Braiding the Plot

Have you ever hiked a braided river?

No? Well let me tell you, it’s rather like writing a book as a pantser.

For those of you who don’t know the crazy writer lingo, a plotter is someone who knows exactly what she wants to happen in every chapter of the book before she starts writing. A pantser is someone who writes by the seat of her pants. I know where I want the story to begin, I know where I want it to end, and there are a few compass points along the way. Then I just let it go and write.

It’s twisty and turny, and sometimes you end up in a tunnel and you just have to be like, cool, I’m in a tunnel. Hope they make it out alive.

Because if your characters who were supposed to make it to the end of the story as triumphant survivors die tragically in the tunnel, you have to make a decision. Do you want to let them die, deal with the consequences, which will probably involve coming up with a whole new justification and plot for the end of your story, or do you want to backtrack until you find the moment when the tunnel entered the story. Even if that entrance was a hundred pages ago as a mere mention of the sound of stepping on a hollow section of earth.

Now we can go back to the braided river analogy.


This is a braided river. A simple-looking gravel riverbed with braids of streams cutting through it. Sometimes six inches wide, sometimes an impassable six feet. And like a chess game, you have to plot six moves ahead if you want to keep moving ahead.

I hiked a lot of riverbeds in my time in Alaska. And sometimes no matter how confident you feel about the path you’ve chosen, you reach one of those wide sections and have to stop.

Do you risk wading through the river, or turn around and cross the tiny streams you can leap across going back until you find another path forward? Sometimes there’s no choice. There is no way forward, and back becomes the only option, unless you want to camp out on the gravel and pout.

So you backtrack, throw stones into the water to try and make a rock path to leap across and hope somewhere in the winding strands of river there is a magical path that lets you go forward. And then you press on down a new path, taking longer to get downstream than you had hoped. Moving carefully, looking forward before you cross every tiny braid, hoping that’s not the decision that leads you to an impasse.

And now I’ve started a brand new project (because I’ve utterly lost my mind), and I’m back hiking the braided river. So wish me luck. I have many streams to cross before I reach the end of this journey.

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