Did you know that the chocolate chip cookie was invented by accident? In 1930, at the Toll House Inn in
Ruth Graves Wakefield substituted broken pieces of semi-sweet chocolate for
regular baker's chocolate in a cookie recipe. She thought the chips would melt
into the batter. We all know how that turned out. I wonder if Ms. Wakefield was
disappointed that things didn't go according to plan. When she pulled her
cookie sheet from the oven and saw solid brown chunks sticking up like rocks in
her golden cookies, was she upset? Did she think she had failed? I like to imagine her looking at the cookies,
shaking her head, and thinking something like, Oh, well, a lesson learned. Did she take that first taste reluctantly? If
so…what a pleasant surprise!. Whatever her reaction, there's a pretty good
chance she didn't realize that she had just created an American classic. Wakefield, Mass.
What does this have to do with writing? If you're a baker, probably nothing, but, if you're a writer, everything has to do with writing.
My plots rarely turn out exactly as I plan. Sometimes I introduce a character, thinking I know exactly how he or she fits in the overall plan, only to have the character take over and re-write their part, giving themselves a more important role in the story. In my most recent work, LOVE AND NOT DESTROY, the victim demanded to tell his own story. I thought the manuscript was finished and was starting the editing process when (in the very first chapter!) this dead man seemed to guide my fingers to certain keys, spelling out words, stringing themselves into sentences and paragraphs. Turns out he needed to explain how he came to commit the act that started the sequence of events that form the backbone of the plot. I couldn't have been more surprised. Come to think of it, he was surprised himself by the turning of events. He may have guided my fingers to explain himself, but what he needed to explain was a plan that didn't work out. Long story short, I let him have his way and there are fourteen short scenes told from the victim's point of view. (I guess it's a small enough favor to grant someone you've just stabbed through the heart and left in the corner of a shed.)
I knew all along that the information in these scenes was necessary, but I had planned to reveal it in a different way. However, once I stopped fighting with my character and let him tell his own story, he became much more vivid to me and his death more poignant. (I can only hope readers feel the same.)
Characters with minds of their own are just one example of the surprising twists that occur during the writing of a novel. A book left open on a table can take a scene and, ultimately, an entire plot, in an unexpected direction. A line of throwaway dialogue can suggest a secret that leads to a subplot.
As a writer, I love it when these little surprises pop up. I think readers like surprises too. I know I do. However, as much fun as surprises are, once they have occurred, they should seem inevitable. John Irving is a writer who does this well. Dickens is another, maybe the best ever. And Jane Austen. I doubt any reader can anticipate all the twists and turns in her stories. Did you anticipate that
Lydia would elope with Wickham?
Once it happened, didn't it seem inevitable?
So, if you're a writer, and your story won't follow your plan, maybe you need to need to let the elements blend (or not) according to their own needs. Who knows? Maybe you'll create an American classic.
I blog at http://www.birthofanovel.
The link to LOVE AND NOT DESTROY is http://amzn.to/