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.