Notes from MisCon 27, Part 12
(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)
In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
Panel title: Writing Yourself Into (and Out of) Corners
Panel members: M.H. Bonham, Jim Butcher, John Goff, Dave Gross
Panel description: In this panel we’ll talk about to write your character into a corner (literally, figuratively, emotionally), and how to get them back out again.
JB: What happens when you write into a corner? How do you write into a corner and what does it mean?
DG: I wrote about a character I didn’t create (like Spiderman). The character was not revealed yet. But I had to write it in a short period of time. Others who owned the character changed the character’s motivation and told me I had to revise it by Thursday. The conflict still paid off with the different character, but there were shifting relationships.
MHB: Throw everything and the kitchen sink at the character. Sometimes you have to take a break and work on something else. I get ideas when driving. Don’t use the God card too much–only once in a great while. Think out a solution.
JB: At the beginning of writing Grave Peril, there was no mystery or bad guy, so I needed to throw out those chapters. If I’m in a corner, there’s no clear path and I don’t know what to write next. During a deadline, getting a character into a corner is easy.
JG: I write mostly game related material, so there’s mostly action. I wrote about a vampire and a gunslinger and I found myself in that situation frequently.
JB: How do you get out of it?
JG: I killed him. But the gunslinger was also undead. I don’t like blood, so I go as far as I can go and twist it.
JB: I don’t think there are corners. I think they’re for something awesome to happen. Think laterally. Look for a solution that is not two-dimensional, outside the box.
MHB: By thinking outside the box, ask what is the worst thing that could happen. Delaying the problem could make it worse.
DG: You could avoid getting into corners by outlining. Outliners are like the idiots that drive too slowly and pantsers are like the maniacs who drive too fast. You need to balance between the two.
JB: There’s great strength with solid structure. Have a good idea before you start writing. For example, if you’re driving to California, you need to know which highways to take.
Q: Have you ever come up with an idea where the solution to the problem is a McGuffin that comes out of nowhere?
JB: It’s cheating.
MHB: I used to be a pantser but now I outline. If something goes off, I write WTFIDK in the manuscript to indicate where other things go.
DG: I’m an outliner. 90% of my writing is licensed work. They want to know what you want to do. There was one author who had an 80k outline for a 100k manuscript. I try to have tight outlines. I try to get it down to 5k but usually it’s around 15k. A good editor once said that you have to lay the pipe down early.
Q: How horrible is it to insert flashbacks with characters and themes?
JB: If it’s right there, that’s obvious. Lay the groundwork for it.
JG: I like to use flashbacks more for character development. I try to avoid using flashbacks as the solution.
MHB: I use flashbacks as character development or to reveal a piece of the puzzle.
DG: I use them as action beginning the chapter and use them as explanation, but I only use them at the right time.
Q: Do you find yourself coming up with a clever solution first and then writing the character into a corner or is it more common to write into a corner and then bang your head against the wall trying to come up with a solution?
MHB: I used to come up with the trouble first, but now with outlining, I know where I’m heading.
JB: The danger you run into as a writer is that craft can overcome the character. If it doesn’t make sense, you need to let it go if it doesn’t go with the story. The outline helps you get to those places without too much fuss.
DG: I started reading many authors. I’m a film fan and I learned from Buffy. You can pen the story sooner than the audience expects as long as you have something bigger later.
Q: Have you come up with a cool solution that you have to make up a problem for?
JB: Sometimes, depending on the story. But it can be hard. You need to predict how characters will react, what the response will be, and what the emotions are. Does it make psychological sense?
MHB: I agree. You need to consider the emotion of the character. One author had a love interest in a space opera. She wrote a sex scene and afterwards the characters acted differently because there was too much emotion. So she had to cut the scene.
DG: I mostly approach it like a mystery. Think who gets killed and why. Determine the mechanical resolution and how to obfuscate or delay the answer.
JG: Yes. I’m like an outlining pantser with a highway map especially for character motivation. I once had a poker playing character I needed to kill off. So the character died in a cyclone of cards.
Q: Do you ever realize halfway through a book that you need to redo the outline? Or do you just continue?
MHB: I just continue and return back to where I need to go. Sometimes I need to change and don’t reoutline unless it’s really messy otherwise.
JB: I do change the outline and seek an alternate route, a new way to get there.
Q: For that route, do you go with the vanilla option or the science fiction/fantasy option? Like Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman?
JB: That was Spielberg in a corner. He couldn’t film a sword fight scene so he decided just to shoot him. When writing fantasy, using fantasy is usually more fun getting out of a corner. Use what’s close at hand. Consider the creator versus the character getting out of the corner.
DG: Go back to who the character is. If the character thinks that he is human but he isn’t, maybe that’s how he survives the situation.
MHB: I once had a sword with a personality. When all the magic was taken away, we can still use the sword. Come up with a solution which is a way around. Or go in the opposite direction.
JG: I don’t want to use a supernatural solution if it’s not a supernatural story. Ask, what can the character do?
Q: Is it more beneficial to get the character out of a corner instead of making the corner collapse and having the cavalry come in to rescue the character?
DG: The character must have earned the rescue, otherwise it’s a deus ex machina.
MHB: Only have the cavalry come in to clean up the mess.
JB: You can have the cavalry show up but only under specific circumstances. Don’t have them show up in the middle of the story. Instead, they should show up at the end of the book.
JG: You should also establish earlier that the cavalry even exists. You can use it to get conflict. And remember that you’re writing the book about the character and not the cavalry.