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Painting Yourself Into a Corner



You know, when I started the Comicality Library on Voy (http://www.voy.com/17262/), I found out that even when I tried to alter the length of the posts that were acceptable...my chapters were still a little bit too long to fit within the confines of the space that I was given. And I didn't want to put 85% of a chapter in one post, and a measly 15% in the second post, just to split them up to make them fit. That would have looked weird. And, to me, looking weird is bad presentation.

As Stan Lee used to say...you have to write comic books as if it's everybody's first comic book. And when I write stories, even if I'm fifty chapters in or more...I try to approach it as if this is their very first introduction to 'Comicality'. If I screw up that first impression, chances are they won't be back. So let's get it right the first time if we can, right? So I would go in, and I would follow the little gray bar on the right side of the screen...and try to split my most current chapter into two equal halves instead.

What I found out, very early on...is that when I did that with my chapters, adjusting a few paragraphs or sentences here and there, that the posted chapters were already split in half. Almost as if I had done it subconsciously. And any one of you can go to the Library link on my site right now and see proof of that in one of the archives when the chapters were longer in word count. (I shortened the chapters so that I could get them out quickly and much more frequently without the usual long waits between chapters. But if you were to divide those smaller chapters in half, the same rule would apply) And that got me to thinking about my writing process a bit more...making something clear to me.

A story isn't just one arc from beginning to finish. Instead, its a bunch of smaller arcs from chapter to chapter that are all working to reach the same goal. Every separate chapter has a beginning, a middle, a climax, and an end. So I began thinking of them that way all the time. The middle of my chapters are the highest reaching arc of that particular rainbow, and that, in turn, leads me to the end of the chapter. It almost never fails.

Like I said, without even knowing that I was doing it...it just became the norm of how I write my stories from chapter to chapter. There's an inciting incident, an escalation, a high point, and then a bit of a 'cooling off' period as the chapter comes to an end. Even if it ends on a cliffhanger.

Why does this happen? Well, it comes from a lot of intense planning ahead of time before my fingers ever even touch the keyboard. What am I doing? Where am I going with this chapter? How was it affected by the previous chapter? How will it impact the chapter to follow it? And how is this all still keeping me in line with my theme, the tone, and my characters' motivations in the long run? All of these thoughts are necessary to proceed when it comes to writing a tighter, more cohesive story. This is how you can navigate your way through each chapter and still make things happen the way you want them too.

However...there are going to be times (Not maybe...not possibly...but inevitably)...when you're going to find yourselves painted into a corner, with no feasible way out. If it hasn't happened to you yet, chances are, it will at some point in one of your future projects, and I've learned a few do's and dont's over the years that I'm hoping will help you guys out in the future.

Don't worry about it, or think that it is making any statement on your talent as a writer. Trust me, it comes for us all eventually. It's best to be prepared for it, and maybe have a few tools at your disposal to get yourself out of it when it happens!

For this article...we're talking about painting yourself into a corner! So lets get started!

I'm sure that most of you have already heard of this phrase before, but just to reiterate...imagine that you have a paint brush in your hand. You're painting the floor beneath your feet. You keep going and going and you are almost ninety percent done with the whole room....then your back and shoulders hit the wall. You're standing there...with a very small patch of un-painted floor beneath your feet...JUST enough for you to stand in that corner with nowhere to move, no steps to make without ruining the hard work you've put in and leaving footprints in the paint until it dries. Hell...you could be stuck there for HOURS without being able to move in any direction at all. What do you do? Hehehe!

This is the idea of painting yourself into a corner. Just with your writing.

Sometimes, we all want to 'raise the stakes' of what's going on in our stories, or we give our main characters some extremely heavy problems to deal with, or put them in a serious predicament that seems like it's nearly impossible for them to get out of. And hat's awesome...IF you know how to get them out of it! Hehehe! If you find yourself headed in that direction, and you're enjoying the ride without having any idea as to how you expect to solve the problems that you've put in the way of your main character...then you're, very quickly, going to find yourself painting yourself closer and closer into that corner. I mean, how are you going to fix the elements of your story that you broke on purpose?

Is it intriguing? Yes. Is it entertaining? Of course. But the conflict will ultimately fall flat if you don't already have some kind of believable resolution in mind. Don't get your audience all worked up and then just say, "Well...they just got out of it because they're awesome." Um...what? NO! That's not what your readers were looking for. That's not the payoff that you promised them when escalating the situation and working up to some kind of explosive or particularly clever dash around the major obstacles that you put in your main character's way. That's not cool at all.

This is the time to recognize and appreciate the merits of planning your stories ahead of time. Have an idea in place before you start traveling down that particular rabbit hole. I definitely think that all authors should be 'flexible' with their writing, and allow room for spontaneity in their work as they're lost in a creative moment. Just understand the potential traps that comes with that kind of writing. Because you can find yourself putting your characters into a position that they really can't get out of without some kind of unrealistic 'miracle' rushing in to save them. And that can detract from a really great story for readers who are looking out for that sort of thing.

You may have heard the term, 'Deus ex machina', many times...but didn't really absorb the meaning of what it means when it comes to your ideas and your own writing. It's a Latin term that means, 'God from the machine'. It basically means that a situation is solved by some random person or situation just 'magically' happens at the last minute without reason, and somehow solves a truly difficult problem with ease, and without explain how or why? To highly exaggerate the idea...one boy asks another, "Wait are you a homosexual???" And while the other boy stutters for an answer...SUDDENLY the Earth gets invaded by the flying saucer people of Neptune! Hehehe! Whew...dodged a bullet there, right?

NO!!! Don't do that! Just....don't ever do that! LOL!

Unless you've built up your story in a way where another character or group of characters or certain circumstances are set and ready to swoop in at the last minute to save the day...don't cop out and worm your way out of a difficult situation with an easy (and instantaneous) fix. That drains sooooo much energy from your story. Avoid the Deus ex machina as much as possible if you can. Your readers will get more entertainment out of watching your main character struggle to overcome that difficult obstacle, or maybe even LOSE against it...than they will with some kind of 'shrug of the shoulders' solution to the big mess that you spilled out at their feet.

This is your audience. They're expecting you to put some work into your project. So put it in. If you find yourself getting closer and closer to that corner...have your character mirror your feelings as a writer. How do I do this? What am I supposed to think? How can I get out of this dilemma? It's ok to let your main character struggle. I know that I put mine through the ringer all the time! LOL! God forbid, if I were to ever meet them in person! They'd probably chase me through the streets with torches and pitchforks! But that is the core of literary drama and tension. Creating problems, raising the stakes, and having your main character fight like hell to figure out a solution. Doesn't that sound like a story you'd want to read?

No story can start with a 'happily ever after' vibe...and end with a 'happily ever after' vibe, and still be interesting. No matter WHAT events happen in between. Guaranteed joy doesn't intrigue an audience. Questions do. Take that tidbit of advice to heart.

To sum it all up...make sure that you have at least a clue as to how you're going to wrap up the problems that you put you're characters through. Planning is essential. Always. You can decide to change and alter or bend the details later...but don't put your 'James Bond' in an inescapable trap and make it truly inescapable! Because, when it comes time for him to find a way out...you're going to either get so frustrated looking for a solution that you're on the verge of a brain aneurysm...or you're going to try to think up a way to save him that adds up to...'because God saved him'. Neither one is going to be satisfying to your readers. Write every story as though you're getting paid a million dollars to do so. And, who knows? Maybe one day you will! :) That's my article on painting yourselves into a corner. I hope a few of these tips will give you a little something extra to think about! Seezya next time! Have fun!

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I have a tendency to avoid planning like the plague (in all areas of life, not just writing). But when I buckle down and force myself to do it, I never regret it. Thanks for the helpful reminder :) 

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Of course you are going to write your character into a corner, that is the essence of characterization – but to rely on Deus to get him out is not writing it is just putting words to print. You have provided us with a superb method of avoiding the corner painting (maybe a previously unseen window to escape out of)(Oh, no, that is a Deus ex machina isn't it?) I love your advice, now if I could only remember to take it all the time!

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Interesting points. Very relatable! I wrote my last story in a single .doc file without any divisions. I was experiencing a creative burst and before I knew, the story was done in less than a week. And as I looked back at it, I was surprised to see that the chapters were already there. Some were a little longer, some a bit shorter, but there was no doubt - the "smaller arcs" were there! Sometimes I got to chose whether to make a paragraph the last paragraph of a chapter or the first paragraph of the next chapter (hence choosing between having or not a cliffhanger). 

Over complicating the plot should surely be avoided but if you do... and you don't want to rewrite the whole thing, I would "ask" the characters - what would you really do? How would you react? And let them do things their way. There may be no fireworks, the story may be cut short. You may need to find an alternative happy ending. But at least you won't betray your characters or make your story unbelievable. 

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