What Do You Do When Your Plot Changes Halfway Through?

What Do You Do When Your Plot Changes Halfway through?
Original photo: Wilson Hui, flickr.com/photos/wilsonhui/

Today’s oddly musical post title brought to you by the uniquely writerly combination of leftover taco fixins and hot coffee. I know; my life is glamorous.

Are you a pantser? That is, someone who writes to discover your novel’s true intent and direction? Well have a seat, because I’m not talking to you today. You’ve used to the chaos.

Rather, I’m directing my advice toward the Type As in the group: plotters. You’re my people. For as much as I like to joke around about procrastinating, my approach to novel writing has been very methodical, very painstaking, and above all, very slow. (I do procrastinate in the margins; no furious bouts of thousands of words per day here in the earliest stages.)

But this happened to me recently and I found it terrifying.

After all the time and effort I put into my most recent novel-length work in progress, my most important supporting character, who had the grace to already be dead at the start of the book, had decided to show up at a local hospital with traumatic brain swelling and in a coma she may or may not emerge from, instead. In other words, as characters are sometimes wont to do, this one didn’t have the common decency to stay dead.

And since her death was the fuel that fired my protagonist’s positive change arc (from a sort of anti-hero to a woman of action), I panicked.

Maybe she can die partway through Act I, I reasoned. I could just delay my protagonist’s arc. But then the intro would be laboriously long.

Maybe she can die at the end of Act I, and her death could be the defining Point of No Return for my protagonist’s journey to her hometown. Nope, because once she gets there and the supporting character dies, all the help she’s supposed to receive from the other minors won’t be there.

Crap. Crap. 

Actually, This Is a Good Thing.

Does all this angst sound familiar? When you have threaded what seems like the perfect Act I and Act II and midpoint and rising action and all that, having something in your work just turn on you is a test of your creativity and dedication to making your work better.

Because, you see, your characters are teaching you how to be a storyteller. They’re leading you – which is exactly how well-conceived characters are supposed to behave. A sign that you’ve got cardboard cutouts instead of people in your novel is when you realize that they’re all so damn pliable. Real humans fight back.

What to Do Now

First of all, if you’ve found yourself in this mess, it’s easy to imagine the beautiful scaffolding of your story falling around you in flames. But this isn’t the case!

If You’re Still Plotting

If you’re still at the outlining stage and haven’t yet started a first draft, here’s my advice: Re-write your outline from the very beginning, but before you do, take about an hour per misbehaving character and freewrite.

Yes, I said freewrite. Let your little truant talk to you. Let him tell you his limited-third-person side of the story (especially the disobedience that’s driving you batty). Once you’ve let your characters speak for about an hour each, re-read what you’ve made, absorb it, ask yourself if this makes sense on a super-basic level (because if you get nonsense, you need to back up and figure out what your book is really going to be about in one paragraph or less). If it makes sense, return to your outline. Write it again from the beginning.

It sucks, but it’s saving you from rewriting your actual draft, which, I promise you, is much, much worse.

If You’ve Started Writing

Hoo boy. My condolences. Your work is a little bit harder.

Step One: Grab a fresh document or sheet of paper, and start to make a very bare-bones outline. One sentence per scene, max (or less). Incorporate your plot change into this outline. WHen you’re done, tack it up right next to your writing spot. You’ll want it handy.

Step Two: You’re looking for instances where the new plot change doesn’t jive with what’s already in your draft. You’re on a search and destroy mission from page 1. Go in sequence and let the changes build. If you’re using Microsoft Word, I strongly suggest tracking these changes in Track Changes, so when you get mixed up in the details (does he have red hair or black hair now?) you can quickly do a scan-back and find your answer.

But Don’t Ignore Your Instincts

Remember what I said before – characters drive the story in all great works. People love to read about characters more than they love a gripping plot or intricate wordsmithery. WHen your characters go astray, follow them. Usually, they’re leading you to where your work is really supposed to live.

Unless you’re eating taco meat and drinking hot coffee. Then all bets are off.

When was the last time one of your characters went astray? Was it painful? How did you deal with the plot carnage? Was it the right decision? Share your battle wounds in the comments.