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Plots that make no sense, asking questions, and why writing is a like a puzzle.

Seems like I wrote something about vampires last night. I hope it was coherent. Man, I was wiped out. You don't even know.

Anyway, I'd like to share a little revalation I had a few years back that I still try to keep in mind while writing. Some of you who have been writing for a while may already have discovered this on your own, but whatever. It was an important step on my journey to writinghood and it deserves to be commemorated.

I was writing on a fantasy story simply titled 'Amara', after the main character - an orphaned, amnesiac girl with a mysterious past, serving as the apprentice of a master swordsmith. It was a strange and somewhat experimental little story and I'm not even sure which subgenre it would belong in. Like most of my work, it never made it past the first chapter. One reason was that it borrowed some aspects from the horror genre, and I quickly learned that I shouldn't write horror. (I scare myself, and end up sleeping poorly.) Still, I did keep considerable notes.

The thing is, when I started writing this story I actually had no idea where it was headed. That was the "experimental" part - normally I figure out the basic plot ahead of time and then try to write it down. It happens naturally; I can't control it. I can have and idea, go take a bath or something, and then emerge with a whole novel inside my head. But this time I was writing blind for once.

The issue I ran into was this: The local prince showed up at the smithy and commissioned a special sword. He'd learned that his half-brother, reputed to be the son of a witch, had been sighted in the nearby region. Now, I knew a few things already: I knew the two had a falling out the last time they met, and I knew that the prince was very afraid, thinking his brother was coming to kill him, but I also knew that the brother had no plans at all of killing the prince and was, in fact, not a bad person.

What I didn't know what how these facts fit together. It really didn't seem to make sense to me. It was obviously a huge plot point that I needed to work out, or I was bound to reach a point where I wouldn't be able to continue the story. So I finally bit the bullet and forced myself to write down the backstory of these two brothers. And then things got interesting.

Not only did I find that what I had written made total sense of the behaviours of the two brothers, but it also made sense of everything else. Suddenly, I knew how these brothers related to the main character, and how they had managed to misunderstand each other so fundamentally. I knew who the villain was, and what he was plotting and why. I knew the secret of my main character's mysterious background, why she was important to the story, and so on, and so on. Basically, I had the entire plot ready, just from understanding what those two charactacters had been through and how they were thinking, because one thing made sense of the next thing which in turn made sense of the third thing and so on.

This taught me a few important things about writing. It taught me that on a certain level, characterisation and plotting is practically the same thing. It also taught me that a story is like a puzzle, where each piece fits together with several other pieces that all form your narrative. And it taught me that whenever something doesn't make sense, you need to start asking questions, and don't stop asking questions until things start making sense again. Sure, I could have forced it to work, for example by changing the half-brother into a darker character who actually had reason to kill the prince. But if I had done that, I wouldn't have ended up with the plot I wanted. And it was a pretty darn good plot.

It's a leap of faith, basically: Sometimes when you don't understand your own writing, you simply need to trust that on some unconscious level it all fits together anyway, and you just have to find out how. Keep asking: Why is this so? The answer may surprise you.


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Anders Ämting
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