Monday, September 30, 2013

Allow for Serendipity: Murdering themes or preconceived ideas.

Allow for Serendipity: Murdering themes or preconceived ideas.

Writers are told all manner of 'rules': don't pull the readers out of the story; start late finish early; show don't tell. The list is endless. These rules are well-meaning but good writers are criminals who break the rules, or at least shift them, whenever it suits. But what about planning a story? What about the before work?

There is no doubt that a plan can aid a writer. This doesn't necessarily mean a formal plan, it may mean that a writer has pondered over the strength of the idea, its potential pitfalls and its many possibilities before putting pen to paper.

But there is also an inherent danger with planning – or to be more precise: it's often perilous to insist on sticking to the initial plan. Not one of my stories has panned out exactly as intended and that's a great thing to say. It's the most wondrous part of the narrative craft, the ability to be flexible, cull parts that you originally desired but don't quite fit the mould as the work evolves. Writers benefit from allowing for that evolution. Their revising and chiseling away allows for something richer than the original 'primitive' being.

What does this mean for a writer? It means discovering those emerging threads and elements in their piece, and nourishing them.

From my own observations of others, sticking to a slanted theme, which a writer hangs preciously on to, can be the most hazardous approach. I've read some drafts from writers whereby the original aim of the work is actually the sole thing holding back a piece. Furthermore, the clinging necessity for that original idea to be conveyed is harming rather than enhancing the story. It's a hard thing to acknowledge: that the very essence of what a writer initially intends to do actually requires a new perspective or viewpoint or approach taken to a theme.

So it's not about murdering your darlings sometimes, it's also being able to murder the perspective or angle taken relating to your original theme and re-visualising it according to the strength of the work itself.

Serendipity is a magical thing and once unearthed, nurture it. Don’t let the chains of your primary vision shackle its evolution.


  1. I guess this relates to the concept of writing as an exploration, rather than a construction. Not all writers would agree, of course. Some of them are meticulous planners - Juliet Marillier is a good example. I'm actually working on my novel Dan today and I find that I have a basic plan for each chapter, but what I call the 'logic' of the chapter isn't apparent to me until I actually write it. Therefore quite a lot of the relevant detail only springs to life at the moment of composition. I do have a firm idea of how the book will end though. Not sure if this counts as a 'theme' by your reckoning.

  2. Hi Guy. Agreed, we're all different in terms of methodology. Like you refer to in terms of composition, we need to be flexible in our approach though. It'd be interesting to hear from Juliet as to whether she allows for change after her meticulous planning. With regards to theme, it just seems to me that it's easier giving feedback regarding structural elements over thematic ones. And in terms of themes, I mean the exploration of idea(s) central to the work. I find that this can, in some cases, be too close to the writer and is often what needs to change. It's a case of being flexible for growth and improvement in all areas, and being able to sacrifice what may have been the preconceived 'heart' of the work for the betterment of the piece itself.

  3. Interesting discussion. We all fit somewhere on that planner to pantser continuum, and I think most of us move about on it during our careers as writers. If a plan's not working, it can and should be changed. I do start out with a framework for each novel - I work much more confidently that way. But even the most died-in-the-wool planner needs to have some flexibility. Having said that, I've never changed the central theme/idea of a novel in midstream. The concept is there before I start and so is the general shape of the story and (most important) how it ends.

    I'm currently working on a novel that has alternate chapters from three contrasting first person points of view, and wondering if my decision to use that structure actually does the storytelling a disservice.

  4. Thanks for your input, Juliet. Makes for compelling discussion. Not a novelist of course but I also start with a framework with my 'long' short stories but like you and Guy, I'm flexible. Looking forward to reading your collection "Prickle Moon". I'd think that in a lengthy novel the theme itself would be difficult to alter but the way it's slanted may evolve and change.