I just reached 50,000 words in Map of Daggers, so I thought it was a good time to take a step back and reflect. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about my original story map for the novel and how that compares to what I’ve actually written.
When I began writing this book in January, I anticipated a length of about 100,000 words. From what I’ve read, this is a typical length for fantasy novels. However, since this is my first novel, I did not know whether the story I had in mind would actually be 100,000 words. I wondered if my story could really stretch that long. But here I am now at 50,000 words, which means I should be about halfway through the story I had planned out. Am I? Not quite.
Before I started writing, I had a general plan for where I wanted the story to go, but I did not create a detailed outline or story map. I just wrote and let it flow. After a few chapters, though, I decided to write down the major plot points and scenes I wanted to cover. Much in the way a map leads a traveler to his destination, this story map would lead me from the opening scenes, through the rising action, over the climax, and on to the resolution of the novel.
In my story map are 33 plot points, like 33 signposts on the road from the beginning to the end. The chapters I’ve written so far have adhered pretty closely to the first 15 signposts. In addition, the final several signposts, concerning the climax and conclusion, will likely remain the same. But the late-middle signposts will probably have to change considerably or be abandoned altogether, because at signpost 15, I made a spontaneous decision that took the plot in a new direction. I’m personally very happy with my choice; this new path has led to new characters, conflicts, and discoveries. But part of me is a little concerned about having strayed so far from the map. Could it be a problem that the story has veered off course?
One of the benefits of writing is that nothing is permanent and everything is malleable, at least until it’s published. A badly written line can be reworded. An extraneous, bloated subplot can be removed. And a plot can veer off from the original plan if it still works within the larger structure of the novel. If it doesn’t, it can be rewritten. Either way, the theme of the novel remains the same. The plot is just the path through which the theme develops over the course of the novel.
For now, I think the unplanned course beyond Signpost 15 works well. It has expanded upon and enhanced the theme while introducing new, interesting challenges for the characters. For example, the main character of Zinke, who prides himself on knowing every square inch of the island of Tinggo, finally finds himself in an unknown location. For once, he is lost and unable to navigate himself or others to safety. What does it mean to have your strongest talent rendered useless? How does it affect you? These are fascinating questions which I enjoy exploring in these scenes.
Now I am contemplating how the plot continues through this new detour and eventually returns to the original story map to finish out the story. Does the path return to the route at Signpost 16 and continue straight from there, or follow a new set of Signpots which eventually lead back to, say, Signpost 25? Given the revelations of the new direction, I am drawn more to the latter method, because some of the original scenes that I had planned in my map now seem repetitive. Another consideration is the fact that I am now halfway through the novel, and there has been no progress yet between Zinke and his main love interest. It has been left on the back-burner while more important issues, like war, are dealt with. But to just introduce the love subplot towards the end of the novel and have it wrapped up quickly would feel too rushed and tacked-on. To have it be more meaningful, I would like to work in some scenes between Zinke and her earlier on in the novel, and have a bigger scene with them getting to know each other more coming up in the middle of the novel. Which means, again, veering from the main path.
What I have realized, though, is that veering from the path is a good thing if done right. It is important to map a story in advance of writing, or at least early on in the writing process. This ensures that there is a definite path to follow to the end, and the plot won’t get muddled and confusing. But sometimes, just like in real life, it’s good to wander from the path and put away the map to see what creative discoveries lie off in the distance. As you write, be open to new possibilities that you hadn’t thought of when you were storymapping. After all, you can’t always know what possible detours exist until you actually walk along the path. And then you can always return to the path and continue on to your destination. The destination may be that much more rewarding based on the new truths you may have found along the way.