Be open to possibilities
When I wrote my first novel Diamond Dogs, I had the idea that my hero, a high school senior, gets rid of the body. He accidentally kills a kid while driving late one night on the highway and puts the body in the trunk. The only logical thing for him to do would be to dispose of the body himself. But for some reason, it just didn’t feel right. As I continued imagining the world of the story, I wondered “What if his father was the local Sheriff? Wow, that would be a dilemma for Dad. And then, what if the father got rid of the body, and never talked about it with his son?!”
At that moment, the story cracked open for me. That single act defined for me the nature of the father/son relationship. The son would be relieved, but he would also look at his father with suspicion. This set into motion a quest for the hero to unveil the truth of his mother’s disappearance fourteen years earlier. Suddenly the story had layers that a moment earlier did not exist.
When the father disposes of the body, you understand the son’s dilemma: if he comes clean then he will almost certainly go to prison, but if he doesn’t he will become like his father — a man emotionally cut off from the world. It is a problem that necessitates a shift in perception in order to be resolved.
Let’s explore the mechanism that allowed for these revelations. First, I sensed that although logically it seemed obvious that the son would dispose of the body, something didn’t feel right. It’s easy to bullshit ourselves and try to force something that isn’t working. Because I held my story loosely, even when I thought I knew how it should go, I was able to entertain another possibility.
Structure in the creative process
Had I begun writing the story prior to this epiphany, the story might have gone off in some other direction. There is a rigor to this process, but it is not a left-brain kind of rigor. It’s not quantifiable. The rigor is in continuing to allow yourself to be entertained by the aliveness of your story, without ever locking it down. Eventually, as you continue to imagine, your character’s actions will begin to suggest a plot. A coherent narrative will naturally emerge. Do you need to know every beat before you start writing? Absolutely not. Keep trusting the process. Although there are no rules, it is often helpful to have a basic sense of the beginning, middle, and end before proceeding.
When you start your first draft in The 90-Day Novel, you’re going to spend roughly three weeks on the first act, five weeks on the second act, and the final week and six days on Act Three. This means that you want to think about the proportions of your story as you look at your outline. Again, no rules, but if you sense that a particular area is feeling vague or a little light, this may be a place to focus your curiosity.
You are getting more specific now. Again, don’t worry if your story has not completely revealed itself. The desire to write is the desire to evolve. If the story had totally revealed itself, there would be no reason to write it.