Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Writer's 'Giraffe Conundrum'

I hate it when the plot runs out of control.

Especially in fiction.

Maybe you’ve experienced something like what I’m about to outline, maybe this is how it goes for you, too. If so, take comfort from the fact you’re not alone. Then slash your wrists, if only to keep your hand in...

Let’s say you’re writing about a time-travelling giraffe trapped in a wizard’s lair.

And let’s say he gets to throw a chair at the wizard.

Don’t ask why, he just does. It says so in your first draft:

thewizxard stared hard at the giraffe somtihing about his eyelashes but not bristling, then gir grabs chair and throws it, hits wiz, knocks unconsc

So you write, “the giraffe grabbed the chair and threw it at the wizard”, resolved to tackle the business about the eyebrows next (or drop it altogether, perhaps). Simple.

Then you remember, earlier in the scene when you were describing the wizard’s lair, you referred to a cat asleep on the chair. It’s not an essential cat, just decoration, included along with the crystal ball and the cinnamon incense sticks to convey something of the wizard’s mystique. But now you’re wondering, “what happens to the cat when the giraffe picks up the chair?”

Options now proliferate, like wannabee Lady Gagae.

“The cat eyed the giraffe suspiciously.”

“The giraffe stared hard at the chair. Only moments ago, a cat had lain asleep upon its velvet seat, but now it had vanished...”

“The cat rose to its feet. ‘Back off, you long-necked fiend!’”

Suddenly, it’s three-way dialogue time, and your characters have to start twitching, rolling their eyes and manifesting all sorts of ridiculous and unnecessary mannerisms so people can figure out who’s talking in the absence of tags.

“Yes!” The wizard smiled. “It’s my cat, my familiar
A grin from the cat. “Yes.”
The giraffe’s long lips drooped. “I’m not smiling.”

Or maybe you’re Old School, in which case there’s endless intoning, ejaculating and meaowing.

So what do you do? Go back to the description of the wizard’s lair and amputate the cat? Or accept the offer prompted by your reasoning as you re-examined the idea of the giraffe throwing the chair? What if the cat is stuffed? Nailed to the chair? Or is it the chair itself that’s at fault? Should the giraffe throw something else at the wizard, leaving the decorative cat to sleep blissfully on in the background? Could it simply punch the wizard with a deft one-two of savannah-mottled hoof? And does your protag need to be a giraffe at all? Maybe you’d be better off with a warthog, then you could ditch the wizard altogether and run with a rom-com centred on the cat’s unrequited love.

The problem with the plot running out of control is that it has to at some point. If nothing runs, you haven’t got a plot. This is as true for outliners as it is for pantsers. Whether you’re setting sail on a wide open sea or winging it down a ravine in a raft, it’s almost impossible to know at the time of committing air to script or pixel whether you’re running with with an idea or phrase capable of opening up your story or shutting it down hard. Giraffe good, cat bad? Cat good, boxing giraffe good? Giraffe bad, suicide good?

These are the cliffhangers your readers never get to see.


Whirlochre said...

I feel I should point out that if you ever find yourself in a genuine cliffhanger scenario, it pays to be a time-travelling giraffe...

Phoenix said...

If it's a novel, I believe the solution is quite simple. If you're already 130,000 words in and only halfway through, best to cut the scene completely. If you're only at 20,000 words and halfway through, throw in an pteradactyl and run with it. But do be sure to get the eyebrows right regardless. Perhaps they're dueling with one another?

Old Kitty said...

So long as the Cat gets to rule the world, all is ok! Take care

Peter Dudley said...

Any cat owner should know the answer in this case. The giraffe should throw the cat at the wizard. There are few things as dangerous in this world as an angry, airborne cat.

Now if only the giraffe could get the cat wet before the throw...

Scarlet Blue said...

I think these dilemmas are the fun part of writing... and I also agree with Mr Dudley.

Whirlochre said...

Nothing raises the stakes like a pteradactyl.

Old Kitty
Some would say they already do.

A repeating cat bazooka ought to do the trick.

OK, so Peter is this trail's Mr Charisma...

jjdebenedictis said...

I too am swooning after Mr. Charisma's suggestion. Mad cats trump pretty much any other hand-to-hand weapon.

Whirlochre said...

I'll leave the final word on weaponry to the fluffball of pain from Down Under...