“Be curious, not judgmental.” – Walt Whitman
A fatal mistake many writers make in beginning a new story, is allowing themselves to be seduced by their premise. They set about trying to figure out their plot at the expense of allowing their characters to live. It is crucial to understand that character suggests plot, and that when we put plot before character we tend to get mired in our idea of the story.
The first step in creating a fully alive story is imagining the world, which simply means envisioning your characters in relation to each other and asking “What happens next?” With each idea or image that springs to mind, we follow it to its conclusion. At this point we are not trying to figure out our story, we are just panning for gold.
Let’s say we imagine our protagonist having an argument with his wife. What happens next? Does he confess something? Does she reveal something? How does it escalate? How does the story turn? And then what? And then what? Keep asking, “What happens next?”
Here is what we are not doing: we are not trying to figure out a plot so that we can place our characters into it. Character suggests plot. As we imagine our characters in relationship to each other, situations naturally emerge.
I work with many writers who cling desperately to their idea of the plot only to realize later that they have painted themselves into a corner. They reach a point in the story where they are moving their characters around like chess pieces, trying to keep the story interesting, yet the characters’ behaviors no longer ring true. By allowing our characters to live and interact in our imagination without following a prescribed plan, our subconscious is free to make non-linear connections that our conscious mind would never have delivered.
This process is thrilling because our characters are alive. They are engaging with each other because we have not restricted ourselves by prematurely imposing a plot. They can change with a flick of our pen. We are not bound to a single plot, because we have not labored for months, refining scenes that may not make the final draft. What if our hero, a hardened New York cop, suddenly tells us that he is a she? What if our romantic comedy suddenly tells us that it wants to move from a sweltering summer in New Orleans to Christmas in Vermont? Great! We have not become so tied down by details that we cannot pick them up and move them across the country or switch their gender.