or how to tackle plot impasses.
How often as writers have we emerged from the wilderness of our words to find we’re not exactly where we’re meant to be? It happens to plotters and pantsers alike. The story takes a tiny deviation and suddenly we’re in a whole (hole?) new place.
A Story About an Accidental Turn
Year Nine school camp took us to Apollo Bay/Ottway Ranges along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria for four nights. The same camp had been running at the school for years: two nights by the beach in Apollo Bay, two nights roughing it in the bush, sleeping under bivvies in preparation for Outward Bound in Year Ten.
Our group started with the roughing it bit and were dropped off, with our backpacks, to hike down into the camping area by the river.
Miss Dorman, our PE teacher, told us we were taking a slightly different route to other years, but it wouldn’t be much longer: two hours tops! One hour went by, followed by another, then another. The afternoon air cooled our shoulders, our backs ached from carrying heavy backpacks for the first time, and it became apparent we were “just a little bit lost.” It was okay, we were told–the gorge ahead was where we had to be.
On sunset we came out of the bush, on the edge of the gorge, several kilometres too close to the coast and without a trail down.
Gorge vs Dead End
It is a common writing topic: dead ends and writing yourself out again.
That night back in 1988 we weren’t at a dead-end. We’d simply arrived at a place which was much harder than anticipated to traverse. We hung tight and waited for morning and a new way out.
What if as writers we considered our plot impasses as arriving on the edge of a gorge facing a more difficult trip down, rather than being in dark, nasty alley facing a brick wall?
Are we really at the end? Or have we simply arrived at a place where there is a huge divide between where we are and where we want/need to be.
The metaphor of a dead-end provide two alternatives: give up or go back. Neither of these adds momentum to writing, in fact it draws energy from the writing process and pummels our confidence.
Do we really want to go all the way back… and how far do we go back? Is it possible to spot where we lost our way? Is it worth throwing the towel in? Not exactly an inspiring mindset.
The metaphor of a gorge gives hope, a way forward, albeit a more difficult one than we’d originally considered. But a way forward nonetheless.
A Light to Illuminate the Way
(Back to Year Nine Camp!) When night fell, the sky above the gorge erupted into a sea of stars, freed from the light pollution of the city, and below on the beach, emergency beacons sprung to life. We had no way of communicating our location or the fact we were all fine (it was 1988 and years before any of us would see a mobile phone). Seeing those beacons, gave me the fortitude to make the best of our less than salubrious circumstances. Someone and something was out there. And tomorrow night, we would be too.
The following exercise is the light to give you fortitude to keep on going. As an extra bonus, it has the potential to provides a rough map off the edge and down into the gorge.
The PoV of Three
Several years ago I took a short story workshop with award-winning Brisbane author Trent Jamieson, (author of the Death Works series, Roil, Nights Engines and a bunch of amazing short stories). To date it is the best writing workshop I’ve attended. Trent made us write, and write, and write. And then made us read out what we had written!
The PoV of Three exercise I’m about to share, is based on one of the Trent’s exercises.
Think of a short scene, any scene you can dream up (not something you are currently working on) where: 1) something happens, and 2) it involves at least two people.
Choose one of the characters present and write the scene from through their eyes in the first person PoV. Write about 250 words.
Choose another character and write the scene through their eyes using limited third person PoV.
Write the scene through the eyes of someone not participating in the scene–but who is witness to the scene. This may be written from the limited 3rd person or 1st person POV.
The 360 Degree View
The scene I wrote in the workshop focused on a midwife attending a birth (an idea inspired by the [Fiction] Friday prompt of hearing two heartbeats). When I moved into the second part and the limited third person PoV, the character I chose looked around the room and in the corner, in the shadows, was a man! The last thing I expected to see in a birthing room.
Intrigued by who he was, and why he was there, I selected him as the character in the third part. In 250 words I realised who he was, why he was there, and an entire novella* was born (no pun intended!).
The PoV of Three exercise gets us down off that damn edge and toward the cool, free-flowing waters of the narrative, by:
- providing a panorama of a single scene–something we wouldn’t have in the normal course of writing. It allows us to see things we may not have seen, through the eyes of whoever is telling the story.
- opening the narrative to alternate thoughts and experiences of what is going on.
- keeping us writing–momentum begets momentum.
It is perfect for moving forward when the only options appear to be going back, or worse still, giving up. I dare any one to say they don’t find SOMETHING employing this exercise at a plotting impasse. Not the solution perhaps, or a clear-cut, gently graded path down, but a compass setting with the kernel of an idea to explore further. And for those attempting NaNo and finding themselves here, it’s a better option than the Shovel of Death.
So, next time you stumble out of the narrative and find yourself in unknown literary environs, don’t freak out and see it as the end of the world. It won’t necessarily be easy, but there’s always an evil plan ‘Z’ (for those Spongebob fans reading) to propel you across the wastelands of your plot impasse.
That night in the Ottways we had run out of water, eaten everything that didn’t require cooking, and were a little freaked out about being ‘momentarily lost’, but… we had warm sleeping bags and George Michael. Yes! My friend Rachael jammed her battery-powered, pink twin-deck tape player in her backpack. Out into the virgin bush, the heterosexual version of George rocked out (amongst other songs) Faith to a bunch of fourteen-year-old girls who couldn’t sleep.
And several days later we appeared on the front page of the Colac Times–the only real claim to fame I have from my high school years! The photo showed us dirty and bedraggled, but with big smiles because word quickly spread that even though we were to continue our walk to base-camp, the SES had water with them and were offering to drive our backpacks to camp.
A version of this article was first published at Write Anything website on the 13th July, 2011.
* From that original novella idea came a novel that splintered into a cycle of five and then six novellas and a brand new sub-genre of fiction called #birthpunk (just in case you weren’t quite sold on the power of that one small exercise!)