Prepare for Unauthorised Entries

partyWriting a story is a bit like throwing a party. If you’re a plotter, odds are you’re also a planner, the date chosen well in advance with plenty of notice given to intended guests. Your menu will be detailed and practical, catering for vegans and meat lovers alike; music will be playlisted and honed to an exact number of themed songs, timed to finish at the appointed hour. Invitations are always mailed (e- or snail-), RSVPs ticked off a corresponding list; mathematical precision will allow for just the right amount of alcohol and mixers, having ordered all necessary glassware from a catering company. Neighbours will be apprised and the function will proceed in an orderly fashion. Naturally, the police will never be called.

At the other extreme is the pantser. They’ll throw out a casual invitation to pretty much everyone they meet, the start time will be vague, and the menu an unplanned and artless display of potato chips and questionable dips. Depending on that day’s mood, music will range from soulful eighties ballads to heavy rock. They’ll buy too much alcohol or, worse, not enough. The few plates and glasses they manage to scrape together won’t suffice and trusted guests will be dispatched on arrival to fetch ice and other essentials. The pantser will forget they even have neighbours and the police will be summoned. Several times.

But whether it’s planned with military precision or left to chance, one thing neither plotter nor pantser ever allows for is the unwanted guest — that unexpected character. Some are harmless; a visiting relative, too insipid to be left alone, is brought by a friend too dear to admonish; a work colleague tags along on the vague assurance that the host ‘won’t mind at all’; both are fillers and assume cursory roles.

And then there’s the other type, a plotter’s worst nightmare: sauntering into the room (and onto page two) with fuck-you confidence, they settle without apology and demand everyone’s attention. It’s easier for pantsers. Having had no real command of the situation in the first place — and still a little vague about who was invited — most will welcome the intrusion, flinging the door wide.

Just as there are social constraints placed on a host — do you insist firmly that the guest leave, or endure their presence with stoic grace? — so writers face the same dilemma: stick to your hard-worked plan and hit the delete key, ridding the scene of this unwanted person, or offer them a drink (watch as they snatch the whole bottle) before introducing them to others? Most likely they’ll have come armed with an intriguing life story and a slew of bawdy jokes, and they’ll quickly divide the audience, charming or horrifying everyone they meet. And there’s every chance they’ll slip your darling a mickey, or stab them in the coat closet, but that alone might be the just reason they’ve appeared.

Just like your party, if you want your story to be memorable, don’t kick out the most interesting characters before you’ve made an effort to get to know them.

Jane Abbott

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