Runaway!

We saw a good number of hills and highways while travelling over six mountain passes on our Christmas trip. Lots of curvy and sometimes steep roads, most of them slick with either packed snow or ice. I was thankful our truck was equipped with good snow tires … but I know it takes more than good tires to navigate a challenging road.

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Periodically we encountered heavily loaded transport trucks heading up or down the mountains, their hazard lights flashing a reminder that they were moving at a very slow speed. Professional drivers understand the risk of steep grades, particularly going downhill. They know that if they accelerate over a specific speed, they could end up with an uncontrollable, runaway truck.

Highway construction over mountain passes provides for that possibility by building in ‘runaway’ lanes — easily accessed escape routes. They are practical, necessary safeguards to get a runaway vehicle under control.

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They led me to think about how authors cope with runaway stories, and with characters that seem to take over and speed away in unintended directions.

Does this ever happen to you? Perhaps if you’re an extensive outliner or a dedicated plotter, you manage to keep those renegade characters under control, but I’m not always successful. Secondary plot lines balloon into independent stories; unimportant characters keep reappearing in too much detail; scenes pop up without any purpose. Words ramble on, covering a page but saying little.

Ernest Hemingway said, “Since I had started to break down all my writing and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do. But it was very difficult, and I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.”

In principle, I want to give creativity free rein and worry about tidying up  the messiness during revision. In fact, too much freedom often turns my story into a runaway vehicle — one that crashes and burns and cannot be salvaged. In a Hemingway-kind of revelation I’ve learned I have to maintain some kind of control during the journey. At some point I must pare down my wordiness to the basics of good structure and make every sentence carry the story forward at a controlled pace. During revisions I can elaborate and decorate as might be needed, but during the initial writing I have to stay focused on reaching my destination. There won’t be a suitable runaway lane to rescue me if I let my writing speed out of control in a pointless direction.

How do you control your storytelling and keep it on track? 

~  ~  ~

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