Thursday, 30 May 2013

Why ‘the worst idea ever’ can be useful

Sometimes the worst idea you can think of, is the best way to start filling a plot hole. When I'm writing adventures, I spend a lot of time trapping my characters in impossible situations, then thinking: ‘great trap, but now how do I get them out?’
Sometimes, the perfect answer arrives immediately, so I just keep writing. But sometimes when I’ve trapped my characters in a cave or a basement or another nasty situation, I’m just as stuck and confused as they are.
So what do I do next? If an idea doesn’t arrive overnight like a present from my snoozing imagination, then I sit down the next day with a notebook and I think of the worst possible answer to the question. I write down the things I definitely won’t do. I write down the clichés, the obvious, the boring, the naff and the impossible. And that Worst Ideas list usually leads me in a roundabout way to an answer which will work.
For example, in my first novel First Aid for Fairies And Other Fabled Beasts, I trapped my heroine in a basement, with baddies about to knock down the door and the wooden stairway lying in splinters on the floor because her heavy-hooved friend had just broken it.
And I had no idea how to get her out.
So I started by writing down the worst possible answer: A ladder in the corner.
An Obvious Ladder
(Why is that a rotten answer? Because if there’s a set of stairs into the basement, why would anyone need a ladder as well? Also it’s just too convenient and obvious and boring, and I don’t like making things convenient for my characters.)
Next worst answer: Helen just happens to have a long rope wrapped round her waist. (Why is that a rotten answer? Because unless she has a very good story-shaped reason for having a rope round her waist, that’s even more unlikely than a ladder and very unflattering as well.)
I also detoured through other really naff ideas like a previously unknown fairy godmother turning up to save her, or indeed Helen waking up and it was all a dream.
Then I looked at those first two answers again and started to think about why they didn't work. If it’s not practical for her to take the right object with her, then whatever she needs to escape must already be in the basement. And if it’s not exciting enough for the object she uses to be something you would naturally climb, then let’s have her improvise and use something unlikely. Which is why Helen ends up balancing along the narrow banister of the shattered staircase to get out.
So that’s one of my tactics for getting my characters out of traps. I start by writing the worst possible solutions and use those to sneak up on a more workable solution. By acknowledging why something is obvious or naff or daft, you can sometimes identify elements of the right answer.
It’s almost a Sherlock Holmesian way of working – once you’ve eliminated all the impossible or impossibly naff solutions, whatever snuck into your head while you were sniggering at the silly ideas must be the right answer. Though maybe Sherlock Holmes didn’t snigger…

Lari Don is the award-winning author of more than a dozen books for all ages, including fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers.
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1 comment:

Joan Lennon said...

What a cunning idea! Thanks - I will give that a go the next time I've painted my characters into a corner!