Lost at Sea, or How to Make Plot More Exciting

Surfing at Sumner Beach, NZ

I don’t know about you, but I like to avoid being uncomfortable.  I like being in control of everything.  So when my New Zealand roomies suggested that we go surfing a few Christmases ago, I could think of all kinds of reasons to stay out of the water.  What’s that you say? Sharks and jellyfish and undertows? To say “oh my” would be an enormous under statement.  But when I watched them out there, skimming along the sun-dappled waves, I felt a tug of curiosity that led me to a board rental truck.  Before I knew it, I was floating in the icy water with a board attached to my foot and feeling a little bit like a package of shrink-wrapped fish in those briny wet suits surfers wear.

Paddling out into the waters was fun; the moment when I turned my board around and felt the swell of waves rush up underneath me was scary.  Blinking back the burning salt water, I rushed towards the beach face-first.  There was still the matter of standing up.  Shakily, I attempted to pop up onto the board like everyone else, but instead slipped under the waves.  For a few seconds, I was tugged side to side as I clawed my way back to the surface, the leafy hills and colourful houses shrunken and far away.

I was thinking about this moment the other day when I found out something that made me realize I’m not always going to be in control.  It wasn’t a horrible moment.  Nobody is dying here.  But it was a moment of discomfort. Because everything eventually circles back around to writing for me, I began to think of something that I have been starting to realize: writing a story can be uncomfortable in a similar way.  To make readers feel the excitement as if it is really happening to them, we have to feel it first when we are writing.  This doesn’t always happen when we “begin with the end in mind.” Instead, we have to focus on getting lost in our writing—drifting towards ideas we didn’t plan.

Like washing ashore after a bout of being trapped underwater, when you reach that moment where you land on an exciting plot twist it feels like warm sunshine, sand and a cool breath of fresh air.  Yes, it is scary not to know where you are going, but it makes for some damn good suspense, doesn’t it?  It’s okay to be uncomfortable.  It’s just the way life—and writing—happens.  But it’s not so bad.  Let yourself get swept off in the drift and see where it takes you.  I can’t promise you won’t get swept under the waves, but I guarantee it will be one wild ride.