It’s been a struggle to keep my story on plot as I write my novel’s first draft, but I’ve finally figured out why things go wonky every few scenes: my characters aren’t following the script.
The culprit is usually a secondary character (different secondaries in different scenes). One character will say or do something that, though it makes total sense for that particular character in that particular situation, doesn’t quite work with the plot. My story is a sci/fi thriller—so the plot is complex and needs to be tight. One small shift can ripple out to effect other character reactions causing the story to veer further and further off course.
If the shift is a big one, it’s obvious when things have gone sideways from my outline, and I’ll spot it right away and deal with the issue immediately. I’ll ask myself if that is really what that character—given his or her background, psychology, situation, and motivation—would do? If the answer is yes, I need to tweak the plot or the character—or both.
But usually the veering away is subtle. I don’t even realize my story has taken a wrong turn until several hundred words later. Only then does the I’m lost in the weeds feeling creep up on me.
This plot-veering has been driving me nuts for a while. I’ve written a few posts about it, and am excited to have figured out the major cause. Now—hopefully—when I get that lost feeling, I’ll know where to look and what to look at in order to find exactly what—or I should say who—mucked up the steering.
That’s the up-side. The down-side is that once I’ve found one of those veering points where a character’s reaction doesn’t sync with the plot, I have to figure out how to deal with it. Sometimes there’s a simple fix. Sometimes the fix is frustrating and painful, with far-reaching story effects (Arrrrrg!) Either way, I want to get the characters and plot to mesh well on this first draft. I think character reactions are hugely important. For me, as a reader, nothing kills a book faster than a character who does, says, or thinks something overtly out-of-character only because an authentic reaction would have messed up the plot.
Maybe this is all good. Maybe it means that my characters are coming to life on the page. (I can hope.) Probably it means that I don’t know them nearly as well as I think I do. Or maybe the only way to really get to know my characters is by writing their story.
I can live with that. If I get through my first draft with a tight, solid plot, and believable characters whose reactions make sense, I’ll be pretty darn happy-clappy. I just wish it wasn’t taking so loooooong!
So how about you? What kinds of things throw your stories off track? Or am I the only writer who feels like she’s herding cats?