01 December 2013

Follow the Logic

Recently I was rewriting a scene for my manuscript and I seemed to hit a wall. I wrote the whole thing; it seemed well and good on the surface, but something was off. I tried again the next day, wrote a new version. It wasn’t until the third attempt that I finally caught the scent of the story and was able to follow it properly.

There are two things that usually happen when I write a scene and it just doesn’t feel right. My favorite one is where I sleep on it, read through it the next day and the night’s sleep seems to have simmered it into something better and more flavorful than I had originally thought. The scene does work. And I move on.

The other one is where I give it a night’s sleep and the thing doesn’t budge. The scene is just as intractable as it was before. Second night’s sleep. Same thing. The scene is a problem. And it’s hard to tell why.

If the dialogue is doing all the very hard work you’ve asked of it, the prose is something you’re proud of, the action is tense and intriguing, how can the scene still not be working?

The dreaded answer: follow the logic. Somewhere (hopefully not too far back, but maybe it goes all the way to the first two words of the scene) something was forced. Somewhere, I made a character do something that was probably what they would not do, or something happened that almost certainly wouldn’t. I made a character say something that sprung neither from their nature nor from the context, simply so I could have the other character respond in a way I thought was clever or powerful.

Or I made a brutally exhausted character stay awake just to have a conversation I thought was interesting, but certainly they were much too tired for [note: this is the exact example as a result of which I am writing this post]. Or I forced someone to trust someone else much too quickly, just so that I could keep the plot moving.

This is some of the most exhausting work because I can literally stare at the text for hours (or go walking for hours), scarcely putting a single word down, trying to figure out what this person really would say and whether they really would get that angry that easily.

If a scene just isn’t working, there’s a 90% chance that somewhere, somehow, I dropped the logic/reality of the story and characters in favor of something I liked or wanted, but makes no sense. It doesn’t matter if everything that follows the error makes sense, the trajectory is mislaid. Even if I only knocked the story out of place by one degree, it’s one degree too much; the longer I keep trying to go down that path, the farther away from the real objective I’ll be.

It will look like progress on the surface, but it won’t be.

So that’s writing. But it’s also everything else. C.S. Lewis (sorry I can’t help myself, he’s my favorite!) summarizes this issue perfectly:

“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.
If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

I think we often wonder how we or others can go so astonishingly awry. How does someone become corrupt? How does someone with a great talent utterly lose the divine spark? How does a person find oneself in a place they never thought they would go?

By a degree. Or a decimal point. A half-turn.

That sounds brutal and daunting. But it’s also factual. As factual in life and writing as it is by a compass, mathematics, or a road.

The thing is, we can trace back to the last marker of truth and logic and start again. We just have to be willing to do so.