Photo borrowed from this tweet.
In early June, Google displayed archived documents from the 1944 D-Day attack on the Normandy Coast. Among these pictures, letters, and papers was a similar document to the one above, handwritten by Eisenhower, detailing his apology, explanation, and acceptance of blame in the event the Allied attack failed. My love for history and my understanding of how different things might well be aside, both that apology and this statement concerning Apollo 11 give me pause on the writerly front.
I have a dear friend who states that when she comes to a crucial scene in a manuscript, she discards not just the first option she pens, or the second, but sometimes the third as well and ultimately goes with the fourth. Keep in mind, writing is not a snap of the fingers for her; I have long been a lucky first reader of her work, and I can tell you she agonizes over the majority of her scenes, and she attacks description and characterization with the long considered zeal of a perfectionist. Ergo, this abandonment of carefully crafted prose two, sometimes three times, is not a short or simple process.
It’s also a marvelous, and difficult, writing skill.
By discarding what comes first and most naturally, she forces herself to think past three very important things:
1) The Obvious. The clichéd, the stereotypical, the been-there-done-that. Maybe it feels right to you because it’s right, but maybe it’s just because you’ve seen it somewhere before. You’ve watched another scene turn along these lines, you’ve heard other voices speak these words. Natural progression is good, but beware of the commonplace.
2) The First Option. By working past what pops into mind first, you explore other ways that a scene could result. You begin pushing against the walls of the box, sticking your fingers through the air holes, doubling your list of “what ifs.” If a scene refuses to go anywhere, perhaps the best bet to find that hinge moment and swing things another way.
3) The 2-D Character. Maybe this is what a character would do first, but is it what a character would do best? Taking a look at what else might happen, not from the authorial point of view but rather from the character’s point of view, can give you and your readers a ton of insight into this character that otherwise may never have surfaced. The character might still emerge victorious and alive from that moon landing, but the fact that he or she prepared for what might happen on the other end of the spectrum can be extremely instructive.
Random Writing Exercise: Take a particular scene (bonus points if it’s one you are stuck on!) and write in the exact opposite direction from the one you’d planned. See where it goes. It may take you nowhere. It may give you insight into your characters or plot that you were missing. It may throw open the next door and reveal to you exactly how to rampage over the writer’s block into the meat of your story.