Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Have you ever written yourself into a corner? Have you progressed at least midway through your story and then realized your hero is going down a black hole and you don’t know how to get him out?Recently, I found myself in this situation. In my synopsis, which acts as my writing guideline, I was up to the part where the hero, Lord Magnor, goes to the underworld to obtain a sacred book stolen by Hel, Queen of the Shades. To get there, he has to die. Circumstances with the heroine make him despair of their future together, and so he takes a poison pill that another character has given him.

Here is what my synopsis said:

He awakens underground in front of an iron gate. This leads to a gold-paved bridge that crosses the river Gjoll. Beyond is Helheim, where Hel resides. A giantess guards the gate and asks him for the password. If he fails to give the right answer, she’ll toss him in the river and it will carry him to the land of fire and eternal torment.

Magnor figures out a way past and meets Hel. She isn’t willing to give up the Book of Odin, not even for the mead he’s brought. So he creates a diversion and steals the sacred book.

Now this presented several problems. How does he get past the giantess when he fails to give the right password? How does he get into Hel’s palace? What kind of diversion does he create, and how does he steal the ancient relic?

I printed out these questions and sat on my “thinking couch” until the answers came to me. First of all, if he fails to give the right password, the giantess won’t throw him in the river. Instead, she’ll doom him to spend eternity in the company of other lost souls.
At that point, he has to find another way past the gate. He doesn’t have any cutting tools or acid to break in at some point farther down the line. And even if he could do so, how would he cross the raging river? What he does have are his wits, so he eases into the shadows and cheats by climbing up the rocky wall lining the chamber and gaining access to the opposite bank that way. In other words, he goes up and over instead of across. It’s the Kobayashi Maru solution from Star Trek. If you’re in a no win situation, change the rules.

So what about confronting Hel? He decides upon a frontal approach, stating his business to the palace guards in such a confident manner that he convinces them to allow him an audience with the queen. I’m glossing over the details but suffice it to say he states his case to her and she refuses to comply. Now we need a distraction so he can steal the book that rests in a glass case.

In the story, I’ve already planted the seeds for this solution. He’s been given a magic horn that is supposed to sound a warning when the demon, Loki, is near. But what will happen if Magnor blows the horn within Hel’s palace? He does so, and glass shatters throughout the hall, including the case protecting the sacred book. He snatches the artifact as Hel’s minions surround him.

Now what? The heroine has been told she must obtain a golden apple from the Fae to revive him. But fairies aren’t part of Norse mythology, which my story is based on. Here is what my synopsis says:
Erika must return him to the land of the living. She realizes how much he means to her and won’t risk losing him. However, reviving him isn’t easy. Aware that she only has a certain window in which to resuscitate the warrior, she saves him just in time.

Okay, how does she save him? Anytime you leave things vague like this in your synopsis or writing outline, eventually you have to come up with the details. Again, I’d already sowed the seeds within the story. Erika, a descendant of Odin, has inherited some of his shapeshifter powers. She cannot change her own form, but she possesses the power to manipulate the earth.

Odin also had the “breath of inspiration”, and this reminded me of the breath of life possessed by the Mord Sith in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. What if, instead of going to the Fae, Erika is inspired by the figurines of fairies she’s designed in her pottery studio? Fairies might not be real, but what about fairy dust? And so she uses her innate power to revitalize the hero with the magical dust she breathes into his mouth.

As you can see, whatever corner you back your hero into, if you’ve laid the proper groundwork for your story, the solution will arise from material you’ve already planted. So go ahead and gloss over these details in your selling synopsis, but be assured when you come to them in the story, the muse will help you fill in those plot holes. You can rewrite your synopsis accordingly.

So who else has backed a character into a corner, and how did you get him out?


  1. I've got some characters in a corner right now and I still haven't figured out how I want to get them out. The nature of the story is that one of the characters leaves by choice and comes back by choice. That's simple enough if the two characters are fighting, but I need a situation in which they are on good terms when she leaves, but I want her return to cause problems for the other character. It seems like every option I try creates unlikeable characters.

  2. Tim, maybe go back to your characters GMC: Goal, motivation, and conflict, and see if you can find what you need there, or perhaps deepen one of those qualities? Here are some questions to ask yourself: What could be a good reason why your heroine would leave? Why does she return? And how would her return complicate the story? Maybe give her a family member or friend who calls upon her for help. And what if when she returns, she brings this other person with her?

  3. Double-dog dare: zombie cockroaches.

    Ok the dare was cockroaches, I went the extra mile and made them zombie cockroaches. I needed some tip off into what had caused the sleeping comas on Earth & the Black rot in the fae realms... and the zombie cockroaches became my answer- zombie because they were early test subjects for the altered Sandman sand. They also ended up being the resolve for the black rot mess - they are dead and crave rotted stuff, so they help with black rot clean up by eating it up.

    One of my stranger fixes, but I like it.

  4. Sounds cool, Chaco. With fantasy, you can make up anything as long as it fits into the world you've created.

  5. My stories are all modern, non-fantasy, realistic, spies & terrorists stuff. Therefore, as much as I would like, I cannot just make up stuff or a bunch of cops & military folk will cry foul.

    IE. some examples

    "The USS Belleau Wood's flight deck is not configured like that."

    "That submachine gun does not work that way when in temps under -20."

    When it comes to technical aspects, I have no choice but to fix it and make it real (which is why I am currently shopping for some current or former Spec Ops types as tech advisors).

    For character's in corners though it is a little easier in my current WIP since a few of the antagonists are Anarchists and therefore do crazy stuff that sometimes makes no sense and has no purpose beyond the damage itself. So If my main character is trapped by a bad guy, I could potentially have an anarchist's bomb placed randomly earlier in the story explode and create a hole for him to run through or explode and kill/injure the other antagonist.

  6. Nancy,
    Great question today.

    I painted myself into a corner with my 2nd book. Wound up cutting 15,000 words, and changing POV - I realized I'd emasculated one of my main characters - and let me tell, he was not happy with me.

    It wasn't an easy fix, and like Basil said, when it's not fantasy/sci-fy, there are the legendary "rule police" who'll flip if things don't smell right (hate those guys).

    I can see clearly now how a synopsis/outline can prevent those rabbit holes from forming.

    I will say this: after paying the price of "losing" those 15,000 words I cut, the story became much stronger.

    Thanks Nancy,
    Hey You Guys, check out

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. A lot of times in fantasy when you find a logical hole, it gets plugged with a quest or something that goes off in another direction. I kind of like those twists. Like, what if the giantess were to give him a quest due to some unforeseen event that we're not aware of, so then it doesn't matter anymore that she wouldn't toss him in the river. He completes the quest and gains access without the password.

  9. Basil, as you say, it's harder when your story is based on reality if you've backed your character into a corner. Then you have to either plant the solution earlier or else go back to the drawing board.

  10. Paula, those are major changes you made. Oy. I do write a synopsis but tend to skim over certain details, and that's how I get into trouble later during the actual writing. Then again, what ends up surprising me may surprise the reader, too.

  11. Diane, that's a good idea. I've had my hero go on too many quests to use it in this instance, but it is a good solution. It's the old, "If you get me this, I'll give you that" trade-off, a plotting technique that works particularly well in fantasy.

  12. In The Stand, Stephen King put a bomb in the closet and blew up the corner he was in.

  13. Many times when I write a character into a corner, I have to re-write some previous scenes to send him/her on another path. Turns out I had him/her going in the wrong direction.