Grasping at straws for a meaningful Y word here. But “Why not?” is a question I ask whenever my story gets stuck.
Not IF it gets stuck, but WHEN. Sooner or later every plot bogs down (like the unhappy jeep pictured below), usually in the middle. It’s too easy to write yourself into a corner and/or run out of ideas.
Bring on the free write! This is a technique I use with students. Write freely in a notebook–yes, by hand–for ten minutes–yes, with a timer. No stopping, no editing–just words. Nonsense sentences at first, or whining words, or a list. But after three or four minutes, the creative mind kicks into gear. It’s remarkable. Ideas come bubbling up, especially lines of dialog. Before you know it, you’re off and running with a story solution. Move to the keyboard and start typing.
“Why not?” is something I’ve learned to ask of the most unlikely ideas. For instance, list things that could not happen to your lead, things he or she just wouldn’t do. Can you tweak one of them, twisting it around, finding a way to make a version of it work?
Pixar’s Emma Coats’ 22 Rules of Phenomenal Storytelling to the rescue! If you write, I’m betting you’ve seen this helpful list somewhere around the blogosphere. Heck, I blogged about it for NaNoWriMo a while back. Here’s an infographic from that post (scroll down).
My bail-out favorites on Coats’ list are Nos. 6, 9, 10, and 12. And then there’s No. 7 (get the ending working up front). Yeah, that. For me, the ending is always the most challenging.
Anyway, here’s a “Why not?” example from Darcy By Any Other Name. Darcy-as-Collins needs an ally among the Bennets, you know, for story purposes. Elizabeth has her sister, Jane, but who would side with the odious “Mr. Collins”? Everyone hates him! So I asked my “Why not” question, and an unlikely candidate stepped up.
This scene from Chapter 7 is rather long; I apologize. I want to show how I use a somewhat predictable concept and humanize it in such a way that it is believable and works. Darcy-as-Collins IS a different man. Elizabeth Bennet might not see that yet, but someone else does and instinctively responds.
Being present at dinner was not as easy as it appeared. Darcy must deal with Hill, who made him sit on the bed as she removed both his coat and neck cloth.
“Menfolk,” she muttered. “You’ve no sense, none at all. But it’s not my place to say, is it?” She crossed to the wardrobe and removed Mr. Collins’ clean nightshirt. “Put this on, and without a lot of talk, if you please.”
Darcy could tell she was in no mood for being crossed. He took the garment.
“Remove the shoes and stockings,” Hill went on, as if speaking to a little boy. “You had no business going downstairs today, and even less jaunting off to Netherfield.”
Darcy was about to blame Jones and his aunt, but the look on Hill’s face silenced him. This woman was paid to listen to Mrs. Bennet’s excuses, not his.
“And now,” said she, putting her hands on her hips, “your head hurts like thunder, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Darcy meekly. He fumbled with the buttons on his waistcoat.
“Here, now,” said Hill, and she made a move to assist him.
Darcy pulled away. “I can do this,” he said. But his fingers felt thick and awkward.
Hill pushed his hands aside and helped him. She unfastened the top button of his shirt, too. Removing the night shirt from his resistless grasp, she said, “You might as well lie down as you are. It won’t make much difference if you sleep in your shirt and breeches.”
Darcy was happy to comply. She was right; he was worn to the bone. He lay back against the pillows and closed his eyes.
“There now, Mr. Collins.” Hill’s voice was soothing instead of scolding. “A bit of sleep will do you good.”
He could not sleep! Darcy raised his head to eye the wardrobe. “My evening clothes,” he said. “For dinner. Where are they?”
“You will have your dinner brought on a tray, young man, and no mistake.” Clucking and fussing, Hill drew the blankets up to Darcy’s chin. “You are not well enough to come down tonight. The idea!”
“But,” protested Darcy. “Wickham.”
There was a pause. “What did you say?” demanded Hill.
Darcy lay back against the pillows. “That devil Wickham,” he said. “He’s coming to dinner tonight.”
“Aye, he is. What’s it to you?” Her tone accused Darcy of jealousy.
Darcy ignored this. “I must be at table,” he said. “Miss Elizabeth does not realize…”
He paused to steal a look at Hill. Her hands were on her hips again. “Miss Elizabeth does not realize what?”
“That Wickham is a scoundrel. She has no way of knowing it.”
Hill sat down on the end of the bed, and Darcy heard her give a long sigh.
“Something’s not right,” she said at last. “I feel it in my bones. The Mistress, bless her, has no notion of what’s what, and the Master indulges the girls. Again and again these officers come to the house. They’re harmless for the most part, amusing the girls with high spirits and dancing. But that Mr. Wickham? He’s not their sort.” Frowning, Hill lapsed into silence.
“He speaks well enough,” she admitted at last, “but he’s not one of them.”
Darcy worked his good hand free of the blanket. “I must be at table,” he told her.
But Hill did not appear to hear. “Calculating!” she burst out. “That’s what he is! A smooth smile and smooth speeches. And up to no good, if you ask me.”
“Very much up to no good,” said Darcy.
“He’s too agreeable! But he watches them, oh he does. And the Bennets know nothing—nothing! —of the ways of conniving men. The Mistress believes any tale told her, and that Mr. Wickham has been telling her plenty. When a man has something to hide,” she added, “he talks on and on.”
Hill turned a speculative gaze on Darcy. “Perhaps there’s more to you than meets the eye, Mr. Collins. But you are not,” she added, “up to sitting at table tonight.”
Darcy hated to admit that Hill was right, and yet what could he do? He tipped his head to one side, rather like his late father’s favorite spaniel. “What do you say to after-dinner coffee, Mrs. Hill?” he offered, smiling appealingly. “In the drawing room? You could put me on the sofa before the others come in.”
He paused, studying her expression. “By the fire with a lap blanket,” he added. “And with a mug of hot milk.”
Mr. Collins was not handsome, but Darcy discovered that he could be charming. Mrs. Hill rose to her feet. “Hot milk!” she scoffed. “As if I do not have enough to do.”
But she did not refuse, Darcy noted. And she took with her his spare shirt, frock coat, and breeches to press. When the door closed behind her, Darcy allowed himself to smile. He had made his first ally.
Tomorrow is the final challenge day. Thank you for hanging in there with me.
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