Psst, I have a secret for you. Sometimes even I didn’t see a twist in Amanda’s story coming. So how did it come about?
I have to admit that I have astonished myself. Over the course of writing my series I have developed an ability to look back at passing references and small details and make whole new story lines out of them. That’s a twist in my writing life I never saw coming.
When I started writing I never would have believed this kind of thing could happen. I had an overall arc in mind—more than one, actually—and I knew where the story and characters were going. But as I planned out each succeeding book, I discovered that I’d already set up a whole bunch of twists without even realizing it!
Creating twists doesn’t have to be a question of inventing a new villain or other character who can get himself into trouble, although that does help. It often comes down to using something that’s already there to thwart expectations: a chance bit of dialog, a teacher no one knows anything about, the revered founder of the secret detective school—these are elements I thought I understood that turned into something else entirely.
How does this happen? Well, part of it is that I like to question my assumptions. What if this character isn’t what he seems? What if that one, whom we thought was out of the story for good, comes back? What if a character changes profoundly as a result of something that’s happened to her? What did so-and-so mean when she said thus and so?
Of course in order to mine these small details a writer has to be able to keep track of what she’s written, and when you have a cast of characters as large as mine (I have no idea how many I have but it’s a lot), that’s no easy task. I think I’m able to manage that because I go over each book dozens of times, and that helps me remember plot points, dialog, and characters. I also go back to each story as I plan the next one, or the one after that, and refer to passages or character backgrounds to make sure I don’t introduce continuity errors. (Ha! I’ll bet I do though. I know of one already, but I’m not saying what it is.) It’s a daunting task that requires a high tolerance for tedium. I didn’t think that described me but now I’m not so sure.
But here’s the thing that really surprises me. It’s a well-known fact that some writers are pantsers. They make up their stories as they go along rather than plan them in advance. I am not one of them. I am a meticulous outliner, partly because that’s my personality but also because I’m always afraid I might write myself into a corner. But this phenomenon I’m describing—the process of twisting the story while writing—is pantsing. No matter how intricate an outline I create I am making things up as I go along. And that’s why I’m writing this post—because I want readers and fellow writers to know exactly how the experience of writing works.
So now that I’ve confessed my astonishing sin, please tell me, are you a strict outliner, a pantser, or a hybrid, and how’s that working out for you?