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In Service to the Story

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In a conversation with Craig about my post on Inspiration I got on the topic of how much you should be willing to change while writing your novel. I realized that I have been drawing on my experience as a Dungeon/Game Master when working on my own novels. To explain a bit.

When developing a story for a Pen and Paper group, where the story can take on any twist and turn as the players move through the narrative, you must be able to “roll with the punches”. So what I do is come up with my major NPCs and decide what their major goals, motivations, and character quirks are. I get my major plot points down and how I think they all could be connected and start my game. What this allows me to do is make changes to the narrative as the game progresses. Should the players do something that changes my original plan, I can roll with it because I know what the overall goal for the opposing NPCs is–and I know what they will likely do in response to the players.

How does this equate to a novel? I’m doing as much back-story as needed to know what my main character’s motivations are. I even get my major plot points down. Craig mentioned the fear of this limiting your flexibility. However, I don’t think that is the case. I believe the opposite. I believe you have even more flexibility. You will be so informed by your characters that any changes will be easy to figure out. You will allow your characters to tell you how they would handle any changes you see fit to make.

It was also mentioned that making changes may cause you to have to rewrite the entire story, thus putting you off schedule. My response is, “So be it.” Everything should be done in service to the story. You should never be married to a single idea. That will be your death knell. If everything else is telling you to change something, do it! You will end up with a stronger product in the end.

I’m reminded of an anecdote from Brad Bird–arguably the best story teller in Hollywood. When he first wrote The Incredibles he introduced a pilot that was going to fly the family to the island. This character was written in just to die in the explosion–to show that the bad guys, “meant business”. As development went on, he realized that it took up too much time to introduce a brand new character within the third act. And he realized, no one would care if this guy died because we didn’t have enough time to get to know him. He cut out the character, made the mom the pilot, and ended up with a tense and memorable scene. Originally Brad fought to keep the pilot in, but when it was said and done had a stronger story without him.

So I encourage you to listen to your characters and plot line. It may very well be telling you to change that moment which you originally thought was a cornerstone. Don’t be afraid.

Everything you do is in service to the story.



  1. Craig says:

    Well it comes down to one of those basic writing maxims doesnt it? You have to be prepared to get rid of your favourite line/scene, and ifyou cant say goodbye to it, then you’ve got problems.

    In most of my major projects, I have had to do this myself. I guess its easier to do it with a single line of dialogue, but with a whole chapter? Well I did it. And whats more, getting rid of that chapter helped me to get rid of about four other chapters which, while I personally enjoyed them, slowed the whole plot down.

    In terms of back story, I do get a bit skittish when it comes to changing things. Most of the stuff I write is painted on massive canvasses, with huge swathes of back story. And its that kind of back story that I try to think of as rigid. Individual character back stories I can be more flexible with. I’m something of a hypocrite I guess, I because I very rarely practice what I preach. You mention everything being in service to the story, and its true. Though I can rail against that something fierce. Like I mentioned above, the section that I cut out from my book means that the whole third act now flows much more smoothly. And as luck would have it, all the material I removed would actually fit much better in the sequel. Obviously coming from a pen and paper rpg background, you’ve developed that kind of flexibility in your writing. When I was younger I could never get my head around developing npcs in that fashion, and rolling with the punches as you say. I’m not saying I cant plan like that, but it does require a degree of improvisational skill, no?

    • Jeff Baker says:

      There is most assuredly a degree of improvisational skill needed. I’ll have to give nod to my days in theatre for that one. Ultimately that comes down to trusting your gut and learning to say ‘yes’.

  2. beerskunk says:

    Working on the re-writes for my feature script and with every pass the body count increases, but the story improves. I’m personally a slave to the story’s theme. Each re-write should strengthen and clarify the story’s narrative spine or theme, which sometimes requires drastic changes to character backgrounds and motivations.

    • Jeff Baker says:

      Exactly. If you try and stick with something that isn’t working, the work will show it. I think the best thing we–as writers–should keep in mind is that nothing is set in stone until the project is in the hands of the viewer. And even then we can work to fudge things later if we can.

  3. Matt says:

    I love that Incredibles anecdote. It’s one of my favourite Pixar movies, and when I read about this a while back (or was it an extra feature on the disc? Can’t remember), I nodded at the wisdom of the decision. The whole film was about family! Bringing an outsider into the story to add a sense of danger and loss would have made no sense!

  4. James says:

    When it comes to story writing I think that it is necessary to be a brutal and effective slasher. Probably moreso for me than others. Now, I think I come to my writing in a very different way than Jeff or Matt. I don’t write many things down before hand, and generally discover who my characters are as I write about them. I have a idea for a plot, where the story begins and where it ends, who the main characters are, but not in a very detailed way. The act of writing helps me discover the details of the world and its people. Usually this works really well for me, but I have had instances where pivotal characters evolved too dramatically. In these instances I have had to rewrite large swathes of story.

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