The Nighttime Novelist...accomplishes more in about 240 pages than a dozen other "how to write" or "craft your novel" books have ever done.

--Helen Gallagher/Blogcritics




Sunday, November 21, 2010

NaNoWriMo Tip #18: Take an Unexpected Turn

This is the point in November when a number of NaNoWriMo-ers are perhaps--how does one say it?--a tad sick of their stories. And there's a valid, even a practical, reason why this might be the case: a well-constructed novel is, to some degree, about pattern-making, setting up character and conflict early on, showing that basic relationship, and then building meaning through variations on a theme. But the patterns you set up--the kind of necessary, inevitable structure a novel needs--can also begin to feel restrictive, repetitive, as you get mid- to late-book. As if you, as the author, have become boxed in by the very rules you've set up.

In other words, you might be caught in a rut...which is as insidious a novel-killer as anything out there. If so, may I suggest that taking a sharp left turn in your book could be just the thing to excite you again. And, as a bonus, it can be just the thing you need to give you new life and actually make it to that ending, and that meaning, you've been thinking about all along.

What I mean by a sharp left turn: It's possible, having led the reader to expect a certain thing--say, having your character make right turns only, until it becomes an expected thing--to do something unexpected and find that it still leads to the same destination.

In my post "15 Ways of Getting Unstuck," I referenced a couple of famous and favorite left turns in literature. I'll revisit them quickly, and add another that you might be familiar with:

--Exit, pursued by a bear. This is one of the more famous unexpected turns in literary history...and certainly one of the most famous stage directions. It comes from Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, which for the first three acts behaves as a drama...until the end of the third act, whereupon a character exits the stage, and play, pursued by a bear, after which the play becomes a comedy (and allows Shakespeare to explore the fine line between comedy and tragedy, what the two have in common).

--"The road opened in a long jagged crack, tiny at first, then ripping wide." Eighty pages into Tim O'Brien's gorgeous Going After Cacciato--about a group of soldiers pursuing an AWOL private (Cacciato) determined to walk from Vietnam, away from the war, all the way to Paris--the ground beneath the soldiers' feet opens up and swallows them whole, the characters falling for pages before finally coming to rest in a series of elaborate tunnels...which they eventually have to escape by "falling back up." At this audacious turn, what has ostensibly been a Vietnam novel becomes a kind of modern Alice in Wonderland...but it's an unexpected turn that nevertheless fits perfectly, given the novel's theme of placating the harsh realities of war with imagination, and also given the topsy-turvy world the soldiers, as especially the protagonist Paul Berlin, find themselves in. (Haven't read it? Do so at once.)

--"In 1975, Andy Dufresne escaped from Shawshank. He hasn't been recaptured, and I don't think he ever will be." Approximately seventy-five percent into Stephen King's novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the protagonist, Andy Dufresne, escapes...meaning, escapes from Shawshank prison, and seemingly from the novella itself. It's a moment that catches the reader completely by surprise--well, if the protagonist's gone, why are there so many pages left? why keep reading?--but the way the novel keeps going, with the first-person observer narrator, Red, imagining what probably happened to Andy, what might've happened, of course reveals the real driving force of the book: hope. And Andy's escape, and the hope it gives Red as he imagines how his friend got the better of Shawshank, fuels the story right up to its wonderful, poetic conclusion.

In my own novel rewrite I did this summer, I had a similar thing happen very late in the book, where I'd set up a certain pattern throughout that I'd become sick of, frankly--it's a baseball novel, so there's a certain amount of "then they played in this town; then they played in this town." Toward the end, I saw an opportunity to do something completely different, deliberately breaking the pattern. Not only was the turn maybe the best in the whole book--it was certainly a lot of fun to write--it didn't move me away from the ending I wanted, and what I wanted to leave readers with. As in the above examples, the move helped me get there, just in an unexpected way.

If you've hit a point in your book where the surprise and anticipation are lacking for you--if your plot has become rutted--consider what options are available to you at your next turning point that you hadn't thought of before, that seem, perhaps, opposite of the direction you've been taking. And then think of what making the sharp left would mean for your book...and how it might better it.

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