Stories Are Like Tapestries
On November of 2011, I, a young girl who hardly knew what it meant to craft a good story, participated in NaNoWriMo. Hastily drawing up a quick outline on the day before, I felt sure it would bring me to the end of the fifty-thousand words I had committed to write.
I was wrong.
Before I reached the middle of the novel, I was faced with a problem: after my outline ran out, I became the most extreme seat-of-the-pants-NaNoer ever. I had no idea what to do next, so I wracked my brain and went with the first source of drama that came to mind.
Adding another villain was the obvious choice. Well, thought I, unsure of where to go and what to do after the new villain came, let’s just have the main character kidnapped by a mysterious group. Simple, right? But let’s do this the right way. Very large, scary looking beasts should do.
And so my main character was kidnapped and put into an unconscious state for the better part of the year (that novel spanned a huge amount of time). While her father and best friend started frantically looking for her, my original villains disappeared–oh, well. They were mostly defeated at that point anyway. They probably slunk back into a hole to regroup and let the characters go about their lives even when they were completely unprepared for the attack the villains would logically be completely prepared to deliver.
But, wait! What if I hurt the main character’s father badly? Well, yes, I already had three villains at that point, but how could it hurt to have another one? More villains, more drama!
And so another villain was introduced.
I believe you get the idea.
That novel is still painful to think about it, but I did carry away some very valuable lessons. One of the most valuable being that all events in a novel must tie back into each other.
To be completely honest, as writer who plans only in my head, and even in that case very little, I still struggle with this. Characters try to step in and step out, someone makes a cryptic comment which never gets followed up, there will be a very dramatic chase scene with nothing to come of it and no explanation.
Some of these things are problems we need to deal with during editing, but even during the original writing, sometimes the writing gets hard and slow and we make a snap decision. We’re bored with what’s going on, so we introduce a dramatic character or scene, but it goes nowhere. Then as we get out of our writing trouble, we forget about it. This is avoidable.
I don’t think it’s at all wrong to introduce new plots or subplots or new characters. They can change the entire direction of the novel in a good way. The problem comes when we forget the event and let it slip past us instead of weaving it into the rest of the story.
Though I’m no weaver, I know one thing: if you let a string stay loose, the entire piece of fabric will unravel. Slowly, one thread at a time, that one untied thread pulls the others loose until you only have a mat of loose threads hardly attached to anything anymore.
It’s the same way when it comes to stories.
As the writers and the masterminds of our stories, it’s our job to tie in every loose thread. If it doesn’t fit with the pattern, it’s our job to cut it out. We’re weaving a tapestry, telling our story through threads of stories. Every character, scene and subplot belongs on the tapestry, and if even one thread is left dangling by the end of the story, the whole thing will come unraveled.
Sometimes there will be novels that don’t answer all the questions, and yet are excellently done. When at the end of the story every end has been tied up but one, a question the author is carefully not answering, sometimes it’s a very good way of doing things.
Some tapestries have tassels at their ends. They stay there letting the reader know that, no, the author isn’t answering this question, but in these cases, it takes a lot of work to reach a point where the readers will understand that this answer was intentionally left blank. Authors must approach these circumstances carefully, weighing all the options in their head before they finally decide if it will be best for the story, and if they finally do, pointing the reader to it and saying, “See? Look at that question there. Oh, wait! The end of the book. Oh, well. I guess that answer will never be spelled out. Tragic, isn’t it?”
In such cases, it must be done carefully. It cannot be the car chase in chapter three by the unknown villains, or the airplane dropping bombs on the city. It might be the explanation of who that masked man was, though (Note: Unless you’re going to go back in time and precede The Lone Ranger, this is not a suggested course of action), or what the real name of the supporting character really was.
In most cases, it’s best to weave all of your threads back into the tapestry, creating the whole picture that all readers will be able to see. It’s excellent to have a reputation for full plots without excess questions lying around—especially if you plan on having a question your readers are expecting an answer to, which they’ll never get.
… I thought an unanswered question meant I could expect a sequel… 😉
That depends on the type of unanswered question. If, at the end of the book, the author points to it and says, “No, I’m not answering this question,” don’t expect a sequel. However, if it’s a question such as when the villain will strike next, expect a sequel, because at that point, the author is telling you, “Keep waiting. We’re coming back to this question.”
Sometimes when the author leaves the question open that’s neither imperative or a background question, they’re saying, “Stay tuned. You might get an answer to this.”
I love this post! I have a story where there is nonstop action and bad things happen every five minutes. But its just a fun story that I’m writing and its just the one where I set my imagination loose. How did you make the picture at the beginning of the post?
Alea, I love your blog! However,-and I’m sorry if I’m missing something obvious-I can’t find a place where I can comment on your posts. Do you not allow comments?
Thank you so much! Ana @ Butterflies of the Imagination! I do not allow comments at this time, however, I may in the future.
Non-stop action can definitely be good sometimes, but it’s a wonderful exercise to work with the plot even with stories for fun.
Paint, and a picture of our couch… Not exactly a tapestry, but it looks the part, right?
Its pretty much my story where I can let my creativity loose, and nothing is impossible! There is a loose plot, but I kind of like it that way. Its basically silliness, but its very fun to write!
That sounds like the perfect story to write when you want to relax. 🙂
Haha, yes! Finally, another person who uses Paint and unconventional means to create pictures! 😀 But anyway… great post! I loved the metaphor you used, about how if you have even one loose thread, you entire story can unravel. I usually find this happening to myself, cause like you, I don’t really plan my stories (just stuff that I know I want to happen in my head) and my writing is spontaneous (in a bad way), but also because unlike you, I happen to suck at writing, haha. X)
Without Paint, I would never have pictures at the beginning of my posts… I am forever in debt. xP
I definitely have trouble with loose threads when I’m writing the first draft. I find it helpful to sit back and think through how I’m going to tie up a secondary plot, or how a certain act will affect the rest of the story. I do have to remind myself that sometimes, it’s just best to wait until editing.
I don’t think that anyone sucks at writing; some people have just been doing it for longer. It’s a skill, no more, no less. 🙂
I love the metaphor that you used in this post. I agree that all of the events that happen in a book should matter and tie into the rest of the events in the book. I love to create elaborate outlines for my stories because it gives me direction and enables me to actually finish my story. However, I use very little of the outline because I follow all of these rabbit trails spontaneously. At the same time, though, I keep in mind that every scene needs to do something for the story and I try to write the rabbit trail scenes so that I adhere to that “rule”.
Have you always done outlining? I’ve heard a lot about it, but I’ve never tried it myself long-term. Would you suggest it?
Rabbit trails are often good, especially if they lead to the Queen of Hearts.
Well, I’m only working on my first novel right now, but I had a few failed attempts at writing a novel before. In those attempts I never created an outline and I ended up never getting very far in my stories. However, with my outline I’ve been able to get to 39k and I’m still going strong. I would suggest at least a basic outline because even though you might not follow most of it, it will give you direction.
Rabbit trails are awesome. They always lead my story into different directions that I never thought about before. It makes the writing process surprising and enjoyable.
Failed attempts are always good for learning, I’ve found… Every good author has at leats ten failed attempts to their name. :p A friend of mine is trying outlining, and she said it’s working very well. I have one short story that I outlined and set aside… Maybe I’ll work on that in the next couple of months to get a feel for outlining.
That’s one of my favorite part of writing. Surprises win the gold medal all the way. When you embark on rabbit trails, do you go back to your outline and put them in there, or just mentally add them to your plot and write them SotP?
If I embark on a rabbit trail as I’m writing, I’ll just add it mentally and write it SotP. However, if I think of a new plot twist when I’m not currently writing, I add it to the (messy) outline in my notebook so I remember it the next time I sit down to write.
Ah-ha. *makes a note of this* Thanks! 🙂
Ugh, you just brought back some painful recollections of MYearly attempts at novel writing. I’d thought I tore out those memories. 😉
Keeping with your metaphor: Amen to keeping the tapestry nicely woven! But sometimes it nice to leave a little loose fringe for people to play with…
Memories never really are gone, are they? Oh, well. At least with these incredibly painful memories, we learned things.
Quite. At that point, though, it’s been tied, and it won’t affect the rest of the story in a bad way. It wil become a lovely little tassle at the end.