Narratives are often classified as plot driven or character driven. In plot-driven works such as thrillers, events happen to the characters, who are defined by their reactions. In character-driven works, characters shape the events and outcome of the story. The categories seem simple and obvious – until l sit down to write.
I’m nearing the end of a novel titled Chasing the Light in which the protagonist, Kelly, tries to discover what happened to her missing friend, Day. I have a plot outline and know how the story ends. But I can’t foresee every twist and turn along the way.
Imagine hiking in the mountains. You stand on high ground and look over the landscape you’re about to cover. You see your destination off in the distance and know where you’re headed. But during the journey you encounter obstacles that weren’t visible from above– streams that can’t be crossed where you planned, steep paths that could be avoided with a detour, shortcuts you didn’t anticipate. That’s how writing from an outline works for me.
In one chapter of Chasing the Light, Kelly hikes into the mountains to meet a woman who gives her crucial information about Day’s fate. Then, hiking back to her car, she’s spotted by the bad guys. They’re in a Land Rover and could easily run her down – except a fence stands in the way. Kelly makes it to her car. In my outline she turns south toward town, forcing her to pass a side road where the bad guys are watching for her. They follow her and try to force her car off the road. But as I wrote the passage where Kelly reaches her car, she anticipates them lying in wait for her. I hadn’t planned for that, but of course she would. She has been to that place before and knows where the roads are. Unless she wants a harrowing car chase down a winding, precipitous mountain highway, she wouldn’t go south toward town. And so the chapter ends, “She went north.”
The novel loses a car chase that has been done so often in films it has become cliché and gains suspense as readers wonder where Kelly is going and whether she finally makes it home. Meanwhile, other events unfold according to plan, and the story moves toward the outlined conclusion. Only not quite on the course I originally charted.