have an idea ignite to suddenly reveal a new dimension of a character
or story? It could be the light at the tunnel’s end or an oncoming
train. Here’s how to vet sudden inspiration.
As an editor, I get queries from
writers saying they were suddenly inspired on how to fix a complex
character or plot problem. While we hope they’re right, it’s best to
begin with the premise that an idea is like a spark. It may take more
than one to fire things up. Two common areas where inspiration can
greatly help, or hinder, are the superficial character and the
lackluster story. We’ll start with the one-dimensional character.
First, it’s common to have
comparatively flat characters in a first draft, even of a nonfiction
piece. After all, you’re still getting to know these people and how to
portray them. But then, while you’re writing draft two, something
unexpected happens. A character does something unscripted, or wants to.
Do you let her? The answer, usually, is yes.
Some writers can follow the
consequences of a character’s unexpected action in their minds.
Certainly, the imagination is a great place to start. To put this new
facet of a character to the test, it’s best to sketch out the scene.
You’ll have to edit it; you may even need to file it away for future
use. But the exercise of writing what the action—or the desire behind
it—reveals is invaluable.
Here’s an example. A husband and
wife are on the verge of divorce. The wife’s mother has been
instrumental in destroying the relationship, and the husband has said
so for years. Just as the couple comes to grips with their plight, the
wife’s mother suicides, leaving a note confessing what she’s done. The
husband is tempted to say, “I told you so.” He’s that type. Instead,
he’s moved with compassion for his wife, though he’s exhibited precious
little of this trait before. Does the writer let him express his
emotions? The answer is yes, not because it’s expected in a situation
like this, but because the husband’s response is spontaneous and shows
another side of him. The couple may still break up, but if they do, it
won’t be because of the clichéd “my husband is an ogre” rationale.
The great thing about this scene
is that it not only reveals another aspect of the husband, it also
advances plot. Two positive outcomes for the effort on one. Still, the
important thing isn’t just that the husband turns out not to be the
brute he’s been so far, but to consider why he showed compassion in
this instance. What previously untapped aspect of his character and
past prompted him to show such empathy? The writer may not use this bit
of backstory overtly now, but it will inform her development of the
husband, and she may choose to use some aspect of the husband’s history
also common for unexpected plot twists to arise in later drafts. Here’s
an example. A woman returns to Barcelona for business and family
obligations. She dreads the trip because her grandfather, with whom she
was close as a child, has dementia. On the surface, the story is about
the woman confronting the
reality that life in the land of her youth is
no longer what it was, a la You Can’t Go Home Again.
However, when the woman boards a train to the Mediterranean coast, she
meets a young artist who reminds her of another creative type she met
years ago. Does she engage in conversation with this younger man, and
leave it at that? Probably not. Tracing her decision to have an affair
with the young artist, presumably to avoid the sadness of her family
situation, could bring her full circle to realize she can’t expect
anyone to “create” a life for her, that her life is her responsibility,
as are her choices and their consequences. A difficult lesson, but one
that makes the outcome more valuable because of the cost. Here, again,
it’s important to understand why the woman makes one choice instead of
another, even if the writer doesn’t include all the details.
From examples like these, It’s
clear that characters and stories are inextricably linked, and that the
choice we make about one impacts the other, especially if we want to
take our work to the next level. So don’t ignore that spark of a new
idea. It may fizzle because it didn’t accomplish what you hoped, or it
can fan your story and characters into flame.
To pose an editing query,
contact Adele Annesi. To see my online writing workshop.
Press Pause Moments: Essays About Life Transitions by Women Writers
Press Pause Moments: Essays About Life
Transitions by Women Writers .