The Power and Problems of On-The-Fly Storytelling

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The heroes have burst into a bar looking to slake their thirst with a flagon of the good stuff. Alas, before the sweet golden nectar can be theirs, a gruff ogre of a man demands entertainment as the slovenly town has little more than dusty dandelions to enoy these days. As such, the heroes are challenged to a contest – one that involves imbibing one’s beer and slamming one’s mug against the table so hard that it shatters.

Confused eyes cast across the table – which of the heroes, and there ought to at least be two, are up to this challenge? Who dares brave the boozehounds of the only inn in town?

This wasn’t a planned moment. I hadn’t etched this into the adventure for the day. However, when my friends marched their motley cast through a town that eyed them with suspicion, getting to the only inn and the first real haven they would encounter on their journey seemed like it should be marked by something special. “You sit down at the table and drink your fill.” doesn’t sound all that exciting. Not a whole lot of accomplishment in that. But besting a pair of the town’s biggest louts in a game of their own choosing? That’s pretty entertaining.

Most people who create things (and I’d venture to say most people in general) have those spontaneous moments throughout the day – those times when you sit up and say “this is a great idea!” or “That sounds awesome” or “I really need to get more sleep if I’m seeing these things during the day.” In a creative context, these sorts of moments are the tantalizing forbidden fruit. Beautiful, succulent ideas that promise everything if only you pursue them to the ends.

And the worst part is that they deliver. Sometimes.

The above drinking game played out well. Everyone had fun. The heroes smashed some bottles and earned the grudging respect of the bar’s patrons (if not the inn’s owner, unhappy at her broken glasses). It also fit well into the overarching story without disrupting much. A moment’s fun and then back to the main event. No harm done.

But what happens when the idea fundamentally alters what you’re trying to do?

In my current novel that I’m typing away on, I wrote an entire outline targeted around a particular storyline. I liked it. Plenty of adventure, action, and interesting characters. Problem was, and I knew this even as I put the finishing bits on the outline, is that some of the character moments wouldn’t resonate because we wouldn’t know those characters well enough to care. If you’ve just met Joe and Sally at a malt shop, and Joe gets hit by a truck five seconds later, you’re probably not going to break down in tears. You’re not going to wonder about what might have been between Joe and Sally because, uh, who cares? You just met them. You may, in fact, be wondering whether malt shops still exist.

So after playing with this for a bit, I restructured it. Changed the outline and moved events around.

What does this have to do with on-the-fly storytelling?

Namely that I made the decision after I actually wrote the passages that had problems. Thousands of words into the story, it became clear that the characters weren’t achieving the effects that I wanted. So I played around more with Joe and Sally. Where my initial outline, for the purposes of this metaphor, had a lot to do with Sally’s growth post-Joe, the ideas that came to mind fleshed out the period of time for both Joe and Sally. Their pasts grew more compelling, and their actions changed, to the point where neither of them wind up going to that malt shop anymore. The truck doesn’t show up either.

I didn’t finish that first version. There’s no telling whether it would have worked out in the end. Instead, I scrapped days of work and went back to it, and it was hard doing so. If I hadn’t come up with a better idea there in the moment, writing the truck scene, I might never have done so. Might have just pushed through, warts and all.

The final version, I think, will be better than the first. But it’s going to take me longer, and it’s going to be more work. That’s the problem with these impulses – following them is always a risk. How big a risk depends on the project, the impulse idea, and the time you have to implement it.

If I’d come up on the world-changing idea three-quarters of the way through instead of when I did? Joe would probably still get hit by the truck and I’d find a different way to address character concerns. It would be too much of a sacrifice to trash the whole story at that point.

But when it came to a few minutes in a bar? Absolutely. Going to take ride that spark all the way.