Crawling in the Dark: When Your Plot Goes Off Course

When I was in college, I was pretty adventurous.  I went rocking climbing, rappelling, completed rope and zip-line courses. I also did a series of really, really stupid things like tubing down underground water pipes when the water had frozen (illegal), four-wheeling (almost died), and caving (most stupid of all).

I still have nightmares about the caving incident, which inspired this post today.

I’d never been caving before, but as I said, my fear dial was set to ‘brainless.’  Eight of us, four boys and four girls, rappelled into a cave at about ten p.m. (little did I know it was on private property).  We maneuvered through the first series of caves with a little crawling and some minor contortion.  Nothing scary. 

When we got to an open space, the leader of our group — who even had a headlamp, which of course made him an expert — pointed out one tunnel he wanted to check out.  The opening was about the size of a garbage can lid (this should have been my first clue).  All the girls and one of the boys balked, refusing to squeeze into the tiny space.  But I was Becky the Mighty! I was willing to try anything. 

Our fearless leader said, “Why don’t you bring up the rear.  That way if we get stuck you can still crawl out.”  I thought he was being polite.  Really, I was their rescue option. 

At first, the tunnel wasn’t that bad.  Sure, I was dragging myself along on my forearms and scraping the crap out of them as I went, but then the tunnel narrowed.  I couldn’t keep my arms at my sides any more, and had to extend them in front of me to pull myself forward.  Our leader’s shoulders were so broad that he dragged one arm behind him, pulling all his body weight with his leading arm. 

I have no idea how far we crawled. It felt like hours.  My arms shook, my legs shook, and at some point I stopped to rest.  That was a big mistake.  The boys kept crawling, down a slight decline and the blackness overwhelmed me. 

Fact:  In ultimate darkness, your eyes won’t ever adjust.  You won’t see shadows. You won’t see shapes. You might as well close your eyes because they aren’t worth having open.

I didn’t cry.  I was too scared to cry.  I laid face down in the dirt and tried to keep my hysterical screaming inside. 

Luckily (or not), our leader got stuck just a few feet further on.  The problem then became crawling backwards out of the tunnel.  Crawling backward is much harder than crawling forwards, in case you were wondering.  But we made it.  Hooray. 

At this point you’re probably thinking, “What does this have to do with plots that go off course?”  I’ll tell you in four simple points:
  1. Most plot mistakes can be avoided by watching for the signs.  Ask yourself these questions: Are your characters behaving consistently throughout the story and does the action continue to drive the plot toward its climax?  Does it feel wrong?  Is your gut telling you that your plot is taking the wrong turn?  Are your betas/CPs losing faith? 
  2. Are you taking this plot turn for the sake of throwing your readers?  A well-planned plot twist with supporting clues throughout the story can make a novel memorable. BUT, if you’re adding a twist just for the sake of surprising your audience, you’re probably doing it for the wrong reasons.  Truly masterful storytellers mislead with the clues they’ve laid, but the clues are there if you go back and look for them.
  3. Back up.  Go back a few chapters, re-read what you’ve written.  You may be able to identify where you took the wrong turn.  I recently did this with an MS and it cost my 10K words, but I was facing writer’s fatigue and having a hard time moving forward.  My brain turned to jello and I laid on the floor (better than in the dirt) and tried not to cry.  Once I identified my mistake, moving forward became much easier. 
  4. When all else fails, go for help.  I’m grateful we didn’t get to that point in my caving expedition, but our leader had planned for that eventuality.  You can’t turn to the fire department when you’ve got a manuscript issue, but your can turn to writer friends for help.  Sometimes outside assistance is exactly what a story needs.
Good luck keeping your plots on track!


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