How to Rein In an Out-of-Control Story

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Do you ever experience times when your creativity takes over and guides your story off track, so that it begins to feel messy and out-of-control?

Writing friend Sally Hepworth recently sent me an email asking me about that very thing. She said: I usually start with a plot outline which very quickly gets lost when I start writing. Which to some extent is good. But I often end up with something that is ill-thought out and lacking because I have let my creative brain overpower things. Do you have any suggestions?

Whether we're a plotter or a panster (seat-of-the-pants writer), there are times when we're in the middle of a scene or a chapter and our characters or story start to veer into a direction we hadn't planned.

As Sally said, to some extent that's good. We WANT to give our creativity free rein as our story develops. Some of our most brilliant ideas come to fruition as we follow tangents and new leads.

But how do we keep from veering too far off course so that we don't end up with an entirely new story half-way through our books, a 500 page tome, or a ridiculously meandering plot that seems to be going nowhere?

As much as I adore my creativity taking over and coming up with new twists and ideas, I also know that in the modern industry, we have to write tight. We need to deliver a well-told story like a straight-shooting bullet aiming for the bulls-eye. With all the competition, we just don't have the luxury to send out a burgeoning, over-weight story.

So what can we do to rein in a wandering story? Here are several techniques I employ:

1. Start with the end in mind. Any time we start on a trip, it's always a good idea to have the destination in mind. While it might be theoretically fun to jump in your car and simply drive until you end up somewhere interesting, it's not really all that practical. You could waste a lot of time and energy and end up at dead ends.

The same is true in our stories. Maybe you're NOT a plotter. But you will often save yourself a lot of headache and effort if you have a general idea of how you're going to END your story before you begin writing it. Maybe you won't know exactly how you're going to get to that destination. But you'll have the goal in mind guiding you as you write, sort of like a North Star taking you to where you want to go.

2. Be clear on your character arcs. When our stories start to meander too far off course, it's often because we don't really know what our characters should be doing. If we can establish the main issue(s) our characters need to work through (known as the character arc), then we'll have a little more direction with what scenes to include in our books.

Each scene should have numerous reasons for being included in the story and should push our character forward in recognizing their flaw and beginning to grow and change into a better person.

3. Hold to the 3 Act Structure. Whether plotter or panster, we hold our novels together with structure. We often cringe at the thought of building a story within some kind of framework. Our eyes glaze over when we're confronted with terms like 3 Act Structure or the 6 Stages Plot Development.

But whether we like it or not, most of us inherently know that stories must have a beginning, middle, and end. And that's basically all the 3 Act Structure is. Here's a simplified version:

Act 1: We set up the story and introduce our character to a new situation/dilemma.

Act 2: We keep complicating and raising the stakes for our character, forcing them to change.

Act 3: We give them a setback (a black moment), but work toward the climax where they must change, where ultimately they triumph.

4. Make yourself finish the book. When all else fails and your creativity seems to have a mind of its own, then I suggest letting it have its way. Just write. Don't worry about taking detours, which incidentally are the best way to spark further creativity.

If needed, write that 200,000 word book. Include all those unnecessary scenes. Give yourself the freedom to express yourself without limitation.

And above all, make yourself finish the book, even if you don't like the ending or how you got there.

We don't want our internal editors coming out and inhibiting us during the first draft. We want to keep that nit-picky, red-pen-wielding grouch in the closet . . . until we begin editing. Then it's her turn to come out and have fun. But not before that.

Summary: The first draft is just the beginning of the story. We don't have to get it perfect. We just have to get it written.

What about you? Does your story ever get out of control during the first draft? What are some ways you keep yourself on track? 

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