All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Stuck In the Corner

In case you are unfamiliar, the picture is Hinkum, one of my two cats. On one curious day, this little kitty jumped onto an unstable stack of crutches I had stored in my office (yes, I do go through more than my fair share of crutches). Hinkum's weight stabilized the pile as he sat on them, but if he made the slightest shift to get off, the collection wobbled, shook, and threatened to collapse. Hinkum was terrified, so all he could do was sit atop the crutches and howl pitifully for someone to come rescue him. I finally did, but not before taking a picture for posterity. (You can tell that Hinkum was not amused that I wanted to take a picture first instead before saving him.)

Poor Hinkum's plight stemming from that one stupid decision - which he has not repeated since - reminded me of what writers will go through constantly. They will write their characters into a corner, leaving them with no means of escape. Either the character is physically trapped, or has to make a decision that is against the character's beliefs, or some other situation where there is no justifiable way out. As much as we plan and plot and structure our stories, this will inevitably happen, and we are left there, howling for someone to rescue us.

Now there are a few ways to get out of this situation, but first let me discuss a couple that you should avoid. The worst one, bar none, is the one that I call, "Papa Smurf knows magic." Yes, I am referring to the cartoon character dating back so far it says something about my own age. Anyway, this is the route where, to escape the situation, the character does something that has not been previously discussed nor is fully explained, as if this little secret had been in their back pocket all along. This is sloppy writing, mostly because it cheats the reader of having all the information the character would have. It is a magical escape, but it comes at the expense of disappointing the reader.

The other one to avoid is often referred to as Deus ex machina, which is a fancy way to say, "Someone else unexpectedly bails them out." Again, this can be a cheat to the reader. When the protagonist is surrounded by the bad guys and he's out of bullets, you can't have the police suddenly show up saying they got a call and came running. This is an empty victory, and leaves the reader feeling the same way.

The way to get out of these corners has actually been in front of you all along. People don't like it, but it's necessary if you want to be fair to the reader. When we have written our character into a corner, when they are stuck in an irreconcilable situation, we need to take the tough medicine and unwrite that situation. If we want to use the Papa Smurf way, we need to write in a few scenes where this secret ability of theirs is demonstrated, preferably in a way that is relevant to the story. Furthermore, we have to check the rest of the major conflict scenes and consider whether they could've/should've used it there as well. Then we need to rewrite the big stuck-in-the-corner scene so it doesn't seem like the big secret is just the obvious way out. Otherwise, the story becomes painfully predictable.

This is similarly used in the Deus ex machina scenario - it's allowable if you include scenes of someone calling 9-1-1 and alerting the police, thus creating a rush against time for them to arrive before it's too late. This is difficult. Depending on the complexity of your story, this might require rewriting several scenes. However, if you respect your reader and want a genuinely solid story, it's a required step.

Or you could just leave the cat on the stack of crutches and go do something else. I do not recommend this option.         


  1. As before - good writing tip plus a bow to unstable circumstances.

    1. Thank you! Sometimes a good writer still gets themselves into trouble. Getting out can actually be a fun process.