Chapter Twenty One - Surrendering Control24 August 2010
You’ll often hear writers talking about how they don’t control every aspect of their stories—indeed, how they often don’t make the major decisions! They’ll say that their characters take on lives of their own, that the stories will lead them off in directions they never intended to take. It might seem strange, but I think a very important feature of developing as a writer and mastering your art is learning to secede control and let your story-telling instincts guide you.
A few years ago, fans kept asking me, Why, Shan, why?!? The question seemed to be cropping up in every third or fourth email or letter to me. “Why did you kill off such-and-such a character?” “Why did you choose to end your vampire series the way you did?” “Why didn’t you give this-or-that book a happy ending?” A lot of people seemed to have the idea that I was deliberately sitting here, thinking of ways to upset them!!!
Well, the honest answer is, generally speaking, I don’t make those choices. A writer always has the ultimate power to decide what happens in his or her stories. As the creator, you can kill or save any character you like, end on a downer or a high as the mood takes you. It’s one of the nice things about being in control—you can make all the major calls, and dictate every last term and nuance of your novel. But the thing is, if you want to be a good writer (as I most surely want to be), you have to learn not to make those calls.
A good story takes on a life of its own and a good writer lets it go any way it wants to go. That might sound strange to non-writers, but it’s the nature of the beast. A story’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle—when you assemble all the pieces (or think you have them all assembled), you sit down and put them together. I sometimes spend years working on the plot of a book in my head—and sometimes just a day or two. It varies from story to story. I play around with all kinds of ideas, plot lines and notions. But, once I get the overall picture clear, and I sit down to write, the story flows by itself from that point on. Sure, I could interfere and juggle the pieces around and try to make it do something else. But then I wouldn’t be completing the jigsaw puzzle of the story—I’d be trying to make two different jigsaw puzzles fit together. And that just doesn’t work.
Some writers work according to a formula. They approach a story from an almost mathematical point. They have rules and regulations. They think killing off a character in chapter six will intrigue readers. They think introducing a love interest in chapter nine will make readers like the main character. They think ... well, whatever. And they write their stories according to those rules and formulas. And it’s a perfectly reasonable, good way to write.
But it’s not how I write. With me it’s instinctive. I get a sense of how a story should go ... the story reveals itself to me ... a little voice in my head says that guy has to die, that supposed hero is a traitor, this woman has a dark secret ... I play around with different ways to end a story, and when the story senses the right ending, a light clicks inside my head and that ending is set in stone from that point on. I don’t choose to kill off characters, or pick the endings of the books—the stories dictate those twists and routes, and, like any would-be good author, I simply follow wherever the story leads me.
There are characters I’ve killed who I didn’t want to. (For instance, I’d have loved to play with Murlough in some more books, hmmm?!?) There are dark endings I would just as soon rewrite and have end on a happy high. (Book 9 of “The Saga” springs to mind.) But if I started doing that ... if I began to exert control ... if I took the power away from the stories ...
I think everything would start to unravel. I think the books would lose that special edge which makes them so addictive to me and many of you. I think they’d become formulaic and safe, and just the same as hundreds of others which are going to press even as I type this. The anarchic, unexpected rhythms and vibes of a Darren Shan book are what separates my work from that of so many others. I enjoy them—as do so many of you—because they’re like nothing else out there. Like real life, they throw curve balls, and do the unexpected, take dark lurches, and hit surprising heights. There are no safety nets in real life, and there aren’t any in my novels either. And while that means they sometimes upset us ... or even disappoint us ... I hope they’ll never bore us.
Because. Just because.