Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Written into a Corner

In a book I read long ago a character told an interesting tale about writing cliffhangers. Back in the day when movie palaces were common, it was the usual practice for several short pieces to be shown before the featured attraction. One was the serial that recounted the fearless adventures of a hero as he fought various bad guys and got himself time after time into life-threatening situations. One in particular had the writers stumped. It appeared that the last time we saw our hero he was down a well. There was absolutely no way out. None. Team after team of writers tried to resolve the dilemma with various methods but given the situation none worked. Heads were scratched, tempers flared; after all, the audience was waiting for the next installment. What to do? It was resolved by a genius writer who simply said "We start the next episode with the words "Once out of the well..." written on the screen. Crisis averted.

I concede that this type of problem is more likely to arise in television scripts with their now-mandatory season-ending cliffhangers, but it can happen in books as well. What happens when you've written yourself into a corner? It could be that your protagonist has information that he/she couldn't logically have; it could be some character in a non-escapable situation or showing up somewhere utterly strange; something that has to occur for the sake of your plot but upon rereading you realize "This makes no sense at all. Now what?"

I find this type of problem usually manifests when I'm so busy moving ahead that my fingers are typing faster than my brain. I'm so consumed with 'and then this and then this and then this' that the logic gets lost and then I find myself with an issue; a nice plot with some major holes. Rewriting is obviously in order, but how much? Finding where you went off the tracks can be difficult because you know how the story goes. I've employed two methods. First I try to go back and fix it myself. When this doesn't work I give the manuscript to someone else and ask them to kindly show me where the problem begins.

Have you ever found that you've written yourself into a corner? How did you get out of the well?


  1. Elspeth,
    As usual, you've raised a really interesting point! I, too, have written myself into a corner, and it's usually because I've got a place I want the plot to go, and haven't thought through the details carefully enough. When that happens, I take a breath and go back to the last place in the novel where things made sense. Then I just delete and rewrite once I've figured out how to get from that last logical spot to where I want the plot to go. Sometimes that's hard, especially when I've written something sparkling ; ) in the part that I have to delete. In the end, though, it's worth it in terms of the finished work.

  2. I hate it when that happens! I've done this *many* times. Frequently I have a time line problem when this occurs. Sometimes I'll even ditch the problem storyline or character if I can't find another solution. Interesting post!

  3. I've been pretty lucky, no wells. But, I'm gonna remember, "Once out of the well," as a brilliant solution.


  4. I think if you write mysteries or thrillers this would be more of a problem. But I have done it. What now? Time to put the piece away and take a break. When I do that, and return I have gained a little distance and can see where the problem is.

    When I write scripts, (which is my day job, for industrial use), I don't have the luxury of walking away for a breather, so I rely on my team to help correct the situation.

  5. Margot; Sometime someone will have to explain to me why all the best bits are in the parts I have to get rid of.

    Elizabeth; Glad to know I'm not alone.

    Galen; You lucky dog. Isn't it a great story?

    Elizabeth; Sometimes many minds are the only answer. Putting it away for a while could also work if time isn't an issue.

  6. The well and I are close friends. It has always taken someone else to point out the holes for me. I can usually fix them or work around them, but I never see them going in. I'd love to receive news that the well moved out of the country so I'd never see it again.

  7. "Once out of the well" - Awesome!

    Like Elizabeth, my wells have been tied to timeline issues. I've since learned to plot out a timeline as I go - much better :)

  8. Usually going away from it and coming back later helps. Or that's when I'll stop the book and write the synopsis. Just putting the first half of the book down on paper helps me see it more clearly and get to the second half.

    Does anyone else remember a TV show in the 70s called Cliffhangers?


  9. Really good point you raise. No answers, because it has never happened to me, but I still wanted to stop by and tell you I liked the post.

  10. This has happened to me too often, though before hand planning helps. Most recently I had to delete two main characters from the novel I'm working on, when I realised though they seemed to have a point in the first half of the book they had no purpose in the second half. I cut them out and they went with 20,000 words (spoiled brats). That was painful.

  11. Rayna; Thanks for stopping by and telling me you liked it. It's most appreciated.

    Lauri; That was a brave decision. I'm sure it was for the best, but ouch!

  12. Interesting discussion. I was in a well for a long time with one of my projects -- the second book in a mystery series -- and had no idea how to get out of it. Put it away for months to work on some other projects and suddenly one day the answer to the plot problem just came to me. Almost out of the blue. What a wonderful gift from the creative gods, or my muse, or whoever was responsible. Good thing, too, cause I just sold the first book in the series, so the publisher may want this second one.

    BTW, Elsbeth, came here from your comment about theatre on my blog. What shows have you done?

  13. Maryann; Thanks for dropping by! Please do again. My shows? I've directed and acted in everything from Agatha Christie to Neil Simon to Shakespeare.


Please leave a comment as I love to hear from you!