Fiction, Plotting

The Disciplined Imagination (And Why You Need One)

Anton Chekhov famously remarked that if a pistol is hanging on the wall in the first act of a play, by the time the curtain falls, it should be used. The remark advises an economy of storytelling that helps to create a sense of unity and to avoid confusing the audience with irrelevancies. Unfortunately many new writers fail to follow this sound advice, for no better reason that “it’s cool” or “it’s fantasy, so anything goes.” But in doing so, they often miss details that might enrich their stories.

For instance, in a soon to be released novel, one writer decided to throw dinosaurs into the story. Despite a reasonably advanced level of technology, they have characters being pulled about in carriages by velociraptors. In tweets, the author says they made this decision so they could have sweeping outsized staircases and have them easily navigated. The trouble is, the decision seems incompatible with the level of technology. Nor are velociraptors large enough for the stated purpose of climbing steep staircases. More importantly, no attempt is made to consider how having vicious predators on the streets might shape the culture. Worse still, neither the velociraptors nor the steep staircases play any role whatsoever in the plot — although, having started on that downhill slope, the author accelerates their descent by adding the even less purposeful dire wolfs as draft animals as well. No attempt to consider these details is made, and the only result is a meaningless and clumsy distraction.

Early on in writing my first novel, I made the same mistake repeatedly. In my case, I added atmospheric references and never stopped to consider how they might be used in the plot. For instance, my main character’s last name was Ravenpiper. It’s Gothicly evocative, at least to my ear, and I was proud of it. I even gave the family a rhyme that made a riddle of the family name. It took a while for me to realize that the origin of the name could become a major plot element, and help me tell a more interesting story (which I won’t tell, because spoilers). Since the story is all about family, especially the Ravenpipers, I found that making the surname part of the story gave a richer, more unified story.

Similarly, I imagined a mountain pass that is a nexus of gateways to other worlds. Paths can take travelers to other worlds, and can change their direction and destination. At times, the inhabitants of other worlds follow the paths to the mountain pass. Originally, it was a poetic effect — a spooky one, I hoped. Then it occurred to me that people who kept track of the changing paths might earn a living guiding merchants safely over the mountain. Then, with more thought, I decided that families would claim the right to certain paths, and jealously control the safe ones. Eventually, this background influenced the story. At one point, for example, the main characters enter one of the otherworldly paths to escape pursuit, and find themselves in a world of ghosts and forest spirits. What was originally a line tossed off for atmosphere grew to shape major elements of the story.

In both cases, my disciplined extrapolations meant I no longer had to strain for plot development. As a plot should, it began to unfold in light of what had been planted before. I soon understood what elements I wanted in the story, and, conversely what did not and what — sometimes regretfully, I had to omit, and perhaps leave for another story. I concluded that inspiration is not enough. In the end, I learned that even the most inspiring idea was only as good as its development.