My husband is very good at games of strategy. I have occasionally attempted to play chess with him, and I usually lost. “Usually” meaning every time. Twenty-five years into our marriage I revealed that my strategy was to just randomly move pieces in an attempt to be…random. He said he knew. I asked if it made me more difficult to play and he responded that it didn’t make it harder, in fact, it was extremely easy to outwit someone who had no plan. Since brainless moving around the chess board is my only strategy I don’t play anymore and furthermore, I don’t miss it. It always made me feel stupid anyway.
My point is that writing a story that has unexpected elements doesn’t mean that you blindly start writing and then throw in stuff that you think the reader wouldn’t anticipate. Constructing the unexpected is a well-thought out plan. Which sounds just as unexpected as spam in your inbox, but any successful architect will tell you that sloppy planning does necessarily equal creativity. One of my favorite stories of all time is The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. It was a delightful Rubik’s cube of a tale, turning and twisting and leading the reader on. There was a pay-off for every character and every clue. That could only have been accomplished because Ms. Raskin knew exactly what she was doing. It was still a lot of fun, but she pulled the strings like a master puppeteer.
I don’t know how she planned it all out
I wrote that sentence and then decided to Google the subject and find out if there was anything about this remarkable book. I didn’t even know if she was alive. She’s not. She died in 1984, right after I discovered her book. She wrote The Westing Game right after the bicentennial in 1976 and won a Newberry Award for it in 1979. To my surprise, there is an audio of an interview with her in 1979.
That was unexpected.
In the beginning of the interview she says, “I don’t outline my books. I really don’t know what’s going to happen. And I don’t know the answer because I find that would be very boring.”
That was also unexpected.
She just destroyed the entire premise of the blog article. Which is great, because I cannot plan a book out to save my life. So hearing that someone I’ve always admired doesn’t plan either is a huge relief.
It also saves me the pain of writing a blog about something I have never done well and then trying desperately to prove that it’s necessary. Hooray for research! Ellen Raskin has come to my rescue.
She continues, “There are very few writers who can outline. It’s just deadly to try to write according to an outline. You have to give your characters the freedom to tell you what’s going to happen next, to interact with each other and lead you along in the plot.”
So how did she write this amazing story?
“It’s an insoluable mystery. And what you find it out at the very end, you’ll see that it was all there from the very beginning.”
She wrote out a rough draft of 50 pages and submitted it to a publisher. She submitted the rough 50 pages because she said she didn’t want to give the editor a polished version. She knew there would be changes, and her editor did suggest many changes as she wrote it. It took two years from the time of the first draft. She changed her character’s names several times, sometimes at the suggestion of her editor. Names were very important to the story because the clues were worked into the names. If you’ve read it, it’s a brilliant, fun ride.
She didn’t say exactly how she figured out the story or that she knew exactly how it would work out, but that she had the general idea. The characters are very alive and I could see how they might lead her into the plot and the final, spectacular, very satisfying end.
So when writing the unexpected, don’t be afraid to ditch the chess board. Writing isn’t chess, thank goodness. It’s more like daydreaming of what it would be like to own your own island and you wonder if you would have a big house or maybe you’d keep it more natural and live in something small and then you wonder how the plumbing would work and then…so yeah, it’s like that. Eventually you come to something unexpected, like you live on an island in a house with a bamboo roof that plays music when it rains because each bamboo pole is a different note.
Someday I might plot out a book, I don’t know. I don’t like to rule things out. I like options. For now, however, I let the story tell me where to go, and honestly, it’s usually someplace unexpected.