bit different – and if you don’t get to your planned ending see above about the notes from your subconscious. That ending wasn’t true to the characters.
Some people would suggest that if your outline doesn’t match your characters you should change the characters. That is one way to go about it, and I won’t tell you not to do it. I find that the work I put into building a character far outweighs what I do building an outline. So if it comes down to “change the character” vs “change the outline” I’m going with the outline. Less work down the drain and less work to rebuild it. Again I look at which part of my brain came up with each and realize that the expert story teller is the one that came up with the characters. I’m going to take the advice of my own expert.