As I’m working on the Fo’Fonas series, I’ve made the decision that I’m going to write rough drafts of every novel in the series before I will seek to publish even the first one. I think this will improve the strength of all of the novels, since I’ll be able to better tie everything together and generally make for a tighter story. It will also make my job as a writer easier, because I won’t be stuck with an immutable origin when I get to later parts of the series.
If you’ve written speculative fiction in any kind of volume, you may have encountered the phenomenon to which I refer as “written into a corner.” When writing, the characters and situations you create have a life of their own, and a sense of will, in a manner of speaking. While you could in principle write whatever actions and feelings for your characters you wish, for the story to be believable you have to have your characters make decisions and take actions that are in keeping with their characters, and that are realistic for the tools that they possess. When you find that you’ve written a scene where your characters cannot have the ending you want within the confines of the story, you have “written yourself into a corner.”
This has happened to me a few times, and I actually enjoy the challenge of it. Oftentimes, it forces me to be more creative, to really sink into the minds and resources of my characters and come up with creative solutions for their predicaments. Many times that this happens, it means making hard decisions. I have more than once found myself having to kill or damage a character I cared about to make the story work. Though it’s difficult, being written into a corner can oftentimes produce poignant scenes, if you’re willing accept the consequences.
It becomes dangerous, though, if you’re not willing to accept those consequences. That leads to deus ex machina, “invincibility syndrome” (where your main character somehow keeps coming back from situations from which they could not possibly have escaped without being killed or maimed), and other story holes. When none of the work is published, you as an author can go back and change your character’s “history” to address these issues, but if the work is published, you have to work with what you’ve written.
The clearest cases of this are where a story started out small, and ballooned into something larger. The original Star Trek, for instance, is full of continuity errors even to itself; it wasn’t until The Next Generation that entities and concepts within that universe became formalized and largely consistent. Continuity errors often arise from an author realizing that something they established earlier cannot be the case for the story they’re trying to tell.
Sometimes, the “written into a corner” phenomenon arises from the introduction of a concept or tool that would be damaging to the story. In the Harry Potter series, for instance, Hermoine uses a device (let’s call it a technology) called a time-turner, which allows the user to go backwards in time. This is used in the third book, but is never used again. Rowling partially plugged this hole by destroying the time-turners in the fifth book. Why? Because otherwise the question would always exist: if the characters didn’t like this outcome, why not go back in time and try to fix it?
Writing good fiction requires plausible impossibility, which is a concept I’ll explain further in another post. For now, consider it to mean that what happens in a story has to seem realistic in the context of the world the author has created. Being written into a corner will often prompt an author to violate plausible impossibility, and that can break a story.