Have You Asked: “What the Heck Happened to My Story?”

Twisty story endings are fun. But sometimes the story twist is on the author! I recently saw the movie “Arrival,” where the concepts of change and of time—and surprises– struck home.

Arrival is a thoughtful movie, and as such I doubt it will get as much praise or audience as a movie with massive explosions, flailing body parts, morphing super beings and flashing split second scenes will garner.

Arrival did, however, have one thing other movies offer too: a twisty ending. But not the “Ah-ha, I should have seen that coming!” twist but the “Oh. Yeah. Hmmm,” type of twist.

Kind of like life.

And writing.

We keep ourselves busy and writing and writing and suddenly we hit “The End.”

Yea! Then we sit back with a grin and read what we have, and say,

“Oh. Yeah. Hmmm…”

It isn’t exactly what we had in mind. Sometimes not even close. (Maybe not recognizable from the original plan?)

“What the heck happened?”

It’s handy when our lives turn out as expected. Or turn out to make sense once we analyze the choices we made over time.

It’s handy when our stories turn out with the original theme intact, the characters acting as directed, and the plot getting to point “C” through “A” and then “B.”

But life and writing don’t behave.

Too often we end up asking: “What was I thinking when I …” or “Wait – where did my story go?”

So, what happened?

Time and change.

The movie Arrival explores both time and change. In it, a linguistics specialist is tasked to decode communications between us and aliens who have come to visit us. Or kill us. Or help us. Who knows without open communications? Eventually she saves the day in the nick of time (well, you aren’t too surprised at that, right?). But the impact it has on her personal life and the implications for our world are the meat of this story.

The movie doesn’t so much answer questions as pose deeper ones.

I’m not saying I understand why changes take place or how time works. Far from it. But after a couple decades working with writers, I’d like to offer these ideas when you come to a “Oh. Yeah. Hmm” point in your writing:

  • If your story has changed shape, what did you learn in that process?

    • That you like another character better?
    • That your original idea had deeper implications?
    • That you really prefer a different genre or approach or focus?
  • Newer is not necessarily better.

    • Do you still prefer the original idea you started writing but newer ones have wormed their way inside the story?
    • Reconsider your original premise and keep anything new that strengthens or deepens it.
    • Remove anything that dilutes or diverts attention from that original premise if you prefer that.
    • Save all the extra and new additions in a separate file—they’ll be great for later, other writing projects.
  • Words matter.

    • Words can inform and enlighten or enrage and cut.
    • Words hurt or heal, calm or propel.
    • Decide what YOU want to offer your reader. Focus your story on that.
  • Life takes turns, plots deviate, ideas morph.

    • Accept it and surf the tide of those changes.
    • Live forward; write forward.
    • Incorporate improvements; set aside diversions
    • Allow your writing to explore changes while you still focus on what is important to you – and your reader.

In the end, we might all find, as the linguistics professor in the movie did, that there is a twisty flow of life and time. And those changes can make our stories full with life if we carefully assess what is happening—and mold our words to inspire growth in ourselves and in our readers.

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