Take Five: #12: Take a different path

Take Five
Five-minute reads about writing
to help you with NaNoWriMo
Nov. 1 - Nov. 30, 2011
Courtesy: Sasha Soren (Random Magic)

#12: Take a different path

If you think of telling a story as walking along a specific path, then you can guess that at some point you'll get to a point in your novel and the path will suddenly just vanish.

This might happen frequently, or almost never. Either way there's no need to panic if you pace back and forth and look ahead to see what's changed, and - still no path ahead, just a dead end or a brick wall. That doesn't mean it's the end of your story. You might only have run into a spot where you're meant to turn around and find a different way.

Author Margaret Atwood comments here on what to do when you hit a spot in your story that just won't yield to analysis, pacing back and forth, or a jolt of caffeine:

Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

She comments that you should either retrace your steps, or change something. Both of these approaches work.

The first one, retracing, because it's always possible you might've overlooked something; some detail or story left untold that causes a blank spot, and you'll see what's missing when you go back over familiar territory.

The second one, changing something, helps because your mind usually reacts to something new with a flash of energy in trying to assimilate it, and it might light up the rest of the path so that you see it wasn't a dead end at all, just that maybe the path curved off to the left or right and now you see where to follow it. So, a change somewhere else suddenly lets you see more of the same path.

Or, it can also work just because when you change something, it subtly shifts your perspective, too, and you might be able to see the story from a slightly different angle, which also helps light up various markers and paths - including some that might be completely new. In that case, you might see a totally different path that you hadn't seen before, and take that one, instead.

So, if you run into a place where your story just seems to stop, that doesn't automatically mean your story can't take you on ahead. It only means that you might have to reorient yourself to see the landscape ahead from a slightly different angle.

You can retread a part of the path you've already taken, paying closer attention to detail, or just switch to take a different path that happens to show up when you least expect it, but which you can see from the top goes on for miles - and, oh, look, is that a café that sells sandwiches? And away you go. Either way works. The only way that doesn't work is just sitting there waiting for a path to appear. It won't, unless you put it there.

Official site: Margaret Atwood
Books: Amazon | Amazon Canada
Twitter: @MargaretAtwood

You can read some more of Margaret Atwood's writing advice below, accompanied by a clip of the author discussing another writing topic. Happy trails!

Shown above: Margaret Atwood discusses her creative process
Browse: Top 10 tidbits of writing advice from Margaret Atwood

About this series
The Take Five series is curated by Sasha Soren, author of Random Magic. You can find out more about the book here, if you like:

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Image info: Photo shown is author Margaret Atwood at Eden Mills Writers' Festival 2006, Blackwattle Bay, Ontario, Canada.