I’ve always loved the song, “Life is a Highway” by Rascall Flats. Last night, as my husband and I were driving home from my parents’ house, I began to think about how writing a novel (or a short story) is like driving on a highway at night. You can see a little bit ahead of you, enough to get to the bend in the road, and follow it down a stretch, but you hit a bunch of turns you didn’t quite see coming.
You also know where you’re going. Even if it’s somewhere you’ve never been. Sometimes, you end up being surprised by how long it takes to get there or the way it looks. Maybe you go somewhere else, try something different. Maybe you get home and your house has been broken into. Nothing is a guarantee.
I think that when we write, it’s often a very immediate thing. We see the details that are happening to our character as they happen, quickly, and then they’re gone. We don’t really know what’s going on after that because we can only see a little ahead or what’s going on around them, because it’s not important to the story. Sometimes it is and we just don’t realize it yet.
Even people who outline (plan their trips) can’t account altogether for unexpected turns or construction or detours or accidents. Or the GPS breaking and having to find a different route or talk to a stranger. Sometimes, something we thought might be unimportant ends up taking several pages. And then, in revision, we learn that it was a defining moment in our character’s life.
When we’re speeding past things on the highway in the middle of the night, we can miss a lot of detail. It’s nice that sooner or later, you go back the other direction. In a different time of day, you might see something you missed before. Or, there might be a different detour, something that keeps the characters apart, just a little while longer, something that heightens the mystery or finally makes us realize what we were missing in the story.
How Do We Get the Most Out of the Writing Highway?
- Think about what is keeping your character from accomplishing his or her goals. Did nothing stop them? Is it too easy? Do you need another detour? It’s so very important to keep your characters working towards their goals until the end. If it’s too easy, the story isn’t as intriguing.
- Maybe you put so many obstacles in front of your character that he or she is broken down on the side of the road with four flat tires. Don’t remove the obstacles. What they really need is someone to come along and give them a helping hand. I think the best characters, the strongest ones, don’t make the journey on their own. For example:
- Harry Potter had Hermione and Ron
- Katniss Evergreen had Rue, Peeta and Haymitch and, indirectly, her sister
- Dorothy Gale had the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion
- Sometimes, the people who should be there to help you are the ones hindering you. In the book “Sarah’s Key”, the main character’s husband was unsupportive and, frankly, awful. (Sorry if you haven’t read it.)
- Let the road take you. Sometimes, whether you’re outlining or writing, it can be important to follow a spark that lights because of something else that happened. Follow it – you never know where it will lead. You might take it out later, but maybe it’s something you can use for another book or story. Maybe it’s something that will make your story better.
- Write during turmoil. When you’re sad and lonely and convinced that nothing is going to get better, write. Many authors feel that they’ve done their best writing when they’re working through something or struggling. Your characters will have genuine sadness that tears them apart.
- Revise. Go back. See where your characters came from, what they went through and evaluate their journey. Was it too straight? Did they have enough opportunity to grow? Do they rely too much on someone and need to make it on their own for awhile?