On the evolution of stories and a case of unexpected philosophy.
There are those who scoff at authors when they claim they have no control over the stories that they tell, that they are a conduit through which stories are told, more like a medium than an engineer. That some external force, a muse, is directing them.
It does sound a bit artsy, doesn’t it?
I don’t believe I have no control, far from it. I have acres of axed and edited scenes which have been subjected to my control. But sometimes I do find myself surprised by the direction in which my stories evolve. And maybe that’s what all authors really mean when they claim their characters speak to them or that they found themselves dragged to a completely unexpected place. Despite your original idea or plan, you find yourself doing something completely different and sometimes it’s hard to place when you decided to deviate, why or how.
Not according to plan
I’m currently working on a romance novella called Annabelle Blue. When I first conceived of the idea I imagined the story destined to be a hot, steamy affair with just enough back story to make the characters believable. As soon as I started writing that went out the window, partially because I found myself far more interested in other aspects of the story. So now it seemed set to become a romance adventure story, with action and discovery.
The more I wrote, the more I found that even this wasn’t going to work. For one, I kept putting up barriers to my characters getting together. I’d set out to write a short, sexy liaison and now I was adding in complications at every turn. I knew I was doing it, but why? It would have been easy to claim that my characters just weren’t cooperating, and wouldn’t get together. Easier to blame it on them, perhaps.
Could it be that there was some other story that wanted to be told and was bending my will to its own ends? Spooky.
Patchy rough draft done I began picking it apart to figure out what was going on. Something really wasn’t working. I figured out that the story wasn’t about the relationship alone; it was about the protagonist changing her complete outlook on life. That realisation prompted some substantial additions to show the life she was coming from.
Now I was at the point where the physical events of the story formed a backdrop, even a metaphor for the mental and emotional journey of the protagonist, but now I found myself experiencing an unexpected case of philosophy. In hunting around for some interesting quotes, I stumbled upon poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson and got into one of those Wikipedia loops where you lose half a day following links around the internet. Emerson was a key proponent of Transcendentalism, which is all about the power of self, fate and the relationship between the two. I suddenly saw my protagonist’s journey as an individual example of a greater question regarding self-determinism versus conformation.
I won’t go so far as to say the result is something that could be classed as literary fiction, but I would tentatively suggest it has the legs (if not the length) to be mainstream. Whatever it is, (or will be when it’s finished) it’s a far cry from what I originally intended.
Who’s in control, then?
Doesn’t that then suggest that I am out of control? This wasn’t the story I wanted to write!
Well no, because at every point during that evolution, I was making the decisions to change tact, no matter how unconsciously.
It does however raise a question; how do you know when to go with an impulse to deviate and when to stick with your original plan? Where do those impulses come from? Those gut feelings? Sometimes it is so hard to fathom it seems believable that some external force is acting through you. Perhaps it is also easier to follow your muse unquestioningly, abdicate control and go with every impulse. If you claim the story is guiding you, then you don’t have to question why you suddenly feel the need to add a seventy-year-old hunchback called Gerald with an addiction to cheese to your sci-fi adventure. All will come clear in time, right?
It’s not a bad strategy to be honest. You gut feelings for a reason; you may not be able to put your finger on why, but most of the time your gut (or your muse, if you like) is onto something. And, at the end of the day, you’re the one with access to the delete key, not your muse (or your gut). At least if you explore every impulse you may discover the perfect solution. Gerald the cheese loving hunchback can always be surgically removed during later edits.