Friday Speak Out!: When Your Plot is Hijacked by Your Characters and What to Do About It

Friday, March 23, 2018
by Amy Willoughby-Burle

Do you ever have this happen: You’re in the zone, you’re writing is on fire, you’re typing so fast your mind can’t keep up with your fingers, and then BAM—one of your characters says or does something you didn’t see coming?

(Insert that SCREECH sound from movie trailers when the unexpected happens.)

“What was that?” You ask the offending character even as you’re deleting the unexpected line.

Who’s writing this book anyway, you think, slightly worried that it might not be you anymore. So, you take a breath and then dive back in. Your fingers rev up, the words are flowing, your laptop is nearly smoking with the effort, and SCREECH said character grabs the reigns again, and BOOM your story just took a turn that you can no longer pretend isn’t happening.

“Now what?” You ask, fully aware that there is no going back.

Your story has taken on a life of its own.

I had a character do that once and it gave me chills. He and his wife were fighting about an issue in their marriage that had driven them apart and I have to admit, I was writing him as the stereotypical unfeeling, unemotional, unavailable man and she was letting him have it for all those things and then he says, “Don’t you do that. Don’t you dare make me out to be a monster.”


He was talking to me and I knew it.

On a different novel, I had an entire subplot that I realized just wasn’t true to the story anymore. The more I tried to make it work, the more the characters fought against me—refusing to say and do what I needed them to. When I finally accepted reality and took that piece of the plot out, I copied and pasted it into another file, so that I’d see how much work I had done forcing that storyline. Friends, it was 75 pages worth of forcing my agenda on that story.

“So, now what?” You ask.

Well you and your novel are now in couple therapy.

You listen to what the characters have to say about themselves and the story you orchestrated for them. They probably know what they’re talking about. It might send you back to the plotting board. That’s ok. It might make you hunt up some good old-school character creating exercises to get to know them better. That’s probably a good idea.

But don’t worry, the upside here is that you’ve entered the sweet spot of writing. This is where the magic happens, but you’ve got to be willing to be flexible. You and your novel have to work this thing through together. Giving up is not an option just because things aren’t going to way you planned. You and your novel will be stronger in the end. Keep writing. Your story is worth it.

* * *
Amy Willoughby-Burle is the author of The Lemonade Year and Out Across the Nowhere. She lives in Asheville, NC with her husband and four children. She teaches Language Arts and Creative Writing at Elevate Life and Art, an enrichment program for children grades Pre-K-12. She invites you to connect with her online at and
Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Margo Dill said...

I love this! You are so right. It happens all the time. I thought I was the only one. Recently I wrote an entire scene and I have no idea where it came from. I love how you said: now you are in couples therapy with your novel. :) Best of luck to you with your upcoming book, The Lemonade Year. I can't wait to read it!

Amy Willoughby Burle said...

Thank you, Margo. Isn't it just the weirdest thing when that happens. It's the closest thing to magic that I know of. LOL.

Elaine Cohoon Miller said...

Amy- Love this column. I, too have had this happen to me. In fact, I was writing one scene and stopped for the day with a character saying, "I have a plan." As I shut down my computer I was telling the character, "I'm glad to know you have a plan! Can't wait until you share it!"

Looking forward to the lemonade year.

Amy Willoughby Burle said...

Elaine, that's hilarious! That's a taking of the wheel, for the better. :-) Thank you!!

Angela Mackintosh said...

Great post! When your subconscious sits in the driver's seat amazing writing can happen. I have to put on the brakes in that regard because I'm focusing on writing creative nonfiction right now. But when it does, I just let it flow and call the piece fiction based on actual events. lol

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