I’ve been writing novels – or at least trying to write novels, with varying degrees of success – for about ten years. In general, I’m a very good writer, but I have a chronic habit of not finishing novels in particular. I begin stories, get a quarter or halfway through, and never finish them. Sometimes the story stopped being interesting and I forgot about it, but more often, I had no idea where to go next.
From the reader’s perspective, this writing looked like a bunch of elegant prose and interesting characters just sort of aimlessly drifting with no purpose. Any one chapter, or even a short string of chapters, might be interesting, but after an extended period of reading, you would be left confused. I was just as confused writing these driftwood stories.
Only recently did I realize what I was doing wrong, and I realized it by accident.
A few months ago, I decided to start on a novel – not an uncommon whim for me, to be sure – but the way I came at it was different. Instead of imagining an interesting scenario, or world, or set of characters, I wanted to tell a story about something. It had a moral, a plot, a purpose. (I wanted to write about three things: our relationships with others, our relationships with ourselves, and the relative importance of each.)
For the first time, I shaped the characters and the world around the story, not the other way around. Oddly, I wasn’t comfortable writing beyond chapter 1 without a very clear idea of all the major plot beats, especially the ending. I had never done that before: known the ending before writing much of anything.
Besides helping me gain a clear roadmap for where I wanted my story to go, this mindset also helped me to get over what I had known for a long time was my biggest flaw as a novelist: my inability to hurt my characters. I hadn’t known before how to fix that problem, but all of a sudden with this mindset shift, I stopped having a mental hangup about killing or hurting characters. It confused me at first.
After a short time, I realized a fundamental distinction between the way I’d been writing before and the way I wrote this new story. Before, I had been writing wish fulfillment. I started with characters or situations or worlds that I enjoyed imagining things about, and I wanted to share those imaginings with the world, so I wrote them down. It was never about telling a story, it was about sharing a cute scenario or a cool world or a neat character. And because it was about those things, I would be extremely reluctant to sacrifice the real purpose of the writing for the sake of a “plot”.
On the other hand, when the goal was to tell a story, I didn’t get too attached to any one story component, because the only reason those components existed the way they did was because the story required it; if the story had required something else, I would have come up with something else.
If you can’t bring yourself to hurt or kill your characters, ask yourself why they’re so precious to you. Is your writing shaped around a story you’re trying to tell, or is it simple wish fulfillment? There’s nothing wrong with writing wish fulfillment, by the way – but if you’re writing that type of fiction, it’s often best to know it. That way, you don’t feel compelled to add a plot to what should really be a fluffy one-shot.