Going Where Your Story Leads You (Or: Plot Twist!)

writing, editing, character development

Going Where Your Story Leads You (Or: Plot Twist!)

Last week, for the first time in more than a year (thank you, vaccines!), I met some friends at a restaurant.

Let me clarify: I met about 20 friends at a packed patio bar in the middle of downtown Austin on a busy Thursday night.

When the pandemic started, my husband and I followed the CDC guidelines and we pretty much went to ground, staying home, shutting down most of our activities, and limiting our social gatherings to two or three people at a time in wide-open outdoor spaces.

As wonderful as it was to finally see–and hug!–friends I’ve seen only in a two-dimensional Zoom room for the last year, from nearly the moment I stepped into the packed patio space I felt disoriented, uncomfortable…a little freaked out.

All those voices shouting over one another in the crowded space, plus the occasional train blowing by on the tracks behind the open patio, plus all those people at once whom I hadn’t seen for so long, trying to catch up, crammed into two picnic tables…I started to shut down.

I think of myself as a “learned extrovert”–I routinely test right about 50-50 introvert/extrovert, but thanks to my upbringing and past career pursuits (actor and journalist), I’ve always adapted to situations where extroversion seemed called for by what I call “pulling out the sparkle.”

But I just couldn’t do it that night. I literally sat pressed into a corner, and when one of our friends showed up with her dog, you’d better believe I got that pup onto my lap and happily hung back with him for the rest of the evening.

The pandemic, it seems, may have turned me into an introvert.

My initial reaction (as it too often is) was to beat myself up for it–why couldn’t I find my sparkle? Why didn’t I even really try very hard? I’ve never thought of myself as an introvert, and I didn’t want to be one.

But lying in bed later, ruminating about it, I realized that that’s what is. At least at the moment. I can fight it and push out the sparkle–which will be inauthentic and likely come across as forced—or I can lean into this unforeseen change in my nature and see where it takes me.

Does this sound familiar in your own pandemic experience…or in your writing?

Often writers–whether plotters or “pantsers” (those who write by the seat of their pants) have a specific idea in mind for what story they want to tell, where they want it to go. Sometimes we can get so attached to that original intention that we shove our characters onto the route we want them to take…regardless of how things may change or develop in the course of the story coming to life.

The problem with that is that it often results in flat stories. Readers see through them–they may not know why the story feels distant or artificial or doesn’t move them, but they damn skippy know they’re not connecting with it.

Stories are organic creations. Even if you carefully plan out every step of the journey, sometimes your characters develop not only rich depth and dimension…but minds of their own.

Years ago the creators of the show How I Met Your Mother caused a furor among fans with the final episode of the series. After a nine-year journey with the five main characters, in which each had changed and grown across the series, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas shoehorned together two characters who had moved on from each other years previously.

At the outcry of fans, who had become invested in these main characters’ key relationships with other characters that had developed over the last few seasons—which the creators completely negated in the final episode (SPOILERS!)—Bays and Thomas justified the ending as the one they’d envisioned for the series all along.

The characters and the story had evolved, but the writers—stuck in their original vision—refused to evolve with them.

Stories don’t always obey the parameters we as authors may set for them. As we do the work of fleshing out the characters and setting them loose in the world we’ve created, they may decide to move into corners of it we hadn’t intended.

In some ways—woo-woo as it sounds—creating a story is a collaboration between the author and the characters. At first we may play a predominant role in dictating their paths, but at a certain point as they come to life they may take over the reins–whether we want them to or not.

You can force them back to where you think they should go–or, as I decided to do with my unexpected introversion, you can be authentic and lean into what is…see what happens, where the story takes them. The story should serve and stem from your characters and their arcs, not the other way around.

The story should serve and stem from your characters and their arcs, not the other way around.

That’s different from “shiny new thing” syndrome (which I’ll write about in a future post)–where an author gets distracted when things get tough in their writing and leaps to a seductive new idea. This is a more organic shift—a willingness to accept the living fluidity of story and creativity and evolve with your characters…even if their journeys don’t turn out to be what you thought they would be.

Even if your own journey doesn’t either.

Over to you, authors: Have you experienced an unexpected shift in your stories (or yourself)? Did you fight it or lean in–and what happened in either case?

If you want to dig deeper into creating deeply developed characters (who may then come to life and revolt against you), check out my upcoming course with Jane Friedman, Craft Believable and Compelling Characters, June 2 from 1-2:15 EST (recording available afterward for registrants), $25.

14 Comments. Leave new

  • Rebecca Rosenberg
    May 27, 2021 12:44 pm

    Such a great point, Tiffany. Following the changing psyche of the character, and even including their internal struggle with that. Using this tip today! Thanks! And…we have all changed, as we do with each day. Good to recognize it and decide if the new adaptation is what we want for ourselves!

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      May 28, 2021 12:16 pm

      That’s one thing I think the pandemic might have been good for–a pause, a step back, and a reassessment if we want it. I’m trying to be kind to myself and see where I am now, and go with that, rather than fight it–in my writing as well as my psyche. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Rebecca!

  • I agree, Tiffany. A manuscript begins with, at the least, a broad direction, but it’s well-developed characters who will tell you which path they would rather take. I write historical fiction, and so I’m forced to think more about my character’s past. Still, in this manuscript, I chose to dive even deeper and more detailed into my character’s lives with meticulously crafted backstories. The result is my characters have refused to march lockstep through my well-outlined plot, and they are causing me no end of anguish in my first draft. But all this backstory work will (hopefully) mean I will get to a readable, believable draft with fewer rewrites.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      May 28, 2021 12:38 pm

      I love that, Bret–well-placed and developed backstory is such a key part of bringing characters to life…which of course is when they start dictating the path they want to take. 🙂 Frustrating and fascinating, to me, when they take on a life of their own. Thanks for the comment!

  • Thank you Tiffany,
    I definitely start driving the bus, or trying to, but occasionally a character or the story itself takes the wheel, and I find myself riding rather than driving, and going places I would never have thought to go or would have been afraid to. The surprise and wonder make up for some of the straining that go into producing a first draft. They are also often the best parts of the product, the parts I keep during revision. I wish it happened more often. Having something surprising spill out of me onto the page is one of my favorite experiences. Can be puzzling, but always exhilarating.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      May 28, 2021 12:41 pm

      Exactly! That’s one of my favorite parts of writing, and why I have a general plot in mind, but leave lots of room to follow new directions if they serve the characters’ arcs as they develop. It’s a fine line–sometimes it can lead to dead ends–but most often I find that when I get stuck in a manuscript it’s because I’m trying to force my vision, rather than following the way the characters are developing and directing the story. Love that you enjoy the delicious unknown of the ride too! If I knew everything out of the gate I don’t think I’d want to write the story–partly I’m writing to find out myself what’s going to happen. 🙂

  • This felt so timely. Both regarding the pandemic and my writing. I’ve started to socialize more as restrictions lift, but I find it is quite exhausting. I have become accustomed to my forced introversion during the height of the pandemic. I found so many things to love in that time, mostly the freedom to write and not drive my kids around to a million activities.

    For two years I’d been outlining/dreaming up a story while writing another, and thought I had the whole thing worked out to the very end, all the plot points, character arcs, everything. And then I finished the other book, and wrote the draft of the new one in a few months, and got to the end, and realized, this is NOT the ending I had planned. I don’t know what happened, or if I can explain it, but it went from HEA to horribly sad, and forcing it back to that HEA is like trying to fit a puzzle piece that is not quite right. I tried and tried, but everything I wrote to make it HEA felt contrived and unrealistic. I’m only one draft in, so there’s still time to find a fix, but what if I don’t? Is it the right ending? It’s so hard to tell. It’s a twist I did not see coming. For now, I am going to lean into it. Because I can’t see any other way.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      May 28, 2021 12:44 pm

      I love this, Cate. And how telling that the HEA you wanted to write just didn’t want to happen right now for this story. I think a lot of us are holding more sorrow and fear and confusion about the last year(s) than we may be aware of. Anyway, I’m not of the school of thought that all stories (for most genres, anyway) have to have a happy ending–although I do like to have a hopeful one. As long as it’s true to the characters and their journey, though, I think it’s more organic to honor whatever that ending turns out to be.

      Glad you’ve found a way to “lean in” during the pandemic too. There’s been so much that was lost, but I’m also trying to see what may have been gained from it. I saw someone refer to it as the Great Pause, and maybe that can have a good side to it. Thanks for the comment.

  • I love this post, Tiffany, and not just because I’m leaning into my own pandemic introversion! In writing my own story, one thing I’ve discovered is sometimes I can get to the same major plot points I’ve mapped out, but I need to listen to the characters’ voices to tell me the exact way they’ll get there. Sometimes, this means making adjustments to more minor plot points, but if I trust my own instincts in telling the story, while respecting who the characters have truly become, then the right path will reveal itself.

    For instance, one plot point in my story involves a man having a tragic secret from the woman he loves, which he doesn’t reveal until nearly the end of the story (and the delayed reveal is critical). In my original conception of the story, the delayed reveal was justified because the two characters had broken up and were barely speaking to each other until the very end of the story. But as the story actually unfolded on the page, the two characters ended up trying to fix their relationship and speaking frequently with one another. So, in keeping with the major plot point, the man convinced himself the woman would be in danger if he told her the secret–overprotectiveness, basically, which was already well within this man’s character from the moment he first arrives on the page, and also based on a very real sense of danger to the woman herself.

    I’ve found that approaching things this way keeps me in control of the overall plot, but it honors the characters’ own right to be exactly who they are. And it’s tremendously satisfying, too, to watch your characters achieve your aims in organic and unanticipated ways, using the seeds you’ve planted along the way.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      May 28, 2021 2:44 pm

      I’m always amazed by the way authors unconsciously seed into their stories every right element with a character to create the perfect storm of traits and history that make this journey essential and the most impactful. Even if the author isn’t aware of it and those threads need to be teased out and developed in the edit, I notice in almost every edit that the seeds are there. I think as creatives we observe and dissect human nature more than some (including our own!), and we may instinctively understand these psychological connections without consciously knowing we do. That’s when letting the characters take over can be so effective–if we follow where they “lead” once they begin to come to life, it can create such an organic and cohesive story. I love that you refer to “honoring” the characters’ right to be who they are. (Good advice in life too, isn’t it?) My husband, a non-writer, always finds it hilarious that I refer to characters doing things I didn’t expect. “YOU’RE writing them!” he always says. We are–but only sort of. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Courtney, and for sharing the way you follow the story.

  • Martha Eddleman
    May 31, 2021 10:53 pm

    Over the past few months I started watching TikTok, particularly videos featuring rescue animals. Their reaction to release from the confines of a cage seem to parallel human reaction. When the cage opens: some hide in the back corner, terrorized by the the unfamiliar, the unknown; some approach the door cautiously, step out, hoping for the best but not ready to participate fully quite yet; and some race out, running in circles, yelping, “I’m free. Let’s party.” I think I embrace the second category. With a smile and a mask, I cautiously approach the future.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      June 1, 2021 2:00 am

      That’s about the size of it–reassessing the world out there after so long in our caves. Glad to hear you’re out there with open arms!

  • I was working on a story a while back… really into it. Suddenly, out of the blue, the character did something totally out of left field. It stopped my in my tracks. At that moment, I realized I got out of the way, and the character took over. It was a cool, creepy, exhilarating feeling.


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