Runaway Stories

We’ve all done it. You write the best fight scene in the world, then realize the story has shot off in a different direction than you planned. Or you have the most amazing snappy dialogue… and it’s three times as long as it should be.

Stories have a way of escaping and running amok. Just like everything else in life. I’m packing up to move in a few weeks, so this is on my mind. You should see the pile of boxes I have to fill. They started as a neat pile of cardboard in the corner, and now they’ve exploded all over the apartment. I think they’re reproducing of their own volition, and they’re still not enough.

Anyway. Back to the salient point, which is that stories can get away from you. For some people, this is a feature, not a bug. Personally, I start with a vague outline and end with a story that mostly follows that outline, but usually has a lot of other stuff added in to make it interesting.

What is a poor writer to do? I see two main options for corralling escaped stories.

-Lots of editing. Write that story; let it escape and wander. Then drag out the red pen and get rid of all the extraneous bits. Don’t ever delete them; save them in a separate file. Because as soon as you delete something, you’ll want that specific bit of description or fun dialogue, and won’t be able to recreate it. All of my stories have a file of ‘notes and extra bits,’ and the ones for the first few novels are almost as long as the novels themselves.

-Make it automatic. The other way to handle a tendency to pants in random directions is to adjust your style a bit. Instead of editing so much, do the work before you start writing. Not necessarily an outline; learn your craft. Learn it so well that you hit the correct beats without thinking about it, even when your story appears to have escaped. Read a lot of books in your genre, and write, write, write, until you don’t have to think about the plot. I’ve been slowly transitioning to this method, and it’s working relatively well (I love to read and hate editing, so I naturally tried to move some of the work to the front end of the project, instead of doing it all on the back end). You still have to do some editing, but at least your subconscious is working with the rest of your brain, and your plot probably won’t require quite as much overhauling.

Of course, you have to find a style that works for you, and some genres are better suited to one solution or the other.

How do you reel a story back in when it tries to escape?


  1. “How do you reel a story back in when it tries to escape?”

    Oh please. Everybody knows that stories are dictated by the characters. If I try to get a word in edgewise they roll their eyes and start yelling “FAKE! I would never do that! You’re a doofus, do it right!!!”

    Lippy, is what I say.

  2. I grump, then see which way the thing is trying to go. Often, it’s my hind-brain taking the plot in a more satisfying direction than what I’d anticipated. Sometimes, it is a side-plot that actually fits into the larger story, and I let it stand (albeit with some trimming on a later pass). A few times I write it out, then go back and snip it for my “story bits file.” Those often turn into short stories or later books, or work better in a different series entirely.

    A few times I’ve gone back, sighed heavily, and deleted the thing because while I love it, my alpha readers do not and it adds nothing to the book.

    1. Sometimes I split off ideas to separate stories if they’re growing out of hand and derailing what I’m working on.

    2. Yeah, mine tend to metastasize into series, too. I guess that should have been option 3, but I was writing this at stupid o’clock and didn’t even think of it.

  3. There are two varieties of runaway stories for me.

    The first is hormonal/light driven; every now and then I stop, take a look at what I’ve written, and go “Oh, I crossed the event horizon of depression again.” Those get cut out, and I go focus on making sure I’m getting enough sleep, enough sunlight (or artificial replacement), enough exercise, proper nutrition, and when the body is no longer depressed, the mind and muse correct.

    The second is just my back-brain deciding the story has no need to stick to puny plots, and haring off to make a richer world as characters stay true to themselves instead of what the plot wants them to do, and worldbuilding accidentally trips off my fingers onto the screen that fore-brain had never conceived or planned for.

    In that case, I replot, and try to figure out what should come next, and if I can still reach the original goal of the story, or it’s changing on me. Sometimes I can’t figure out the goal, so I plot in reverse – write a plot of everything that’s happened so far,s o I can look at the pattern and go “Ah, this must come next.”

    If I try to force the original plan, it goes dead on me, so I’m learning to try to hang on and figure out how to write the ride as it goes off where it’s going to go.

  4. I generally have to make it clear to the characters what the Main Problem of the story is, then at least there’s a chance they’ll get around to it once they’ve finished remodeling the house. And no, I have no idea where the “restore an old historic house” idea came from. It’s their idea, not mine.

  5. Right now, everything and the kitchen sink may stay, including the Erlking and that tribe of dwarves I caught during the last Nano. 😀 I’m an out of order pantser, and this is going to be a multivolume epic mess monster anyway.

    Maybe I’ll delete a subplot or two later, and some scenes may have to go, much as I like them (f.e. the bull dancers of Khoryv) if they don’t add to the story except for atmosphere – though since I like rich worlds, that will be a tough decision every time. I don’t mind that sort of scenes as a reader if they’re well written.

    I’ll also have to do something about the amount of flashbacks / backstory inserts and the occasional vision of the past that litter my draft right now. Some of those are in the 2-3K range; a few of them integrated into the main plot strand by shifting between dialogue/action,and third limited memory, which in turn may include remembered dialogue. I think I made it work at least once or twice, but other such instants either need a rewrite, a cut, or a separate scene for the backstory.

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